China GDP beats, but growth rate slowest since crisis

A breakdown of China's data deluge
A breakdown of China's data deluge

China's economy grew at its slowest pace in more than five years in the third quarter, official statistics showed Tuesday, but the data still topped estimates.

Gross domestic product (GDP) growth for the July-September quarter came in at 7.3 percent from the year-ago period, beating a Reuters forecast for a 7.2 percent expansion and after the 7.5 percent growth in the second quarter.

This is the slowest reading since the first quarter of 2009, when China's growth rate slumped to 6.6 percent amid the depths of the global financial crisis.

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Still, markets chose to focus on the better-than-expected print. The Shanghai Composite erased earlier losses to enter positive territory and the Australian dollar gained 0.3 percent against the greenback, the best level since Thursday's high of $0.8830.

In comments following the data release, Sheng Laiyun, spokesman of the National Bureau of Statistics, said the economic slowdown was due to structural reforms in the nation, a sagging housing market and higher comparison figures from a year ago, but noted that growth stayed in a "reasonable range."

The GDP data had been closely watched for hints on whether policymakers will unleash further stimulus to buoy an economy struggling with a slump in its key property sector, a slowdown in credit growth and subpar inflation.

Keren Su | China Span | Getty Images

Late last week, media reports said China's central bank is planning to inject 200 billion yuan ($32.6 billion) into the banking system, its latest targeted easing in recent months.

"The third quarter always provides some fireworks as it is the last read before the end of the year, giving the central government and the People's Bank of China (PBOC) its final chance to work out if yearly targets will be met," Evan Lucas, market strategist at IG, wrote in a note.

While the GDP data came in above expectations, fourth quarter growth will need to do a lot better to meet Beijing's 2014 growth target of 7.5 percent, analysts say. First-quarter expansion came in at 7.4 percent on-year.

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"The question for me and a lot of analysts is what they [policymakers] are going to draw from slowing growth. Do they draw the conclusions that they need to find other sources of growth? If they just keep trying to stimulate, it just reinforces the cycle that has produced the distortions seen in the economy," Evan Feigenbaum, vice chairman of the Paulson Institute, told CNBC's "Asia Squawk Box."

Other data

Other data released alongside the gross domestic product (GDP) report on Tuesday painted a less upbeat picture. While factory output rose 8.0 percent in September from a year earlier, beating expectations for a 7.5 percent increase and up from August's six-year low of 6.9 percent, it was the sole bright spot.

Fixed asset investment, a key driver of the Chinese economy, was weaker than expected. It climbed 16.1 percent in the first nine months compared with the same period a year earlier, below forecasts for a 16.3 percent rise and cooling from 16.5 percent in the first eight months of the year.

China is moving in the right direction: Merk
China is moving in the right direction: Merk

Retail sales rose 11.6 percent in September from a year earlier, below analysts' predictions of 11.8 percent and down from the previous month's 11.9 percent.

Meanwhile, property data for September showed that the slowdown deepened with real estate investment rising 12.5 percent in the first nine months compared a year ago, down from an annual rise of 13.2 percent in the first eight months.

According to said Julian Evans-Pritchard, China economist at IG, while "downward pressure on the economy still remains going into the fourth quarter," policymakers are unlikely to feel compelled to act more aggressively.

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"Some will undoubtedly view the renewed weakness as a threat to the leadership's annual growth target of 'about 7.5 percent.' But the target was always intended to be flexible and we don't think policymakers will panic as a result of the slowdown given that it remains highly concentrated in a few sectors suffering from overcapacity and that the broader economy and labor market remain healthy," said Evans-Pritchard.

"We don't think they will feel the need to act aggressively to shore up the economy in response to today's data," he added.