China’s Q4 GDP up 6.8% on-year, beating expectation for 6.7%

A customer arranges a shopping bag at a check-out counter inside a Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s Sam's Club store in Shenzhen, China, on Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2016.
Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

China's economy finished a tumultuous 2016 on a positive note as consumers stepped up spending and the property market rebounded.

China's gross domestic product (GDP) grew 6.8 percent on-year in the fourth quarter, slightly beating expectations and signalling growth was stabilizing.

The world's second-largest economy had been forecast to grow 6.7 percent in the quarter, according to a Reuters poll of 42 economists.

For the full year, China's economy grew 6.7 percent. That was in line with estimates from the head of China's state planning agency, who said on January 10 that the economy likely grew around 6.7 percent last year, Reuters reported.

China's statistics bureau said that consumption accounted for 64.6 percent of GDP in 2016, while per capital consumption rose 8.9 percent on year to 17,111 yuan ($2,490).

Property development also contributed to growth, with total investment rising 6.9 percent for the year, up 5.9 percentage points from 2015.

China had a better year than people expected: Blackrock
China had a better year than people expected: Blackrock

This may be China's slowest pace of growth in 26 years, but it remains within the range for Beijing to meet its longer-term goal of doubling GDP and per capita income by 2020 from 2010 levels.

Helen Zhu, head of China equities at Blackrock, told CNBC's "Street Signs" on Friday that it was a "solid set" of numbers, especially compared with "strong doubts" about the economy a year ago.

"The property sector, the auto sector are quite buoyant for the year on the back of some loosening. I think those are all positive surprises in 2016. All in all, a much better year than people had previously anticipated," she said.

The figures likely signalled that China's economic growth is starting to stabilize amid the country's transition toward domestic consumption and away from manufacturing- and investment-led growth.

Concerns have persisted over the mainland economy's health, as private-sector debt has surged even as the amount of growth from additional debt has declined.

But the economy in recent months has received a fillip from a pickup in the property sector.

Additionally, reforms aimed at pruning sectors with too much capacity have been bearing fruit, helping to contribute to a pickup.

China was set to announce a lower economic growth target for 2017 to around 6.5 percent, from last year's range of 6.5 to 6.7 percent, Reuters reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

Zhu said she expected the economy would decelerate this year, but she didn't consider that a problem.

"A few years ago, the market would have been very worried about this and thinking it was a very negative thing. I think throughout time, people have seen that structural reforms and the quality of growth is much more important than just the pure quantity of growth," she said.

China growth momentum has improved: Economist
China growth momentum has improved: Economist

Other analysts have pointed toward the recovery on the mainland.

"Growth momentum in China has actually improved a little bit in the second half of the year, led by the improvement in the industrial sectors and also the financial market recovery [in] year-on-year growth terms," Li Wei, a China economist at CBA, told CNBC's "The Rundown" on Friday before the data's release. "We think China's economy has entered this year, 2017, on a firmer footing."

But he noted that China's economic performance this year would depend on the global recovery, particularly whether the mainland's exports pick up. He estimated that declining exports had shaved 0.5 percentage point from China's GDP growth in 2016. If exports to the EU and U.S. recover, that would turn "flat," and China's 2017 economic growth could pick up to around 6.8 percent, Li said.

Other data released on Friday also appeared to paint a less gloomy picture of the economy.

China's retail sales for December rose 10.9 percent on-year, slightly ahead of a Reuters poll forecasting 10.7 percent.

Industrial output for December rose 6.0 percent on-year, a tad below a Reuters poll forecast for 6.1 percent.

But in what may be a worrying trend, fixed-asset investment remained a dim spot.

For the full year, fixed-asset investment rose 8.1 percent, slightly below a Reuters poll forecast for 8.3 percent, with Reuters noting that was the slowest pace of growth since 1999, during the Asian financial crisis.

That came as policymakers were working to stem capital outflows. Earlier this month, China reported that its foreign exchange reserves fell for a sixth straight month in December, declining by $41 billion for the month, to $3.011 trillion, the lowest since early 2011.

Policymakers have shored capital controls in an effort to stem outflows.

But in a note published Friday, analysts at HSBC said that was only a temporary solution, with the outflows merely a symptom of larger problems.

"We believe that weak domestic investment and rising capital outflows is a reflection of declining business confidence in the domestic economy," HSBC said.

HSBC advocated policymakers pursue a coordinated package of tax cuts as well as faster reforms of state-owned enterprises to offer the private sector more opportunities.

—Aza Wee Sile contributed to this article.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1

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