China retail sales, industrial data grow faster than expected in October

China's retail sector is recovering, but real estate continues to drag down growth

BEIJING — China on Wednesday reported better-than-expected retail sales and industrial data for October, while the real estate drag worsened. 

Retail sales grew by 7.6% last month from a year ago, above the 7% growth forecast by a Reuters poll.

Industrial production rose by 4.6% year-on-year in October, faster than the 4.4% pace predicted by the Reuters poll.

Fixed asset investment for the first 10 months of the year grew by 2.9% from a year ago, missing expectations for a 3.1% increase.

Investment into real estate fell by 9.3% during that time, a steeper decline than the 9.1% drop reported for the first nine months of the year.

CHONGQING, CHINA – NOVEMBER 5, 2023 – High-rise buildings are seen in downtown Chongqing, China, November 5, 2023. (Photo by Costfoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Nurphoto | Nurphoto | Getty Images

“Clearly, the property sector remains a weak spot for the economy, which requires further support in the foreseeable future,” Hao Zhou, chief economist at Guotai Junan International, said in a note.

Funds raised by property developers fell at a steeper pace of 13.8% in October for the year so far, versus a 13.5% drop as of September.

National Bureau of Statistics spokesperson Liu Aihua said real estate remained in a “transition period of adjustment.” That’s according to a CNBC translation of her Mandarin-language remarks.

She claimed that in October, there was “marginal improvement” in real estate development and commercial housing sales.

Real estate and related sectors have accounted for about a quarter of China’s gross domestic product.

UBS analysts estimated that share has declined to about 22% this year. New home sales have dropped, while large property developers such as Country Garden have defaulted on their debt.

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Liu declined to share a specific time for resuming the youth unemployment report.

For overall unemployment, she noted it was expected to remain stable, but said there were “structural contradictions” that would require more policy support.

Unpacking retail sales

Within retail sales, sports and other leisure entertainment products saw sales surge by 25.7% in October from a year ago, the data showed.

Catering, as well as alcohol and tobacco, saw sales surge by double digits. Auto-related sales rose by 11.4% from a year ago.

“Retail sales in October was particularly strong, beating even our above-consensus estimates,” Louise Loo, lead economist at Oxford Economics, said in a note Wednesday.

“At this juncture we are skeptical that the now-three consecutive months of strong retail sales data are pointing to a permanent upshift in consumers’ spending propensities,” Loo said.

“Year-to-date retail sales data showed low value discretionary items emerging as an outperforming segment, consistent with what we think is typical of weak economic recoveries (when the consumer’s willingness to spend rests on smaller-ticket items),” the Oxford Economics report said.

Online retail sales of physical goods grew by just 3.7% in October from a year ago, according to CNBC calculations of official data accessed through Wind Information.

However, online sales of non-physical goods surged by 40% year-on-year in October, the analysis showed.

The first week of October marked the final big public holiday for the year in China, known as Golden Week. Official data showed domestic tourism spending recovered to nearly 2019 levels, but that was partly due to more people staying within the country since overseas trips had yet to fully return to pre-pandemic levels.

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In the last few weeks, top policymakers have announced more support for the economy, primarily struggling local governments. Beijing has also taken steps to stabilize the massive real estate sector, which is expected to become a smaller part of the economy in the long term.

The International Monetary Fund last week cited Beijing’s policy announcements as a reason to raise its China growth forecast for the year to 5.4%. The IMF also raised its 2024 growth forecast to 4.6%.

When it comes to real estate, “the pressure remains,” the IMF’s First Deputy Managing Director, Gita Gopinath, told CNBC in an exclusive interview.

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“There remains a lot of stress in the market. There remains weakness in the market,” she said. “This is not going to be over with quickly. It’s going to take some more time to transition back to a more sustainable size.”

In other signs of lackluster demand, China’s consumer price index fell by 0.2% in October. However, the so-called core CPI, that excludes food and energy prices, rose by 0.6% from a year ago.

China’s imports unexpectedly rose in October from a year ago in U.S. dollar terms, according to customs data released last week.

However, exports fell by a greater-than-expected 6.4% during that time, the data showed.

Source: CNBC