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An Assessment of China’s Economic Growth in the First Quarter

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Authors: Chan Kung and He Jun

On April 16, China’s National Bureau of Statistics has released the economic data for the first quarter of 2021. Preliminary estimates show that China’s GDP in the first quarter was RMB 24.931 trillion, an increase of 18.3% year-on-year and 0.6% quarter-on-quarter at comparable prices. The first-quarter GDP was also 10.3% higher than the GDP in the first quarter of 2019, with a two-year average growth rate of 5.0%.

It should be pointed out that the 18.3% year-on-year GDP growth in the first quarter was an unusual growth under the low base effect. While the GDP growth in the first quarter was impressive, it was still slightly below market expectations of 20% growth. In particular, the economy grew by 0.6% quarter-on-quarter in the first quarter, 2.6 percentage points lower than the quarter-on-quarter growth rate in the fourth quarter of 2020, indicating a slowdown in the pace of economic recovery. Taking the first quarter of 2019 as the base, China’s GDP growth averaged 5% over two years, and this is still lower than the 5.8% growth rate in the fourth quarter of 2019 before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Figure: China’s quarterly economic growth rate in recent years

China’s quarter-on-quarter and year-on-year economic growth rates in recent years

China’s quarter-on-quarter GDP growth rate

Source: China’s National Bureau of Statistics. Graphic: ANBOUND.

Data from the major sectors of the economy provides a more detailed picture of the economy’s performance in the first quarter.

In terms of industrial growth, in March, the value-added of the industrial enterprises above designated size grew by 14.1% year-on-year. In the first quarter, the value-added of the industrial enterprises above designated size grew by 24.5% year-on-year, up 14.0% compared with the same period in 2019, and the two-year average growth rate was 6.8%, close to the 6.9% growth rate at the end of 2019 before the outbreak of the pandemic. However, the year-on-year growth slowed to 14.1% in March, below the average market forecast of 15.4%. In particular, industrial growth slowed to a seasonally adjusted 0.6% quarter-on-quarter, the first deceleration since December 2020. Some market analysts believe that the industrial output in March did not continue the remarkably high growth in January-February is one of the reasons why the year-on-year GDP growth in the first quarter did not reach the 20% upper limit as expected by the market.

In terms of investment, from January to March, China’s fixed asset investment (excluding rural households) was RMB 9.5994 trillion, up 25.6% year-on-year and up 2.06% compared with October-December last year after seasonally adjusted; it was 6.0% higher than that from January to March in 2019, with an average growth rate of 2.9% in two years. Among them, private investment in fixed assets was RMB 5.5022 trillion (accounted for 57.3% of the total investment), up 26.0% year-on-year. On a month-on-month basis, investment in fixed assets (excluding rural households) rose 1.51% in March. By industry, the investment in the primary industry was RMB 236.2 billion, up 45.9% year-on-year; the investment in the secondary industry was RMB 2.792.9 trillion, up 27.8%; the investment in the tertiary industry reached RMB 6.5703 trillion, up 24.1%. It can be seen that the growth of investment in the first quarter has maintained relatively strong momentum. In addition to the significant year-on-year growth, investment has also maintained a significant quarter-on-quarter growth, and maintained positive growth in March.

Consumption growth, which was negative last year, turned positive in the first quarter of this year. In March, the total retail sales of consumer goods reached RMB 3.5484 trillion, a year-on-year increase of 34.2% (well above market expectations of 28%); it was 12.9% higher than that in March 2019, with an average growth rate of 6.3% in two years. After deducting price factors, the total retail sales of consumer goods in March 2021 increased by 33% in real terms, with an average growth of 4.4% in two years. On a month-on-month basis, the total retail sales of consumer goods increased by 1.75% in March. From January to March, the total retail sales of consumer goods reached RMB 10.5221 trillion, a year-on-year increase of 33.9%, with an average growth rate of 4.2% in two years; after seasonal adjustment, it increased by 1.86% compared with October to December last year. In terms of online retail sales, from January to March, China’s online retail sales reached RMB 2.8093 trillion, a year-on-year growth of 29.9% and an average growth of 13.5% in two years. Of this, online retail sales of physical goods reached RMB 2.3067 trillion, an increase of 25.8%, with an average growth of 15.4% in two years, accounting for 21.9% of the total retail sales of consumer goods. If retail consumption growth is sustained, it will provide important support for China’s economic recovery this year.

In terms of income and expenditure, the nationwide per capita disposable income has reached RMB 9,730 in the first quarter, a nominal increase of 13.7% year-on-year, with an average two-year growth of 7.0%, or a real increase of 13.7% year-on-year after deducting price factors, with an average two-year growth of 4.5%. In the first quarter, the growth rate of per capita disposable income has increased quarter by quarter, maintaining stable recovery growth, but it was still significantly lower than the economic growth rate in the same period. In terms of urban and rural areas, the per capita disposable income of urban households was RMB 13,120, a nominal increase of 12.27% year-on-year and a real increase of 12.3%; the per capita disposable income of rural households was RMB 5,398, a nominal increase of 16.3% year-on-year and a real increase of 16.3% after deducting price factors. In the first quarter, China’s per capita consumption expenditure reached RMB 5,978, a nominal increase of 17.6% year-on-year or a real increase of 17.6% after deducting price factors; it was 8.0% higher than that the first quarter of 2019 with two-year average growth of 3.9% or 1.4% after deducting price factors.

In terms of foreign trade, China’s merchandise imports and exports amounted to RMB 8.47 trillion in the first quarter of this year, up 29.2% year-on-year, according to the General Administration of Customs. Among them, exports grew 38.7% to RMB 4.61 trillion, imports grew 19.3% to RMB 3.86 trillion, and the trade surplus reached RMB 759.29 billion, an increase of 690.6%. In March, China’s dollar-denominated exports grew 30.6% year-on-year, down 30 percentage points from January-February, while dollar-denominated imports increased by 38.1%, up 15.9 percentage points from January-February. The trade surplus for the month was USD 13.8 billion, down USD 89.46 billion from January-February. In RMB terms, exports rose 20.7% in March from a year earlier, down 29.4 percentage points from January-February, while imports grew by 27.7%, up 13.2 percentage points from January-February. The trade surplus in the same month was RMB 87.98 billion, a decrease of RMB 587.88 billion. It can be seen that with the economic recovery at home and abroad, China’s imports and exports have seen significant growth. The growth rate of imports exceeds that of exports, showing the characteristic of China as the “world’s factory”.

Overall, China’s economy grew sharply in the first quarter as expected due to a low base effect. However, the growth rate was lower than the market had expected. As ANBOUND has pointed in the past, to fully understand the actual situation of China’s post-pandemic economic growth, one should look at the economic growth in the past three years as a whole. Therefore, China’s quarterly economic growth this year will be high at the beginning of the year, and it will be lower afterwards. It is expected that the economic growth over the next year or two will be significantly slower than that of this year.

It is also important to note that China can no longer be the star performer of the world’s major economies, as it was last year. As vaccines continue to roll out, the global economy will generally recover in 2021, with the U.S. economy in particular rebounding strongly. According to Federal Reserve’s officials, the U.S. economy is expected to grow by 6.5% this year, with the inflation rate rising to around 2.5% and the unemployment rate falling to around 5% by the end of the year. Other institutions expect the U.S. to be the locomotive of global economic growth this year, contributing more to global economic growth than China; the U.S. economy will still be able to grow at 3.5% by 2022.

Final Analysis Conclusion:

As both the world economy and the Chinese economy are on the track of recovery, the most crucial goal for the Chinese economy is not to pursue a single year’s growth, but to maintain stability for at least three years, while addressing its internal problems of the Chinese economy. In this regard, China’s macro policy is expected to focus on the twin goals of “stability” and “risk prevention,” and the pursuit of balanced growth.

Founder of Anbound Think Tank in 1993, Chan Kung is now ANBOUND Chief Researcher. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.

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Economy

The Crippled Economy

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Lack of money is the root of all evils. Facts do not seize to exist because they’re ignored.

Lack of money is what Pakistan is experiencing and dealing with every now and then for the major part, since it came into existence either due to incompetence of our political leaders, their corruption, fighting wars of someone else or due to lack of long-term vision. Pakistan is currently in the middle of a turmoil trying to recover from devastating floods of 2022, facing the after effects of the withdrawal of USA from Afghanistan in the form of resurgence of terrorism, dealing with the political chaos created by the politicians who claim to be leaders of the state. Another yet most important, severe and devastating challenge that Pakistan is facing is its economic downfall. In one sense the lack of money is the root cause of all the problems mentioned above except the political chaos.

The economy of Pakistan, like a battle-hardened warrior has built resilience battling several challenges over the course of seventy years and is trained to survive but the recent political turmoil and the difficulty caused by nature (Floods), the burden of debts repayment, the threat of resurgence of terrorism and international indicators pointing towards an economic recession in 2023 has almost crushed the backbone of Pakistan’s economy.  

World bank has recently released its latest report forecasting Pakistan’s Gross domestic product (GDP) to grow at only 1.7% for the fiscal year (FY) 2023 that is less than the half of what it predicted to during last June (4%). It has also predicted a near to recession economic situation of the world economy characterized with high inflation, increasing interest rates and the circumstances caused by the Russian Invasion of Ukraine.

Pakistan must reportedly payback 73$ Billion in the next three years till the end of FY2025 and central bank of the country also known as State Bank of Pakistan currently has Foreign exchange reserves of about only 5.6$ billion. This debt repayment is the key challenge for Pakistan’s economic survival and other challenges such as ever-increasing inflation, high interest rate, the growing unemployment, the decrease in imports are all byproducts of the main challenge. The threat of a possible default is becoming evident and is looming over fiscal horizon.

Monsoon on Steroids, a phenomenon directly linked with climate change played havoc with Pakistan. These floods added a profound risk to the country’s economic outlook. The country lost infrastructure worth of billions of dollars and floods effected 33$ million people and 1700 people lost their lives. According to Ministry of Planning and development of Pakistan, Pakistan has faed the loses of more than an estimation of 10$ billion. The catastrophe of floods also played with agroeconomics as crops were destroyed causing destruction of agriculture sector which makes up to 24% of country’s GDP. A comprehensive recovery policy is needed and with the helped promised by international community at Geneva, government has passed one hurdle but to make the sustainable recovery abundance of resources, capacity and transparency is needed.

The policy uncertainty has been a major cause in creating a mistrust among investors and has almost ceased foreign direct investment in Pakistan. This policy uncertainty is due to lack of will of national leaders to take tough decisions. For Example, former prime minister of Pakistan rolled out of International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) program fearing his ousting and to gain public support he reduced prices of commodities such as Petrol & Gas and took country almost on the verge of default.

The policy uncertainty is caused by Political uncertainty which in turn lead towards economic uncertainty. Economic stability can only be achieved by political stability and there’s no other way around. Political stability can be achieved through free and fair elections and elimination of the role of establishment in political process of Pakistan. And if a government takes long-term policy goals into account while formulating a policy rather than short-term goals to gain public support and trying to keep hold on the reins of Government. The selfish politicians have to play selfless and put Pakistan’s benefit before their own benefit to get Pakistan out of this political and economic turmoil.

The only solution in sight for Pakistan is to carry on with the 6$ billion IMF program and to try for rescheduling of depts repayment as it owes more than 70$ billion to be paid by the end of 2025 that is currently not possible. Another step from international community can also help Pakistan that is if a country makes an investment of 10-20$ billion directly rather than in the form of loans as happened in CPEC. Moreover, help from rich friendly Muslim countries can also provide an array of hope for Pakistan.

But these steps won’t address the clear underlying malaise of the economy and the fact that something fundamentally will need to change, in terms of how much the economy produces versus how much it spends, to avoid default down the road. But none of Pakistan’s political parties seem to have the political will or ability to bring about such change. Priorities needs to be shifted from personal interest of political elite to national interest. They must be ready to sacrifice their political image and interest for the greater good and to save the country from default down the road.

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From unidimensional to 3D: the contours of the post-Bretton Woods world

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The start of the year 2023 was marked by a series of statements coming from representatives of BRICS countries concerning plans to create new currencies. In particular, Brazil’s President Lula called for the creation of common currencies among BRICS and MERCOSUR countries, while Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that the creation of the BRICS common currency would feature in the discussions at the BRICS summit to be held in South Africa this year. And even as a lot of these changes in the international monetary system will take time, the vector of this transformation is becoming increasingly clear. The new international monetary system will be increasingly geared towards the creation of new regional currencies that will aspire to take on a global reserve status alongside the current pantheon of the select currencies of advanced economies. A multi-regional international monetary system in which the key regions of the developing world form their regional currencies may offer greater optionality to the global financial markets and will reduce the dependency on the few select reserve currencies.

A fragmented global financial system consisting almost exclusively of national currencies leaves scope for excessive dependency on the currency of the dominant economy. This in turn creates sizeable vulnerabilities in the form of a “moral hazard” and “too big to fail” considerations – the debt ceiling in the US is duly elevated to avoid default, while the “exorbitant privilege” of the US dollar as the global reserve currency is feeding “moral hazard” patterns in the form of greater fiscal profligacy and the emergence of related theories such as MMT.

As stated in the recent IMF report, “despite the weaknesses of the current reserve system (the “New Triffin dilemma”) any significant shifts away from the status quo are only possible if and when there are viable alternatives to the dominant currencies.”[1] . This recognition by the Fund of the fundamental weakness of the current monetary system (while conditional on the emergence of alternatives) is an important testament to the rising doubts regarding the “infallibility” of the current monetary system. One way to look at some these deficiencies is to realize that high inflation in advanced economies is currently undermining the value of these countries’ state debt – the ratio of US state debt to GDP by the end of 2022 declined by nearly 9% of GDP compared to Q1 2021 on the back of an inflated (due to price growth) nominal GDP. This depreciation in the value of US public debt is adversely affecting the reserve holdings of those countries that have opted to invest heavily in US dollar-denominated assets. At the same time, along with the inflation-related reduction in the debt-to-GDP ratio the nominal stock of US debt continued to grow and forced repetitive increases in the US debt ceiling over the past years. This time around in 2023 the risk of a US default due to the fragilities in the balance of power in US legislature came as yet another scare to emerging markets and a reminder of the perils of high dependency on one sole center of “gravity” in the global economy.

To overcome this high dependency and the fragmentation of the currency space in the Global South developing countries can form larger currency blocks – whether regional (as in the case of the proposed currency for MERCOSUR economies) or transregional (as is the case with the proposed R5 BRICS currency basket). This process of aggregation in currency unions across the Global South if continued may lead eventually to the formation of currencies with sufficient economic weight in terms of the underlying GDP and reserve size of members to merit their inclusion into the group of global reserve currencies.

The international monetary system formed on the basis of macro-regional currency unions will present greater opportunities for advancing new candidates for the position of global reserve currencies. Across the Global South there may be at least three regional currencies with sufficient economic weight to be potentially included into the set of global reserve currencies:

  • A Latin America common reserve currency
  • An African common reserve currency
  • An Asian common reserve currency

The Latin American track has already been promulgated by Lula da Silva in Brazil. In Africa the formation of the AfCFTA as well as the rising global prominence of the African Union (likely to become a full-fledged member of the G20 in the coming years) bode well for gradually moving towards greater coordination in the economic policies of not only the national economies of the African continent, but also its regional integration and currency arrangements. In Asia, several proposals have already been unveiled in the past several years, including the possible creation of a Pan-Asian single currency as well as a common currency for the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

All these regional currencies have the potential to carry enough economic weight and scale in the form of their respective integrated regional blocks to enable them to attain the global reserve currency status. The potential for regional currencies to become integral parts of the global financial system is expanded by the optionality in the modalities of regional currencies/regional agreements in the monetary sphere that may include:

  • Regional baskets
  • Regional currencies that replace existing national currencies
  • Regional swap lines
  • Digital regional currencies/currency baskets
  • Regional accounting units 

The new currencies, whether regional or trans-regional, will need an anchor or a reference point, a role that has thus far been primarily filled by the US dollar and the euro. The rise of China as the main trading partner of the economies of the Global South implies that it may be time for the developing economies to change the reference point away from the dollar and the euro towards the yuan and/or the BRICS reserve currency (in which the yuan would likely take a sizeable share). In particular, those developing economies with fixed/pegged exchange rate regimes could consider the possibility to shift towards pegging their currencies to the BRICS basket and/or employing this new currency increasingly as an accounting unit. This would accord well with the trends of the past decade characterized by growing importance of South-South trade; it would also provide more favourable conditions for further expediting the diversification of foreign trade and investment towards the South-South track after decades of under-trading among the developing economies (including among the regional partners in the developing world).

The latter point may need some elaboration – for decades the trading patterns of the developing economies were largely characterized by high shares of trade with the leading advanced economies such as the US and the EU and lower-than-potential trade shares accorded to the regional neighbours of these economies. The indications of the gravity model that traces trade intensity to distance among countries and their economic weight (as measures by GDP) suggest that there is tremendous potential to boosting regional trade given the lower gravity of distance. Regional economic integration and the creation of regional currencies, like the planned launching of the regional currency SUR in Latin America, would serve to realize this potential for South-South regional trade for the benefit of global economic growth. 

The three key pillars of a revitalized international monetary system will need to include the following Post-Bretton Woods principles, or 3D principles as per below:

  • Demonopolization (Poly-centricity): a system that is predicated on a set of reserve currencies that include a number of regional currencies as well as possibly trans-regional baskets of currencies – the resulting pattern is that of a co-existence of reserve currencies from EM and DM without a “core-periphery” pattern setting in the global monetary system
  • Depoliticization: the new international monetary system will also need to contain a “de-politicization clause” as one of its key foundations – the reserve currencies will need to carry a legal affirmation of the non-use of these currencies in imposing sanctions and other restrictions
  • Dis-inflation: with the “exorbitant privileges” of the DM currencies dissipating, inflationary fragilities in the global monetary system may be attenuated; at the same time the competitive edge in the global monetary system will start to gravitate towards those currencies that are credibly backed up with reserves/resources.

Compared to the unidimensional paradigm of the current monetary system, these 3D principles are meant to render the vision of the international monetary system more objective and real – the new system needs to reflect the changing realities and dynamics in the world economy, including the emergence of new regional economic centers; it also needs to address the growing demand on the part of the international community for currencies to be real, i.e. duly supported by countries’/regions’ reserves/resources.

Another way to picture the 3D vision for the international monetary system is to introduce a regional layer into the monetary system that is represented by the regional integration blocks, their currencies and development institutions. This regional layer would complement the layers of national economies at the bottom and the global economic institutions (such as the IMF and the World Bank) at the top. The main ingredients for the regional layer of the international monetary system are largely in place and consist of the following three key elements:

  • Regional financing arrangements (RFAs)
  • Regional development banks (RDBs)
  • Regional currency mechanisms

For the financial markets an international monetary system characterized by the emergence of regional economic and currency blocks may result in a decoupling of emerging markets (EM) from developed economies (DM) – contrary to the current paradigm whereby the dominance of US and EU financial markets determine to a large degree the overall direction of market dynamics in the developing world.

In the end, the international monetary system is not out of the woods just yet – the fragilities that resulted in the rising frequency of global downturns throughout the past several decades are yet to be addressed. One of the key pathways out of the limitations of the current Bretton Woods setup is to expand the array of reserve currencies with the new regional currencies that could emerge in the Global South. The evolving international monetary system cannot be disassociated from the future progression of the global economy, including its trade structure and patterns of investment flows. In this respect the regionalization of the global economy and the rise in the prominence of trading blocks and their regional development institutions (regional development banks and regional financing arrangements) will increasingly call for greater regionalization of the international monetary system.  


[1] Aiyar, Shekhar, Ilyina, Anna, and others (2023). Geoeconomic Fragmentation and the Future of Multilateralism. Staff Discussion Note SDN/2023/001. International Monetary Fund, Washington, DC.

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Friend-shoring: India’s rising attractiveness for an emerging partnership

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There are numerous forces currently affecting investment flows in the global climate for foreign investment. Investor concern has been caused by the many geopolitical issues, which had repercussions even as countries were recovering from the pandemic. Businesses are being forced to re-evaluate the global business environment and potential fault lines as a result of these disruptions. India has constantly improved the business environment (EoDB). It may now advance by utilising the advantages to strengthen its place in the global economy and fulfil the ambitions of its sizable, primarily young population. The country’s business and investment climate has significantly improved as a result of the fast and steady pace at which reforms have been implemented.

Apart from the fact that India is one of the largest economies in the world with the quickest rate of growth, the government’s emphasis on infrastructure and manufacturing, strong consumption patterns, digitization, and a burgeoning services sector all contribute to this optimism. The persistent efforts of the Indian government to lower regulatory hurdles are also fuelling MNCs’ favourable opinion of India. However, India’s expanding domestic consumer base and digital economy are the greater draws. After the US and China, the estimated actual growth in consumption is the third-highest. Given that all of these markets are sizable but relatively saturated and growing at a slower rate, India presents a particularly good opportunity for MNCs seeking growth opportunities in the ensuing ten years.This has acquired more traction in the US context as it has become clear that the nation cannot overcome all production issues on its own and that cooperation with friendly or ally nations is essential for all-around development. The term “friend-shoring,” a hybrid of the terms “onshoring” and “near shoring,” refers to forming business alliances with people who have similar principles and interests.

In a world driven extensively by globalisation, it is inevitable to not just make ally’s or create partnerships that are not only strategic and synergistic, but also facilitate a purpose driven iterative connection between two nations. A strategy used by the US to persuade companies to relocate their sourcing and manufacturing operations to friendly shores—often back to the same shores in the case of the US—is known as friend-shoring or ally-shoring. And the goal is to protect their supply networks against countries with less compatible policies, like China. But is it the best course of action? Global supply chains have changed production by enabling businesses to produce things wherever it is most affordable, thanks to decreased tariffs, lower transportation, and communication costs. This typically means that low-end production shifts to emerging markets and developing countries, while high-value-added inputs (such as research and development, design, advertising, and finance) are provided from established economies.

A commitment to cooperate with nations that “have a strong adherence to a set of norms and values about how to function in the global economy and about how to govern the global economic system” was described as “friend-shoring” in Secretary Yellen’s statements of April 13, 2022. But is it the best course of action? Any type of protectionism will worsen the already shaky global supply chain after the years-long Covid-19 shutdown has had an impact on the world economy. Despite its political unrest, China has been devoting its resources to manufacturing since the 1990s, and many businesses have already established manufacturing operations there since their suppliers are all nearby.

Even though Vietnam, India, and Thailand are also known for their low-cost manufacturing, moving the manufacturing sites could be expensive and risky for businesses because they would need to reorganise their entire supply chain for all materials required. In addition, other Asian countries might not have the full infrastructure needed to support manufacturing in some sectors. The world of today is at its best because of international cooperation. Each country’s disadvantage is made up for by having it use its greatest asset to boost global economic growth. Although there are many differences and even disagreements between nations and we are still far from full globalisation, offshoring does not seem like a good answer for a better future for the global supply.

USA is believed to pursue the “friend-shoring” strategy of deepening economic integration with dependable trading partners like India to diversify away from nations that pose geopolitical and security risks to supply chains. This is in response to an “extremely challenging” global economic outlook and geopolitical instability. She claimed that some economies’ debt loads were becoming unmanageable due to the Russia-Ukraine war-related spike in food and energy costs, and that steps to reduce these debt loads would need to be explored. Countries that already have well-established production and business service networks are those that are seen as friendly partners in the US context. India is attempting to draw MNCs that are moving their subsidiary supply chain networks and activities in this wave of supply chain restructuring and diversification of their specialised ecosystems.

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