China’s bank lending fell 7% in 2011, following a 17% decline in 2010. As the chart shows (red column), the government is clearly trying to stabilise the position, after the panic increase in lending in 2008/2009. (January lending, impacted by Lunar New Year, was down 29% vs 2011).
Electricity consumption growth (blue line) also seems to be stabilising. It is a lagging indicator, as it takes time to expand electricity production. But the ending of subsidies for rural home appliances helped to push their sales down 33% in January versus 2011.
The reason for the government’s caution is that food price inflation remains out of control. It was up 10.5% in January, reversing recent declines. In a country where 96% of the population earns less than $20/day, food prices matter a great deal.
Those analysts with a purely financial outlook seem to have missed this critical point. They have been forecasting further stimulus programmes for some months. But very little has yet happened. Instead, the government remains focused on maintaining social stability.
This is particularly important in the run-up to the major changes that will take place in politburo membership this year. Thus, instead of reductions in interest rates, the government has instead announced minimum wages will rise 13% a year until 2015:
• In Beijing, it is currently $200/month, and $140 in urban Chongqing
• The aim is for it to be at least 40% of average wages by 2015
• At present, it varies between 20%-30%, depending on region
This will boost domestic spending power. But, as we argue in our Boom, Gloom and the New Normal eBook, affordability will be the key factor. Those companies who focus on meeting the population’s basic needs for food, water, shelter, health and mobility should do very well indeed.