China’s Growth Slows to Three-Decade Low Excluding Pandemic - Kanebridge News
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China’s Growth Slows to Three-Decade Low Excluding Pandemic

A festering property-market meltdown offsets much of the benefit of economy’s post pandemic recovery

By STELLA YIFAN XIE
Thu, Jan 18, 2024 9:24amGrey Clock 5 min

HONG KONG—China’s economic growth rate finished at one of the lowest levels in decades last year, underscoring the heavy toll that a property-sector collapse and weak consumer confidence have taken on the world’s second-largest economy despite the lifting of all Covid-19 restrictions.

Gross domestic product in China expanded 5.2% in the fourth quarter and for the full year in 2023, according to data released by the National Bureau of Statistics on Wednesday. The reading confirmed a number uttered by Premier Li Qiang a day earlier at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland—an unusual disclosure of a high-profile data point by a senior leader before its formal release.

Apart from the three years that China was closed to the outside world during the pandemic, the country’s economy expanded in 2023 at the slowest annual rate since 1990, the year after the political turmoil of the student movement that was crushed around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989.

In 2022, China’s economy grew 3%, while 2020—the initial year of Covid-19—saw growth of just 2.2%. This year’s outcome was flattered in part by comparison with the relatively low base of 2022, when harsh pandemic lockdowns swept the nation, crimping growth.

Last year’s 5.2% growth rate managed to top the government’s official target of around 5% growth, following a year of volatility and shifting expectations.

Maintaining growth at a similar pace this year may prove harder, given policymakers’ hesitance so far to launch any big-ticket stimulus packages. Forecasts for China’s growth rate this year among several global investment banks range from 4% to 4.9%. China is expected to announce any formal growth target at an annual legislative session set to take place in March.

In the near term, China has few obvious growth drivers. Export demand is softening as the global economy is projected to slow this year. Chinese families, hit by years of pandemic restrictions and receiving no direct financial support from the government, have turned cautious on spending amid a weak job market. Private businesses have been holding off on new investments while foreign investors are pulling funds out of the country.

The Chinese leadership’s determination to cultivate new engines of growth, in fields such as electric vehicles and renewable energy, is bearing fruit. Still, in the near term, it won’t likely be enough to make up for the shortfalls in job creation and overall growth rate from the rapid decline in its once-mighty real-estate sector.

In the longer run, China faces a daunting list of headwinds, including a population that is rapidly skewing older, high debt levels and a worsening external political environment that has seen relations with the U.S.-led West plummet.

Wednesday’s data release offered fresh signs of the dire state of the country’s demographics. Official statisticians said China’s population shrank by 2.08 million people last year, falling to 1.410 billion, after declining in 2022 for the first time in decades.

Economists are concerned that China may be falling into a vicious cycle in which falling prices and weak demand reinforce one another, as they did in Japan in the 1990s. Chinese policymakers’ reluctance to stimulate more forcefully has confounded many economists, though others have pointed to leader Xi Jinping’s ideologically-rooted reluctance to shower the economy with government money.

Instead, Chinese authorities have unleashed a barrage of smaller-bore measures, such as trimming key interest rates, cutting mortgage costs for home buyers and prodding banks to lend more to distressed property developers. Collectively, though, those measures have done little to reverse downward pressure on the economy. The government said in the fall that it would issue $137 billion in government debt, the biggest stimulus measure it has undertaken so far—though still not enough to reverse the downward momentum, economists say.

“I wonder if they are not realising how big the risk is if deflation pressure becomes entrenched,” says Alicia García-Herrero, chief Asia economist at investment bank Natixis.

Chinese stocks fell after the data was released. The CSI 300 index was down 1.4%, putting it on course to close at its lowest level in almost five years. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index, which includes the shares of many Chinese companies, was around 3.7% lower.

The country’s stock market is now in a multi-year slump, with foreign portfolio managers fleeing and individual investors in the country switching to safer assets. The poor state of the economy is a constant concern.

The past year had started off with a sense of buoyant optimism, as the abandonment of three years of stifling Covid-related restrictions spurred a revival of spending by consumers.

But the reopening momentum quickly lost steam after the first quarter, as global demand for Chinese-made exports—a key pillar of China’s economy throughout the pandemic years—began to wane. Persistent high youth unemployment and weak wage growth further weighed on average households’ fragile confidence.

In the fall, factory activity weakened again and consumer prices dropped into deflationary territory.

Throughout it all, a yearslong decline in Chinese home prices showed no sign of abating, further depriving revenue for debt-laden developers and eroding homeowners’ wealth and sense of financial security.

Looking ahead, economists have called on leaders in Beijing to step in forcefully to stabilize home prices and contain the risk of widening defaults among property developers.

“The key thing to watch in 2024 is if and when the central government would step in and take the main responsibility to stop the contagion,” said Larry Hu, chief China economist at Macquarie Group.

Whether Beijing can revive consumer confidence will be another key metric to watch this year.

In the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Bella Liu, a 32-year-old employee of a telecommunications firm, remembered 2023 as a year marked by plunging profits and frequent layoffs in her industry. After suffering a nearly 20% loss from her mutual fund investments, she is now parking more of her money in time deposits at her bank.

“In an era of slowing economic growth, I just feel lucky that I have a job,” Liu said.

Full-year economic data released by China on Wednesday showed retail sales, a key gauge of consumer spending, gained 7.4% in December and rose 7.2% for the full year compared with the respective year-earlier periods. Retail sales had fallen 0.2% for the full year in 2022.

The new data suggest that the economy is again beginning to rely more on domestic demand after counting on exports as the main pillar of growth during the pandemic years. Consumption was the largest contributor to overall growth in 2023. Still, it is unclear how much of a role it will play in driving the Chinese economy this year, in part because the release of pent-up pandemic demand has largely run its course, according to economists from Nomura.

Investment was also lackluster in 2023. Fixed-asset investment growth slowed last year, rising 3.0% for the full year compared with a 5.1% expansion in 2022. Private-sector investment, too, remained weak, falling 0.4% in 2023 compared with a year earlier as policy uncertainty spooked entrepreneurs. Private-sector investment had risen 0.9% in 2022.

Over the course of 2023, Beijing rolled out measures aimed at reining in the technology sector, including the video game industry, while warning about foreign espionage and detaining employees of foreign firms operating in China.

Readings of the property sector offered more reason for caution. New home prices in China’s 70 major cities dropped at a faster clip toward the end of 2023.

Average new home prices in December fell 0.45% from November, and 0.89% when from a year earlier, according to calculations by The Wall Street Journal based on data released by the statistics bureau. The pace of both declines was worse than in November.

For the full year, property investment fell 9.6%, while new construction starts dropped 20.4% and home sales by value declined 6.0%.

The surveyed urban unemployment edged up to 5.1% in December, from 5% in November. Economists have cast doubt on the accuracy of official statistics on joblessness in large part because the survey leaves out the country’s nearly 300 million migrant workers.

In a surprise move, China released a revised youth unemployment figure for the first time since July, when it abruptly suspended the publication of the data series amid a run of fresh record-high readings up to 21.3%.

On Wednesday, China’s statistics bureau said that it would publish a new urban youth unemployment figure each month for people age 16 to 24 that excludes students. The reading was 14.9% in December.

The statistics bureau said that the new methodology offers a more refined and comprehensive picture that would “better reflect the employment situation” by only including graduates who were looking for work.

Still, the economy had pockets of strength, especially in dominating the global supply chain for renewable energy products such as solar panels and electric vehicles. Growth in industrial production rebounded to 4.6%, accelerating from a 3.6% increase the year before, Wednesday’s data show.

—Grace Zhu and Xiao Xiao in Beijing contributed to this article.



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Leaders with epic hobbies seem to squeeze more hours out of the day than the rest of us

By Callum Borchers
Fri, Jul 19, 2024 4 min

Many of us can barely keep up with our jobs, never mind hobbies. Yet some top executives run marathons, wineries or music-recording studios on the side. How can they have bigger responsibilities and more fun than we do?

It can seem like ultrahigh achievers find extra hours in the day. They say they’ve just figured out how to manage their 24 better than the rest of us.

They also admit they take full advantage of the privileges of being a boss—the power to delegate and the means to do things like jetting to Denmark for a long weekend of windsurfing.

Dan Streetman trains as many as 20 hours a week for Ironman triathlons in addition to his job as CEO of cybersecurity firm Tanium. It’s a big commitment for anyone, never mind a corporate leader who travels to meet with customers every week. He pulls it off by sleeping fewer than seven hours a night and waking around 5 a.m., planning his exercise sessions months in advance, and switching his brain from work mode to sport mode almost as fast as he transitions from swimming to cycling during a competition.

“I tend to work right up until the day of the race,” says Streetman, 56 years old. “I remember being on a board call on a Friday night, and Saturday morning was an Ironman. That’s just part of it.”

Ahead of business trips, he maps running routes in unfamiliar cities and scouts nearby pools, often at YMCAs. He rides stationary bikes in hotel gyms and, if they’re subpar, makes a note to book somewhere else next time he’s in town.

Leaders who eat, breathe and sleep business can appear out of touch at a time when employees crave work-life balance and expect their bosses to model it. Today’s prototypical CEO has a full life outside of work, or at least the appearance of one.

Their tactics include waking up early, multitasking and scheduling fun as if it were any other appointment. When you’re a top executive, hobbies tend to disappear unless they’re on the calendar. One CEO told me he disguises “me time” as important meetings. Only his assistant knows which calendar blocks are fake.

Ben Betts calls himself a “spreadsheet guy,” which is a bit like saying Michelangelo was a paint guy. With Excel as his canvas, Betts creates cell-by-cell checklists for just about everything he does, from cooking Christmas dinner to building a coop for newly hatched ducklings.

Betts, 41, is CEO of Learning Pool, a professional-development software maker. The duck home is part of his ambitious effort to restore an 18th-century farmhouse in England. He’s been renovating for about five years and aims to finish this fall.

On a recent Saturday, Betts’s spreadsheet called for stripping overhead beams by 5 p.m. so he could refinish them. Otherwise, the task would have to wait until the following weekend, throwing off his whole timeline. His vision of the home as a cozy enclave—completed in time for the holidays—can only come true if he sticks to a precise plan.

“Sometimes I stand in the doorway, and my wife probably wonders what I’m staring at,” he says. “I’m picturing us on a corner sofa with our two kids and the dog, watching a film in front of the fireplace I installed.”

Back in the swing

John Sicard , president and CEO of supply-chain manager Kinaxis , got back into drumming many years after he let go of his dream to become a professional musician. He practices almost every day, but his sessions sometimes last only 20 minutes. He rehearses with bandmates two or three times a month. That’s enough to prepare Sicard, 61, to play Foo Fighters and Led Zeppelin covers at occasional charity gigs.

He also built a studio in his house, where he records up-and-coming artists. He finds time by sticking to this management philosophy: “The most successful CEOs do the least amount of work.”

For Sicard, that means letting his lieutenants take charge of—and responsibility for—their divisions. Many corporate leaders work harder than they need to because they micromanage or hire poorly and pick up the slack, he says.

Thomas Hansen , president of software maker Amplitude, is back to windsurfing, a sport he competed in as a teenager. He lives near the ocean in California but gets out on the water only about once a month, when the waves are just right. Hobbies don’t need to be daily activities to be fulfilling, he says, especially if they require training regimens.

To stay in shape for windsurfing, he rises at 4:30 a.m., seven days a week, for an hour of exercise. Hansen, 54, also guards his Saturdays and Sundays like the crown jewels of Denmark, his native country, limiting himself to two working weekends a year. Things that feel urgent can almost always wait till Monday, he contends.

‘Like a badass’

When Christine Yen isn’t calling the shots at work, she’s circling a racetrack at 80 mph on her Honda CB300F motorcycle. The co-founder and CEO of Honeycomb, which helps engineers diagnose problems in their software, took up racing a few years ago.

Prepandemic, her motorcycle was strictly for commuting in San Francisco—and making an impression. She loved pulling up to investor meetings in her hornet-yellow helmet and leather riding suit.

“It fits me like a glove, and it makes me feel like a badass,” says Yen, 36.

The keys to spending full days at the track are planning and being willing to work at odd hours, Yen discovered. Her favorite track publishes racing schedules in 10-week batches. As soon as a slate is released, she circles the dates when she expects her workload will be lightest, aiming to participate in roughly half of the events.

“I have also been known to bring my laptop to the motel and get some work done in the evenings,” she says. “It sounds boring to say hobbies can be scheduled, but that’s how I protect my time.”