Beijing: China’s consumer prices fell in February, adding the threat of deflation to the nation’s economic woes, and officials warned the next few months look grim as the global downturn worsens.
The 1.6% year-on-year fall in the consumer price index, or CPI, announced by the government on Tuesday, highlighted weakness in the world’s third largest economy as exports and consumer demand cool. Such a decline, if it continues, can drag down growth if consumers put off purchases in expectation of lower prices, forcing companies to cut wages and investment.
Cost conscious: People shop for vegetables in Shanghai on Tuesday. Chinese officials have downplayed the risk that the country is succumbing to a potentially debilitating deflationary trend. AP
“We expect negative CPI could persist for much of this year,” Citigroup economist Ken Peng said in a report. But others said inflation might quickly turn positive again as the government pumps money into the stumbling economy as part of its massive stimulus plan.
A 1.9% decline in food prices, a major component of the index, and declines in international commodity prices helped drag the index down. So did excess inventories for many industries.
The government downplayed the likelihood of a deflationary spiral. It said the fall was due in part to inflation being very high in February a year earlier, when the rise in the CPI reached a 12-year high of 8.7%.
Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said last week the government expects prices to rise 4% this year.
A fall in consumer prices will be a relief to struggling Chinese households. But deflation could undermine the 4 trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus, which aims to reduce reliance on exports by encouraging China’s own consumers to spend more.
The country’s industry minister warned on Tuesday that many industries suffer from overcapacity, which could lead to pressure to cut prices further. “Many industries have more supply than demand, so now that we are working to expand the capacity of these industries, they may face new problems because of shrinking demand,” Li Yizhong said at a news conference.
Although city dwellers rarely see evidence of falling prices on grocery shelves, some businesses say they are cutting prices.
“We adjusted our prices downward by about 10% between December and February,” said Zhai Zhi, a salesman at Synear Food Co., a maker of frozen dumplings and snacks based in central China’s Henan province.
Synear was cutting prices to match competitors and reflect lower costs, he said.
Officials also warned on Tuesday it was too soon to say economic conditions were improving. They were unusually sombre at a time when Chinese leaders have been highlighting positive economic signs and trying to boost public confidence.
“We should not be overly optimistic. China’s industry is still in its most difficult situation,” Li said. “The international financial crisis has not bottomed out and it is having a more and more profound impact on China’s economy.”
Power consumption, a key economic indicator, fell by 3.7% in January and February from the year-earlier period, according to Li. He said output of nonferrous metals also fell, indicating slack industry demand.
Trade fell again in February, commerce minister Chen Deming said at the news conference with Li, though he gave no details. In January, exports dropped by 17.5% while imports fell 43%.
“It’s fair to say in coming months we will see quite a grim picture,” Chen said.
The first CPI decline since December 2002 suggests Beijing can cut interest rates further as it tries to spur growth.
Royal Bank of Scotland economist Ben Simpfendorfer said China faces a “more durable deflation problem” unless it revives private investment and consumption and reduces reliance on government spending.
Adding to the gloomy economic news, the government reported housing prices fell in February for a third month, reflecting a sales slowdown that analysts say could hurt the economy as demand for building materials and labour shrinks.
Prices nationwide fell by 1.2% from the same month of 2008, with some areas suffering double-digit declines, according to the Cabinet’s National Development and Reform Commission. Prices of newly built homes plunged by 17.4% in the southern financial centre of Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.