China’s recovery isn’t as rosy as it appears  — but there’s still ‘room for optimism’

SINGAPORE — China’s recovery isn’t as rosy as people think — even though the world’s second largest economy has bounced back after a coronavirus-induced slowdown, according to the CEO of research firm China Beige Book, Leland Miller.

China has indeed seen recovery but there is no improvement on a year-on-year basis, Miller pointed out, adding that the recovery is not evenly spread out across the economy.

“The recovery itself is actually two-pronged, and you see the larger cities, you see the coastal regions doing much, much better than the rest of the country,” he told CNBC on Friday.

“So, there’s really two recoveries going on — Beijing wants to advertise the Beijing, Shanghai, Guangdong type of recovery, but that’s not most of China,” he said, adding that the rest of China is seeing a far more muted recovery.

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U.S.-based China Beige Book, which conducted an independent quarterly survey of more than 3,300 businesses in China between Aug. 13 and Sept. 12 this year, found that growth is intact in the wealthier, coastal regions in the country.

However, the analysis also found that revenue and profit in every region fell double digits in the third quarter compared to a year ago. It also showed that most provinces in the landlocked parts of the country saw output and domestic orders decline from the previous quarter.

Worries that borrowing has slowed

Miller also said businesses aren’t borrowing as much as they should – a worrying sign.

“If you look at what’s happening in the credit markets too, a lot of these firms, services in particular, but also retail, others, are not borrowing as much as you would think that they would,” he said.

When you’re coming out of a coronavirus stoppage or slowdown, we should be seeing a lot more borrowing. Since we’re not, you got to question what firms are seeing that’s making them hesitate.

Leland Miller

CEO of China Beige Book

Small and medium-sized companies are borrowing a lot less than they were in the second quarter, Miller said.

“That’s not what should happen. When you’re coming out of a coronavirus stoppage or slowdown, we should be seeing a lot more borrowing. Since we’re not, you got to question what firms are seeing that’s making them hesitate,” Miller added.

China was the first country to get hit by the coronavirus pandemic. After shutting down most of its economy to contain the spread of the outbreak, the country reported a 6.8% contraction in the first quarter.

As the outbreak came under control, however, businesses reopened and the country reported GDP grew 3.2% in the second quarter.

Golden Week gives ‘room for optimism’

However, the national day celebrations in the past week, dubbed the Golden Week, has led to “room for cautious optimism,” according to Benjamin Cavender, managing director at China Market Research Group.

“If you look at the trip numbers – 600 million trips taken for this week this year, that’s still down compared to about 800 million last year. So the numbers on the face of things still look lower, but they’re coming back,” he told CNBC Friday. “Retailers, tour operators will really take this as a win right now.”

During this period, tourism revenue totaled 466.56 billion yuan ($69.5 billion) – with 637 million domestic tourists, ANZ Research said, citing data from the country’s ministry of culture and tourism.

“This suggests that the consumer sector, the final part of the recovery story, is revving up,” the firm said in a note on Friday.

— CNBC’s Evelyn Cheng contributed to this report.

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