China’s private companies are not investing in future growth, leaving Beijing to pick up the slack

Image: Reuters/Jianan Yu
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Despite concerns about slowing growth and rising debt levels, China’s economy looks to be on an upswing, a trove of official data released today (Sept. 13) show. Industrial production rose 6.3% in August from a year earlier, while retail sales gained 10.6% in August year-over-year. Both figures beat market expectations.

But there are worrying signs that the government is still doing a lot of the heavy lifting to keep China’s economy growing, despite ongoing attempts to reform the bloated, often heavily indebted state-owned sector.

Overall fixed-asset investment—which refers to money put toward longer term capital-intensive projects like building new factories or buying heavy machinery—rose at the slowest pace in 16 years, unchanged at 8.1% in the first eight months of the year from the same period a year ago, excluding rural households. Analysts had forecast investment growth of 7.9%.

Growth in government spending on fixed assets fell 0.4% to 21.4% in the January-August period. Growth in private sector investment, which accounts for 61.4% of all investments, was unchanged at 2.1% for the period.

In a separate data release, the Ministry of Finance said (link in Chinese) that spending in public sectors from education to healthcare increased 10.3% from a year earlier in August.

The continued discrepancy between government and private investment spending this year shows not only that China’s economy is still being heavily supported by state-owned companies, but also that owners of private firms are reluctant to spend their money, a sign that they are lacking confidence in the future.