China has posted its worst production and sales figures on record on Monday, as a series of firsts continue to be set in Asia, almost all of them on the downside.
The economic numbers released on Monday are far worse than predicted by forecasters, indicating that China's factories essentially shut up shop in the first two months of the year. Retailers stopped buying, too, e-commerce not able to offset the empty stores nationwide.
Industrial output fell 13.5% for the January-February period, from the prior year. That's the worst reading on record since Reuters began tracking the figure in January 1990. A poll by the news agency had anticipated a 1.5% rise.
Retail sales plummeted 20.5%, also the first decline on record, despite an increase in online purchases of goods like groceries. Shopping malls and high streets have become ghost towns, and a logistics logjam due to a lack of delivery people has delayed e-commerce orders. A survey of economists by Bloomberg had anticipated only a 4.0% fall.
China's unemployment rate has risen to 6.2% for February, up from 5.2% in December. That, too, is a record high jobless rate since the government started publishing figures.
Investment also sank 24.5% for the January-February period, the first drop in record, and far worse than the dip of 2.0% forecast by economists. (Combining the two months negates the impact of Lunar New Year, which fell in January in 2020 but February in 2019.) Investment into property, the holding of choice for wealthy Chinese citizens, shrank by its largest amount on record, and home prices stalled for the first time in five years.
Early predictions of the impact of the coronavirus suggested there would be a rapid V-shaped recovery in China. But the location of the virus outbreak in the "Chicago of China" rapidly impacted travel and trade. The epicenter, Wuhan, is a major inland port on the Yangtze River, as well as a north-south and east-west node on railway lines. It is the center of China's auto manufacturing.
Economic figures for March may be even worse than those recorded for the first two months of the year. Consumer confidence has been shaken to its core, and it's unclear what will encourage it to return.
Official figures claim that China registered only 16 new cases of the coronavirus on Sunday, and 12 of those stem from "imported" cases of people arriving from abroad. But with the country opening back up to human movement, there's potential for a second outbreak. One Hong Kong news report out of Wuhan states that doctors there are releasing patients from temporary hospitals if a lung scan shows no scarring, without testing for the virus, since test kits have run low.
During the SARS outbreak in 2003, which centered on southern Guangdong Province as well as Hong Kong, China did not enter any significant lockdown. With the Covid-19 disease, the top leadership effectively ordered half the country's 1.4 billion people to stay home. That has complicated the return of workers from the Lunar New Year, and only around 75% of Chinese companies are back in business.
The cessation of production is far more extreme than in 2003, hence the huge and unprecedented impact on industrial production. This has broad implications in the West. Even if demand returns around the world, that is no good if there is no supply of goods.
China's efforts to get its economy firing on all cylinders are now going to be deterred by a lack of demand, too. The travel bans put in place around the world, and a rising number of lockdowns in major economies such as Italy and Spain, will only further dampen economic activity in Asia.
China's top leaders were due to announce their "forecast" for full-year economic performance in 2020 at a meeting on March 5. But the event has been postponed due to the virus crisis. The Communist top brass had reportedly agreed a "target" of around 6% when they gathered late last year, and are now debating whether to lower that.
Hong Kong's economy is also suffering through what amounts to a virtual shutdown. Figures released on Monday showed that there were only 199,000 tourist arrivals in February. That is normally the same number of tourists who arrive in a single day, equating to a 96% decrease. Even at the height of SARS, which centered on the city, 427,000 visitors arrived in the month of May.
The lessons learnt during SARS have however led to far fewer cases of Covid-19 occurring (so far) here in my hometown. Although Hong Kong is next to mainland China, it has only recorded 148 cases, far fewer even than Singapore, at 226, despite Hong Kong having a population that is 32% larger. Social distancing and staying at home, as well as a rapid response to track relatives and friends of those infected, seems to be working.
Asian markets continued their panic selling on Monday, despite moves by the U.S. Federal Reserve to slash interest rates, and an emergency meeting by the central Bank of Japan. New Zealand and South Korea also cut interest rates.
Australian stocks have crashed 9.7% on Monday, their biggest fall since "Black Monday" in 1987. That comes after an extraordinary day's trade on Friday, which saw the S&P/ASX 200 fall 8.1% at the start, only to close with their strongest one-day gain in more than a decade, of 4.4%. Financial stocks led the selling on Monday, and investors will also have been unnerved by those historically bad activity numbers out of China, the largest source of demand for Australian exports.
Japan's Topix declined 2.0%, despite BOJ action. The Japanese central bank moved up a policy meeting by two days, and agreed to purchase bonds and other financial instruments, as well as expand corporate finance.
Chinese shares fell 4.3% on Monday after the economic-output figures, and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong dropped 4.0%. Singapore's Straits Times index lost 5.3%. Indian shares were the biggest fallers outside Australia, the Sensex down 7.9%.