BEIJING China's economy showed further signs of softening in July despite a burst of government stimulus measures, suggesting more policy support may be needed to keep growth on track as a property downturn worsens.
Unexpectedly weak growth in investment, retail sales and bank lending in July all pointed to growing vulnerabilities in the world's second-largest economy.
The biggest surprise from Wednesday's data deluge came from credit and financing figures that showed the amount of cash flowing into the world's second-largest economy tumbled to a near six-year low in July of 273.1 billion yuan ($44.34 billion), about one seventh of that in June.
The central bank downplayed the drop, saying that the plunge in lending was a natural pull-back after an unusual surge in June, while conceding loan demand was slowing. Analysts said the unusually large drop may also have come on the back of a crackdown on high-risk loans and commodity financing in the wake of a fraud scandal at the port of Qingdao.
But the dour news rattled some economists, who worried that the numbers signaled not only weaker loan demand in the property sector but growing caution on the part of banks to lend in general as credit risks increase.
The mood contrasted sharply with that in June, when data showed the economy appeared to be regaining traction after a weak start to the year.
"The reading on investment, the most important driver of the economy, missed market expectations again," said Hu Yuexiao, an analyst at Shanghai Securities.
"Add to that the remarkable decline in credit growth in the corporate sector and it could suggest an end to the economic rebound (seen) in the second quarter."
Hu said he expected authorities to further loosen monetary policy with a possible interest rate cut, whilst trying to stoke investment growth by slashing red-tape and wooing private capital.
Helped by a steady stream of government stimulus, China's economy rebounded slightly to 7.5 percent in the second quarter - in line with the government's full-year target - from an 18-month low of 7.4 percent in the first three months.
But buffeted by a property downturn that has hurt domestic spending, the economy appears to be sputtering again. Questions about the durability of the economic recovery flared last week when surveys on the services sector showed unexpected weakness, linked largely to the housing market downturn.
Accounting for roughly 15 percent of China's economy, the housing sector has faltered this year as prices and sales turned south, leading many analysts to warn that it poses the biggest risk to broader growth.
Wednesday's data showed the slowdown may have deepened. Housing sales skidded 16.3 percent in July compared with a year ago in terms of floor space, Reuters calculations showed, a sharp increase from June's 0.2 annual fall.
New construction fell 12.8 percent in January-July as cash-strapped developers tried to clear huge inventories of unsold homes. But discounts and other sweeteners have failed to attract many buyers, who expect further price declines.
While easier access to loans is seen as one key to preventing a sharp correction in the property market, a survey released by Standard Chartered last week indicated many developers were finding it tougher to access funding through banks or trust loans.
They also said borrowing costs were rising, and most felt banks did not appear more willing to extend loans to first-time home buyers despite encouragement from the central bank.
Analysts said the wobbly real estate market had dampened overall investment growth, which was up 17 percent in the first seven months compared with the year-ago period, a level unseen in over 12 years.
"The sluggishness of the property market will continue to hang over the domestic economy," said Louis Kuijs, an economist at RBS. "We expect the government to continue taking and encouraging measures to support growth."
Economists disagree on whether China will need to resort to more aggressive policy loosening measures, such as cutting interest rates or the reserve requirement ratio for banks to shore up growth.
A Reuters poll last month showed analysts were split on whether China would cut the reserve requirement ratio this year, though half of those surveyed thought that a 50-basis-point reduction was possible before March.
Analysts who oppose further policy loosening, including the International Monetary Fund, argue that China's economy is already awash in credit, and authorities must refrain from adding more cash to the system unless growth crumbles.
To be sure, the latest data pointed to some pockets of resilience.
Industrial output rose 9 percent in July from a year earlier, the National Bureau of Statistics said, slowing from June's 9.2 percent gain but in line with market expectations.
Data last week showed exports grew nearly twice as much as expected, though imports unexpectedly fell, pointing to soft domestic demand.
Retail sales, a key gauge of domestic consumption, rose 12.2 percent in July from a year earlier, slowing from June's 12.4 percent pace.
"The activity figures are basically lower than market expectations, especially the investment data, which is mainly due to the weak showing in the property market," said Zhou Hao, an economist at ANZ in Shanghai.
"I would say the government will have to further relax policies to deliver an annual growth rate of 7.5 percent."
(Reporting by China economics team; Editing by Kim Coghill)