BEIJING (Reuters) - China's factory growth held at an 18-month high in November on firm domestic and foreign demand, defying expectations the economy faces a modest slowdown as 2013 draws to a close.
The official Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) stood at 51.4 in November, the National Bureau of Statistics said, unchanged from October and ahead of market expectations for a reading of 51.1.
Investors had expected the PMI, one of the earliest pieces of Chinese data released each month, to show China's economy decelerated in the fourth quarter on slacker credit growth, fragile global demand, and slower restocking of inventories by firms.
"Growth momentum held up in November," said Louis Kuijs, an economist at RBS in Hong Kong. "The export order data suggests that global demand - key to the outlook for China's manufacturing - improved a bit."
A sub-index for export orders nudged higher to 50.6 in November from 50.4 in October, hovering above the 50-point threshold separating growth from contraction.
Experts will welcome the unexpected PMI strength as a sign that China can press on with sprawling plans outlined last month to cut back central economic planning without fear of endangering growth.
After three decades of double-digit growth, analysts say China's economy has reached a turning point where traditional growth drivers of heavy investment and brisk export sales must make way for a more sustainable expansion in consumption.
In the near-term, China's attempt to remake its economy should foster market confidence and perhaps even offset investor jitters over tighter monetary policy, said Kuijs.
"After a mild slowdown in the fourth quarter of 2013, we expect China to benefit from improved global growth late this year and in 2014," he said.
Sunday's PMI is the latest of a series of data confounding bets that China's growth engine is losing steam.
Factory production, retail sales and investment had all displayed encouraging growth in October, suggesting the world's second-largest economy is stabilizing.
Still, analysts cautioned against undue optimism.
The PMI showed new orders, a measure of foreign and domestic demand, edged down to 52.3 from 52.5 in October. The production and business activity expectation sub-index also slid to 54.9 from October's 57.5.
Liu Li Gang and Zhou Hao from ANZ Bank said China's tightening credit conditions had lifted borrowing costs and would probably deter firms from investing heavily or expanding quickly.
The PMI survey also showed stocks of purchases fell to 47.8 in November, a low not seen since July. "This indicates that the producers are not rushing to hoard raw materials due to lack of final demand," Liu and Zhou said.
Worried about brisk credit growth, stubbornly strong record house prices and quickening inflation, which hit an eight-month high in October, China's leaders have signaled lately that monetary policy may be tightened slightly to cool prices.
But analysts do not expect the mild tightening to cause a sharp fall-off in growth.
A Reuters poll in October showed China's economy is forecast to grow 7.5 percent in the fourth quarter, in line with the government's 2013 growth forecast, but down from 7.8 percent between July and September.
For the year, economists believe growth may hit 7.6 percent, impressive by world standards, but still the worst for China in 14 years.
Tilted towards China's bigger state-owned manufacturers, the official PMI poll is the second of three of such surveys to be published each month.
The final HSBC PMI is scheduled for release on Monday at 0145 GMT. Unlike its official peer, it favors smaller and private companies. A flash HSBC PMI issued last month for November showed factory growth eased to 50.4 from October's 50.9, though some analysts say the survey is more volatile than the official poll.
Reporting by Koh Gui Qing; Editing by Clarence Fernandez