BEIJING China's 2012 economic outlook has dimmed because of weakening export demand and a faltering housing market, and its central bank will probably try to spur more bank lending to prevent a steeper slump, a Reuters poll showed on Thursday.
Economists on average predicted gross domestic product growth would slow to 8.4 percent from 2011's 9.2 percent.
That is weaker than the 8.6 percent consensus in a similar poll conducted in October and 8.8 percent in the previous poll in July.
Of the 34 economists surveyed, only five predicted that GDP growth would dip below the 8 percent mark seen as the minimum for ensuring sufficient job creation. But in the survey three months ago, not one of the economists thought GDP would breach the 8 percent threshold.
China's growth rate slowed to 8.9 percent in the fourth quarter, the slowest pace in 2- years.
Economists widely expect the economy to deteriorate further, although the Reuters poll showed that they expect the first quarter to be the trough, with growth picking up as the year progressed.
"We expect things to get worse before they get better," Qu Hongbin, China economist with HSBC, wrote in a note to clients.
First-quarter growth may ease to 8.2 percent with one economist predicting a growth rate as low as 7.2 percent, according to the Reuters poll.
Graphic for the poll: link.reuters.com/tyz95s
With the euro zone in danger of slipping into a recession and growth looking sluggish in the United States, China's exports will struggle. A senior Chinese official called the 2012 export outlook "grim," according to a report by the Xinhua news agency on Saturday.
At home, the biggest threats to China's growth stem from a housing market slowdown and the risk of bad debts piling up on banks' books.
Average home prices in the country will probably fall between 10 to 20 percent in 2012, with the biggest declines expected in major cities such as Beijing, according to a Reuters poll earlier this month.
Beijing has tried to orchestrate a gradual cool-down of the property market, which appeared to be overheating in 2010. But a sharper real estate slowdown could curb growth.
That in turn could hit banks' books. Banks lent heavily to property developers and to local governments, many of which used land as collateral. To make matters worse, local governments rely heavily on land sales for revenue, so a weakening housing market makes it harder for them to repay debt.
PBOC ON HOLD
A relatively modest economic slowdown would give Beijing the much-needed stability it seeks ahead of its leadership change in 2012 and enough room to keep interest rates unchanged.
The poll result showed that the People's Bank of China would keep its benchmark interest rates unchanged until July 2013 -- a cut in benchmark interest rates is often read as a strong signal of serious relaxation of monetary policy.
An official Chinese newspaper, echoing many economists, said on Wednesday that China does not have sufficient reason to cut interest rates as year deposit rate was 3.50 percent, still below the 4.1 percent rate of consumer inflation that month.
The poll showed that China's CPI will ease to 3.4 percent in 2012, a significant drop from the previous poll result of 4 percent.
As growth eases and inflation long as the country's real interest rates, after adjusting for inflation, were still negative.
In December, China's one-pressure is relieved, the PBOC may use a less potent tool -- cutting banks' required reserve ratio (RRR). The poll showed the central bank may cut the RRR by to 19 percent from its current level of 21 percent by the end of 2012, to pump liquidity into the banking system.
Economists further expected the reserve requirement to hit 18 percent by the end of 2013. China announced a 0.5 percentage point cut in RRR at the end of November 2011, and analysts said that the central bank may announce another cut in short order.
(Reporting by Beijing economics team, writing by Zhou Xin; Editing by Ken Wills and Emily Kaiser)