January surveys of global factory activity released yesterday showed the new year began much as the old one ended — with too much capacity chasing too little demand.
China was again the epicentre of Asian disappointment. The official measure of manufacturing fell to its lowest since mid-2012. The weakness also encompassed such bellwethers of high-tech trade as South Korea and Taiwan.
Manufacturing growth also slowed in the eurozone at the start of 2016. Incoming orders showed no meaningful increase, even though companies cut prices at the deepest rate for a year.
British factories did enjoy a faster start to the year than expected, but companies cut staff at the fastest rate in three years and export orders fell despite a weaker sterling.
“It wasn’t the best start to the year, but it wasn’t awful. Markets are pricing in a worst-case scenario and we are not seeing that yet,” said Peter Dixon, an economist at Commerzbank.
Stock markets, commodities and oil prices have been battered since the start of the year by concern the Chinese economy, the world’s second largest, is struggling.
Such concern has eroded expectations for how fast the Federal Reserve will raise US interest rates, after its first increase in almost a decade in December. Forecasts for Bank of England tightening have also been pushed well back.
A dearth of demand and resulting downward pressure on inflation was why the Bank of Japan felt moved enough to cut interest rates below zero last week.
Meanwhile, having failed to get inflation anywhere near its target — and with demand so low — the European Central Bank is likely to cut its deposit rate in March, and possibly increase its monthly asset purchases.
“It’s less to do with what is happening with the real economy and more to do with inflation. It’s more of an inflation story than a growth one,” Dixon said.
Markit’s manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index for the eurozone will bolster those expectations. It sank to 52.3 from December’s 53.2, in line with an earlier flash estimate and above the 50 mark that separates growth from contraction.
January’s weakening came as companies offered steep discounts on their goods. A sub-index measuring output prices plummeted to its lowest reading since January 2015.
Consumer prices rose just 0.4% last month on a year earlier, official data showed on Friday, nowhere near the ECB’s target of close to but just below 2%.
Yesterday’s data foreshadow a US survey later in the day. A contraction in manufacturing is expected, although a strong outcome from the Chicago region last week suggests the result may beat forecasts.
Markets got February off to a cautious start after a rocky January, as expectations of more cheap money from some of the world’s top central banks were validated by the fresh signs of weak global growth.
The official version of China’s PMI survey for manufacturing slipped to 49.4 in January from 49.7 the month before, missing forecasts of 49.6. The services index also disappointed, challenging hopes consumption would take over from industry as the driving force.
A private survey, the Caixin/Markit China Manufacturing PMI, underscored the trend by showing factory activity shrinking for an 11th month.
Japan’s results were more encouraging. Its factory barometer slipped only a tick to 52.3 in January as exports picked up. The gains in exports relied on a weak yen, hinting at another reason the BoJ acted so boldly when easing policy last week.
India also recorded an unexpected return to growth. Its erratic PMI jumped to a four-month high after slumping to a 28-month low in December.
Other countries in the region were not so fortunate. South Korea’s manufacturing index slipped into contraction. Its exports suffered their sharpest annual fall since August 2009.
China is South Korea’s largest market, taking about a quarter of its exports. Smartphones, cars, semiconductors and flat-screen displays all fell in January, boding ill for the companies that usually prop up the economy.
The story was much the same for another electronics hub, Taiwan, where factory growth slowed amid lacklustre demand.
Steep falls in selling prices and input costs also underlined the risks of deflation across the region and the need for yet more stimulus.
“Shipments being this weak means a recovery in consumption is urgently needed. If you look at the economy as a whole, this might boost the need for policy easing,” said Lee Sang-jae, chief economist at Eugene Investment & Securities.
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