The situation could be even bleaker than China’s official statistics suggest, according to many analysts.
“The Chinese published GDP numbers are absolute garbage,” said Leland Miller, CEO of advisory firm China Beige Book. “It’s certainly the consensus that these numbers are unreliable.”
Some experts suspect China’s National Bureau of Statistics, which reports much of the country’s data, is more focused on making the government look good rather than giving an accurate reflection of its economic health.
It’s difficult to determine China’s true rate of growth, as a lot of government data “don’t make sense,” according to Scissors, who is also chief economist at China Beige Book. For example, the numbers on the economy’s size compared with the average income of Chinese citizens don’t tally, he said.
Plenty of other analysts resort to their own metrics to get a sense of how the economy is doing.
Research firm Capital Economics examines a range of data including sea freight, electricity generation and financial lending to come up with a proxy indicator. Based on that, China’s economy may have only grown by around 5% last year rather than the official rate of 6.6%.
The slowdown has cast gloom over Chinese businesses.
“The economy will get increasingly worse in the coming months,” said Wei Bingyu, the owner of an industrial paint factory in Beijing. He blamed the difficulties on the trade war and other issues.
Chinese consumers feeling the squeeze
Official Chinese data is likely “overstating consumption growth,” Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics, said in a recent note to clients. He estimated that consumer spending in China’s big urban areas shrank by about 3% last year, suggesting middle-class shoppers are tightening their belts.
That tallies with what some business owners are saying. Zhou Chang, the owner of a gym in central Beijing, told CNN that his customers are spending less.
Using a gym “is not quite like eating, clothing, housing or commuting,” Zhou said. “Those are must-haves, while bodybuilding is not.” As the economy slows, “many gyms have temporarily shut down or gone bankrupt,” he added.
Is stimulus going where it’s needed?
The Chinese government says fears over the economic slowdown are overblown.
It’s still unclear how much the moves will do to halt the slowdown because a lot of the extra funds they free up go to inefficient state-run enterprises rather than private businesses, analysts say.
Many private companies in China typically rely on shadow financing, murky forms of lending that are kept off banks’ official balance sheets. Regulators have cracked down on those practices in recent years.
“It is extremely difficult to get financial leverage as a private business,” said Guo Yucheng, the owner of a drug manufacturing business in the northern province of Jilin.
He recently merged his company with a government-owned one in order to improve his chances of gaining access to financing. He predicted it will take as long as two years for measures like tax cuts to make a real difference for struggling companies.
“There are so many businesses, like ours, who are trying to just get by every month,” Guo said. “Private businesses are going through a long winter.”
Serenitie Wang, Julia Horowitz, Lily Lee and Eduardo Baptista contributed to this report.