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China’s Delta Outbreak Cuts Travel, Prompting GDP Downgrades

At least 46 cities have urged residents against traveling unless absolutely necessary, but there are uncertainties about the duration of the outbreak.
A Covid-19 outbreak in Yangzhou, in China's eastern Jiangsu province, has led to local restrictions. Getty Images.
A Covid-19 outbreak in Yangzhou, in China's eastern Jiangsu province, has led to local restrictions. Getty Images.

China’s broadest Covid-19 outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic in late 2019 is hampering tourism and spending during the peak summer holiday, prompting analysts to review their economic growth projections as risks escalate.

Authorities rushed to close tourist sites, call off cultural events and cancel flights, as the outbreak linked to the highly-infectious delta variant spread to nearly half of China’s 32 provinces within just two weeks. At least 46 cities have advised residents to refrain from traveling unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Alongside recent flood damage in parts of the country, the latest virus controls will likely curb retail spending and economic growth in the second half of the year.

Nomura Holdings Inc. lowered its projection for third-quarter growth to 5.1 percent from 6.4 percent previously and sees 4.4 percent expansion in the final three months of the year, down from 5.3 percent. For the full year, Nomura cut its GDP growth forecast to 8.2 percent from 8.9 percent.

“The draconian measures taken by the government are resulting in potentially the most stringent travel bans and lockdowns in China since the spring of 2020,” said Lu Ting, Nomura’s chief economist for China. “Recent rainstorms and flooding — both worse than expected — also necessitate a downward adjustment to our GDP growth forecasts for the third quarter.”

Policy Support

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. said the potential impact on third-quarter growth could be 0.7 percentage points, although it didn’t lower its 6.2 percent growth forecast for the quarter, saying there are uncertainties about the duration of the outbreak and likely stronger policy support. Bloomberg Economics and Natwest Group Plc. also see downside risks to their growth forecasts.

Even though China has faced sporadic virus flare-ups over the past year, they have been much smaller in scope and were contained quickly. The current outbreak has shut all tourists sites in Zhangjiajie, a renowned scenic destination in central China. Other cities in Hunan, Jiangsu and Shanxi provinces have also closed tourist locations.

Airlines scheduled 9.8 percent less seat capacity in China this week than last week, the second drop in a row, based on data from scheduling specialist OAG. Capacity now stands at 95.7 percent of 2019 levels. It’s the first time in five weeks that carriers have offered fewer seats in the country than they did in the comparable pre-pandemic period.

Travel booking site Inc. said flight and hotel cancellations on July 29 surged to four times the amount seen in normal days, and customer inquiries also soared to three times the usual amount.

“Residents’ wage growth was already lagging, and if they can’t spend their money due to the outbreak, it will surely be a drag on consumption in the second half of the year,” said Bruce Pang, head of macro and strategy research at China Renaissance Securities Hong Kong.

The current outbreak weighs on a fragile recovery in retail sales and adds to a number of risks that analysts are already seeing in the second half, including a slowdown in exports and cooling property and infrastructure investment.

Purchasing managers surveys in July show manufacturing coming under pressure in the month. And even though the Caixin services PMI rebounded sharply from a 14-month low in June — largely because a previous outbreak in the southern province of Guangdong was brought under control — the outlook remains dim.

The gauges “suggest that the economic recovery is not on a sure footing,” Wang Zhe, senior economist at Caixin Insight Group, said in a statement Wednesday. “The economy still faces enormous downward pressure.”

Beijing has been trying to spur consumption in the economy to make it less reliant on old growth drivers like investment and property. That remains a key focus for authorities, with the official China Securities Journal newspaper saying in a front-page commentary Wednesday that the country should prioritize expanding the domestic market to stabilize growth and counter uncertainties in overseas demand.

Bloomberg Economics estimates retail sales could contract about 0.2 percent month-on-month in July and August, similar to the impact seen during outbreaks at the beginning of the year in Hebei and Jilin provinces. For the year as a whole, retail sales growth will likely fall short of a previous projection of 12 percent, it said.

Authorities are already on guard for slower growth in coming months, and have pledged fiscal and monetary support to cushion the recovery. The government has targeted GDP growth of more than 6 percent this year.

Traders are boosting bets for monetary easing, with bond yields and an indicator of future rates both at one-year lows. Monday’s rally in sovereign debt follows seven consecutive weeks of gains, the longest winning streak since the trade war with the US broke out in 2018.

The benchmark 10-year yield has fallen nearly 45 basis points from its February high, bolstered by foreign inflows and a delay in local government bond issuance. Bonds have also been boosted by haven demand triggered by a sell-off in stocks.

What Bloomberg Economics Says...

Production has been spared a nationwide lockdown of the sort that slammed the economy in early 2020. Even so, the chances of another reserve requirement ratio cut to cushion the blow to the economy are increasing -- and consumption could use a little such insurance, said Chang Shu, chief Asia economist.

The latest outbreak has spread to Beijing despite the capital city’s stringent measures, with authorities taking steps Tuesday to ban rail passengers from 23 regions, including Zhengzhou, Nanjing, Yangzhou, Shenyang and Dalian. The financial hub of Shanghai also reported a virus case this week.

Several tourist events have been canceled or postponed, including the Qingdao International Beer Festival, China’s largest beer festival, and the Torch Festival in Yunnan province in southern China. More than a dozen music festivals in various cities have also been called off or delayed, and cinemas were closed in Nanjing, Zhangjiajie and Lianyungang.

Cases haven’t been found in areas with heavy industrial or export activities so far, which means the impact on production should be limited, said Iris Pang, chief economist for Greater China at ING Bank NV.

“If there are cases in new locations that are major cities of services or manufacturing, then it would affect economic activities,” she said.

By Bloomberg News

Learn more:

Report: China to Keep Borders Closed Another Year

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Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
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The State of Fashion: Technology