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China’s services sector growth hits three-month low in January: Caixin PMI

BEIJING (Reuters) – Growth in China’s services sector slowed for a second straight month in January, a traditionally busy sales season, hitting a three-month low as companies cut prices and new orders dipped, a private sector survey showed on Wednesday.

The Caixin/Markit services purchasing managers’ index (PMI) slowed to 51.8 last month from 52.5 in December, but was still higher than an 8-month low hit in October.

The slowdown in growth suggests the services sector, which accounts for more than half of the economy, faces persistent challenges despite a flurry of stimulus and a U.S.-China trade “Phase 1” deal. The reading is also unlikely to reflect the early impact of the coronavirus crisis that flared in late January, which could weigh heavily on growth.

“China’s economic recovery was not strong enough due to limited improvement in demand, and some companies didn’t replenish inventories,” Zhong Zhengsheng, director of macroeconomic analysis at CEBM Group, wrote in a note accompanying the Caixin PMI release.

The index has stayed above the 50-point margin that separates growth from contraction on a monthly basis since late 2005. Beijing has been counting on a strong services sector to cushion a prolonged slowdown in manufacturing and investment and create jobs for workers laid-off in other areas.

Economic growth has cooled to near 30-year lows amid sluggish demand at home and abroad.

The cooling trend in the private sector survey, which focuses more on small, export-oriented companies, contrasts with the official non-manufacturing PMI, which showed the sector’s activity quickened in January.

Services companies reported a smaller rise in the volume of new work in January and continued to face higher fuel and labor costs. Demand softened at home, while new orders from overseas picked up modestly from the previous month.

The pace of job creation almost stalled, with the employment sub-index hitting the lowest level in 16 months. Meanwhile, firms had to lower their selling prices for the second time, squeezing companies’ profit margins.

But their expectations regarding the one-year outlook for business activity improved notably in the month, as the “Phase 1” trade deal with the United States eased some of the pressure on exporters.

However, a coronavirus outbreak that has abruptly limited the movement of millions of people and forced the closures of restaurants, malls, and movie theaters across the country during the week-long Lunar New Year holiday, is likely to further darken the outlook for China’s slowing economy.

Analysts have noted the deepening coronavirus crisis, which is expected to be as much as two or three times worse than the SARS outbreak, will potentially add to industry headaches.

“As during the SARS episode, we expect consumption and travel to take the hardest hit,” Analysts at Oxford Economics said in a note.

“But we also expect that there will be significant disruption to other economic activities, though to a lesser degree than the impact on consumption.”

Analysts like CEBM Group’s Zhong have urged policymakers to take swift action to cushion to hit to growth from the virus.

“As the current pneumonia epidemic is putting pressure on the economy, policymakers need to make efforts to ensure no major disruptions to improving business confidence,” he said.

Caixin’s composite manufacturing and services PMI, also released on Wednesday, slowed to 51.9 in January from 52.6 in December.

(Reporting by Yawen Chen and Ryan Woo; Editing by Sam Holmes)