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The vulnerability of global growth to trade conflicts and dependence on U.S. momentum were exposed as Asia’s biggest economies faltered and Germany barely dodged a recession.
A triple whammy of dreary data on Thursday began with sharp slowing in Japanese growth to a fraction of forecasts, before China reported the smallest increase in fixed-asset investment in at least two decades. In Europe, Germany posted surprise growth — but only after a deeper contraction than previously estimated.
The frailty signaled by the reports underscore the world’s need for a China-U.S. trade deal that could remove the uncertainty depressing factory output. It also highlights the risk that the U.S., where consumer strength has supported growth, might become the sole crutch of global momentum.
“We are in a manufacturing recession,” Saker Nusseibeh, chief executive officer of Hermes Fund Managers, said on Bloomberg TV. “Even in the U.S., there’s contraction in manufacturing. The difference is that the consumer in the States has been carrying the day in a far stronger quantum than the consumer in Germany.”
Weak global demand weighed on Japan, where annualized growth dropped to just 0.2% in the third quarter, compared with a 0.9% median forecast. Izumi Devalier, head of economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch (NYSE:), reckoned forthcoming data might get even worse.
“We do think that fourth-quarter GDP numbers will be quite weak,” she told Bloomberg Television. “We wouldn’t be surprised at all if we had a sizable contraction.”
China had a similar theme, with both industrial output and retail sales missing estimates. Fixed-asset investment grew just 5.2% in the first 10 months of the year, the least since records began in 1998.
For now, the government and central bank in China have refrained from pumping major stimulus into the economy, preferring to make smaller adjustments to try and boost growth without a massive expansion in debt. The weakness revealed on Thursday raises the prospect that such restraint may not hold.
“We are very close to the Chinese government’s bottom line,” said Larry Hu, an economist at Macquarie Securities in Hong Kong. “When the downward trend will turn around depends entirely on when the government will step up their stimulus efforts.”
While Germany, Europe’s biggest economy, defied expectations of a recession with surprise growth in the third quarter, the pace was only 0.1% and investment in machinery and equipment fell. The contraction in the prior period was revised to 0.2%, larger than originally reported.
Growth in the euro zone as a whole was just 0.2% in the quarter. Nusseibeh described the region’s momentum as “incredibly weak.”
That leaves the U.S. as the bright spot in the global economy. Household sentiment there improved for a third month in November, according to a University of Michigan index. The labor market remains robust, with employers adding 128,000 new jobs in October.
In tune with that resilience, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell on Wednesday stuck to his view that interest rates are probably on hold after three straight reductions. Manufacturing and business investment are under pressure though, just as elsewhere, showing how prospects of a trade deal remain crucial to providing confidence.
The latest talks are currently centering on a U.S. demand that China detail how it plans to reach as much as $ 50 billion in agricultural imports annually, according to people familiar with the matter. Chinese negotiators are resisting a proposal for monthly, quarterly and annual targets for purchases, and also insist that the two sides must agree to rollback tariffs in phases if a deal is reached, the people said.