Food and Property Prices Drive China’s Concern Over Inflation

SHANGHAI — China’s roaring economy slowed in the third quarter, rising at an annual rate of 9.6 percent after the government took steps to prevent overheating, according to data released Thursday. But inflation last month hit its highest rate in nearly two years.

The government said the consumer price index, the broadest measure of inflation, rose 3.6 percent from the previous September. It was the highest rate in China since 2008, largely because of food prices, which rose 8 percent last month.

Analysts said the slowdown was a return toward normal, sustainable growth, rather than the beginning of a worrying slump.

“I expect growth to continue to slow down a bit more in the fourth quarter as energy-saving and property-tightening measures take hold and exports continue to decelerate,” said Wang Tao, China economist at UBS in Beijing. But, she added, “growth remains very strong.”

The main issue for Beijing now, economists said, is containing inflation and rebalancing the economy in favor of domestic consumption.

The inflation report, and other economic data released in recent weeks, point to one of the central challenges now facing Beijing policy makers: how to prevent soaring food and property prices from creating social problems and undermining the nation’s economic boom.

Those challenges were probably behind the central bank’s surprise move Tuesday to force banks here to raise the benchmark interest rates on lending and deposits by 0.25 percentage point.

The decision was meant to force borrowers to pay more interest and to provide higher interest rates for savers. The government has indicated that it hopes the decision will slow property purchases and encourage people to keep money in the bank rather than spending and driving up inflation.

But some analysts say the initial move may not be enough. Consumers are benefiting from strong economic growth, with the nation’s gross domestic product moderating from about 10.3 percent in the second quarter of this year. But they are increasingly anxious about rising prices for a wide variety of goods.

“The purchasing power of households is being eroded,” said Ma Jun, a Hong Kong-based economist at Deutsche Bank. “These low rates are basically a subsidy to corporations by the household sector.”

Interest rates on savings deposits in China had recently fallen to about 2.25 percent a year before the decision Tuesday. (The government-mandated rate is now 2.5 percent.) But inflation has risen steadily this year, which means bank depositors are essentially facing a negative interest rate return.

Analysts say negative returns have persuaded many consumers to invest in real estate, which has served to fan property speculation and higher prices — alarming those who have not yet bought a home. Meanwhile, low corporate borrowing rates have given companies cheap capital and strong incentives to borrow and invest, aiding corporate profits.

Many consumers say they are frustrated.

“Everything is expensive right now — food, especially the vegetables,” said Li Huijun, a 53-year-old hospital clerk, who complained as she shopped at Lianhua Supermarket in Shanghai that lettuce used to cost only 1 renminbi per 500 grams, or 15 cents for about a pound, but now costs about twice that amount. “And not to mention clothes, and shoes,” Ms. Li said. “They all went up, except my salary.”

And yet, things may be even worse than the consumer price index suggests. A growing number of analysts say inflationary pressure is stronger than the price index indicates, because it is heavily weighted toward food — particularly pork prices. Rising energy, property and transportation costs are not as significant a factor in the index. And even the price increases of many food items — aside from pork — are also not adequately weighed or calculated, analysts say.

For instance, according to official government data, food prices have risen about 19 percent over the last three years. But government data on individual items shows that the price of many food items jumped 30 percent during that period.

According to government data for big cities, rice was up 38 percent, wheat prices rose 35 percent and beef and fresh milk prices each climbed about 44 percent. But two major supermarkets in Shanghai surveyed earlier this month had different figures. One said that rice prices had risen 132 percent since 2007, while the other said prices were up 190 percent in the same time frame. Both said that the cost of a tomato had jumped 300 percent.

“The biggest problem with the C.P.I. and particularly the food inflation index is the market basket was determined in 1993 and not adjusted much since then,” said Yi Xianrong, a researcher at the China Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. “Also, I have doubts about the source of the data.”

Some of the sharp rise in food prices is attributed to severe droughts in some parts of the country. But food costs are rising in the rest of Asia and in other parts of the world. Corn and wheat prices have soared this year. And in China, sugar production shortages have led to surging prices and have forced the government to release millions of tons of reserves for auction.

In some ways, this is a return to 2007, when food prices were soaring in China and much of the rest of the world. Back then, the consumer price index here peaked at close to 7 percent.

There is intense focus on inflation in China because it influences the nation’s huge labor market, affecting things ranging from the salaries and labor costs at massive coastal factories to the cost of hiring restaurant workers in the big cities.

This year, a series of huge labor strikes at factories in southern China was fed by worker complaints about unfair treatment and the diminishing purchasing power of their salaries. Many migrant workers cited higher rent and food costs.

Whether China can contain inflation is unclear, analysts say. Some expect inflation to moderate later this year, as the government steps up measures to lift production and distribution of food. But for much of this year, even as the economy slowed, inflation rose sharply, passing the government’s early year target of 3 percent.

“I don’t believe the C.P.I. is only up 3.6 percent,” said Huang Hanchu, a retired 80-year-old man who was shopping for food at Lianhua on Thursday. “Statistics are always deceiving in our country. The government should really focus on increasing the wages of the average people.”

The International Monetary Fund, meanwhile, said Thursday that many Asian nations needed to tighten monetary policy further, including taking steps to let the Chinese renminbi rise in value against other currencies.

“We welcome the steps so far taken by policy makers to control inflation risks and limit the buildup of financial sector vulnerabilities,” said Anoop Singh, director of the I.M.F.’s Asia and Pacific department, in the fund’s latest outlook for the region. “But more now needs to be done, given the continued strong growth in the region.”

Bettina Wassener contributed reporting from Hong Kong. Bao Beibei and Chen Xiaoduan contributed research. (NEW YORK TIMES)

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