What's going on?
On Wednesday, a private survey of Chinese manufacturers neatly dovetailed with the country’s official data. Both sources showed that manufacturing activity in China shrank in December for the first time in 19 months as the country’s economy slows.
What does this mean?
New export orders were particularly subdued at Chinese industrial firms as trade war with the US continued to rage. More than a fifth of American imports in 2017 came from China – a figure likely to have fallen last year as import taxes rose. Some investors might have seen the December data coming – profits at Chinese industrial companies fell in November for the first time in three years.
Manufacturing clouds are darkening Europe, too: industrial activity growth in the eurozone also slowed in December – although it’s still increasing, just. Germany and Spain wobbled, but Italy was certifiably floored – its manufacturing sector has shrunk in each of the last three months, leaving the country on the brink of a recession.
Why should I care?
For markets: The US-China trade talks have a wider significance.
Further evidence of Chinese slowdown likely triggered an exodus from companies’ stocks across Asia on Wednesday, since their growth is closely linked to China’s. Investors sold stocks in Europe too. While the region’s own disappointing industrial data shouldn’t have come as a great surprise, a less active China is less likely to buy as much stuff from other European companies – like German automakers or French luxury retailers.
The bigger picture: Safety rocks.
Investors instead went “safe” on Wednesday – buying good old gold, along with bonds, which offer predictable, regular interest payments (especially super-safe government bonds). That pushed bonds’ prices up and their yields down – especially in Germany, the eurozone’s largest (and safest) economy, where bond yields had their biggest single-day drop in two years to their lowest levels in three.