With the world keeping close watch on the Chinese economy for signs of revival, the latest data are sending mixed signals and fueling concern that a recovery, if there really is one, is not on solid footing.
When gross domestic product (GDP) and exports were soaring, indicators like electricity use didn't get much attention. Now, analysts are closely examining every scrap of data. But the problem is, many statistics don't seem to be giving much insight into economic trends. Old patterns are breaking down and long-standing relationships are breaking apart.
Also, many figures for the first two months of 2009 are especially confusing, because the long Lunar New Year holiday fell in January this year, two weeks earlier than in 2008. Many statistics were only released as an aggregate figure for January and February, making it almost impossible to derive accurate year-on-year data.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported this week that China's industrial output rose 7.3 percent year on year in April, at the higher end of analysts' expectations.
Signs in power data
But power generation fell 3.55 percent last month from a year earlier, to 274.76 billion kilowatt hours, according to the State Grid Corp. of China. Since industry consumes about 70 percent of China's power, how do economists account for a rise in industrial production accompanied by a decline in power consumption?
A breakdown of electricity use sheds a little light on the situation. Electricity consumption started declining on a year-on-year basis last October, when it fell 3.7 percent, the first drop since 1999.
That was also before the government announced a 4-trillion-yuan($586 billion) stimulus package in November.
Power consumption fell 4 percent to 781 billion kw/hrs in the first quarter from a year earlier. But in March, it fell 2.02 percent, a little more than half the rate of decline in October.
And not all sectors reported a power consumption drop. Consumption of agriculture and tertiary industry rose 5.12 percent and 7.41 percent year on year in the first quarter, respectively, according to the China Electricity Council (CEC). Residential use rose 9.88 percent.