By Nick Edwards
BEIJING (Reuters) - The price of pork in China could soon rival U.S. payrolls as the world's most watched economic indicator.
International investors are increasingly focused on domestic demand in the world's second-largest economy as their key measure of global economic health.
And there are few better ways to gauge that demand than by tracking staple food prices that directly hit discretionary consumer spending -- a sector of economic activity that typically generates 40 percent of China's annual GDP growth.
Lower or even just slower food price rises are a gift to consumers, says Carl Weinberg, chief economist at High Frequency Economics in New York .
"I don't think China has anything like the recession risk that people seem concerned about and I don't think they need any stimulus," Weinberg told Reuters.
Weinberg's calculations suggest that Chinese consumers enjoyed at least a 1.8 percent increase in real disposable income between July and November as consumer price inflation eased from a three-year high, with a boost to discretionary spending of 0.9 percent.
The implication is that China's factories will ramp up output to meet rising discretionary spending power, making slower increases in food prices the most important factor boosting GDP growth and aggregate demand.
"The slowdown of food prices is a massive economic stimulant," Weinberg says. "(It) will generate more economic stimulus than any government programme of monetary policy change ever could."
Inflation is a major preoccupation for China's ruling Communist Party, as rising prices have often been accompanied by periods of protest and social upheaval.
Spikes in pork prices have constantly driven up Chinese inflation. Though pork only accounts for 3 percent of China's consumer price index, it is the most popular meat in the country and its price has a big impact on the public's inflationary expectations.
Until a few weeks ago, the government's economic policies were calibrated to contain the inflationary aftereffects of the 4 trillion yuan ($635 billion) package unveiled in 2008 as the global financial crisis tore through market and consumer confidence worldwide.
Inflation running at an average annual rate around 150 basis points above the official 4 percent target in 2011 is one key reason why Beijing is reluctant now to offer anything other than policy "fine-tuning" to combat slowing GDP growth.
Economists expect China's annual growth rate to have eased for a fourth successive quarter in the last three months of 2011, perhaps even coming in below 9 percent.
It makes the domestic demand story all the more vital.
The point was underlined by China's Ministry of Commerce on Thursday, when it revealed that the country's trade surplus had shrunk to just 2 percent of GDP in 2011. It was more than four times that size just five years ago.
EXTERNAL DEMAND SHOCKS
Successive demand shocks from the global financial crisis of 2008/09 and the festering European debt crisis have also reinforced the determination of China's Communist Party to rebalance the economy away from exports. It needs robust consumption growth at home to do that.
The trade-off for the global economy is that Beijing is pledging to ramp up imports to help deliver its domestic growth agenda -- great news for both Europe and the United States. that could use vibrant demand from China to pay debts and bridge deficits.
It's already a force to be reckoned with, according to Jeremy Stevens, China economist at Standard Bank in Beijing.
"Over the past two years, twice as much domestic demand has been created in China ($2.4 trillion) than in the euro zone ($1.2 trillion). Over the next two years, China is likely to contribute more to global domestic demand than the euro zone and the U.S. combined," Stevens said.
Retail sales have been one of the most consistently robust economic indicators in China in 2011 and, absent a seasonal slide in February, have averaged annual growth of some 17 percent every month.
Analysts at Citi have high hopes that China's pace of urbanization will fuel both that growth as well as retail sector profits. Beijing's 12th Five Year Plan targets an urban population of 51.5 percent by 2015 versus 2009's 46.6 percent.
"Per capita household consumption in urban households in China had been 3.6-3.8 times higher than rural household consumption between 2003 and 2009," they wrote in a client note, pointing out that grocery shopping is China's largest retail segment, accounting for 41 percent of all retail sales in 2010.
That's a crucial point for HFE's Weinberg who estimates non-farm workforce growth of 2-4 percent a year.
That equates to 10-20 million people moving to the modern economy experiencing annual income growth of up to 400 percent and contributing between eight to 20 percentage points to the growth rate of aggregate incomes.
But while domestic consumption is a salve to ease the pain of decaying external demand, the fly in the ointment is the falling price of property.
Rising home values have been closely correlated with rising consumer spending, which makes a private sector survey showing the fourth successive monthly fall in average house prices in key Chinese cities a clear risk for investors.
Home prices and sales are falling because of government measures to rein in rampant speculation, measures which Beijing has promised to follow unswervingly to make home prices "reasonable".
Meanwhile the government has embarked on programme to build affordable housing.
Furnishing millions of new homes -- the official Xinhua news agency says 5 million are slated for completion in 2012, versus estimates of 3 million in 2011 -- could give substantial impetus to consumer spending, especially if the government also introduces new measures to support the purchase of consumer durable goods, such as electrical appliances, which the China Daily reported this week.
Ultimately, China has to find a way to engineer sufficient growth to keep people in jobs and shift those employed in the export sector into industries supporting internally-driven value-added production, not simply into jobs tied to the conspicuously speculative investment bubble, which has seen real estate prices surge 10-fold in the last decade.
"The potential for further growth in domestic demand remains extraordinary," economists at Berenberg Bank in London wrote in a research report, pointing out that at $7.1 trillion, Chinese GDP remains less than half of that in the United States.
"More and more households are joining the urban middle class, adapting their saving and consumption behavior to that of their counterparts in more advanced countries. Bar a major political crisis, China looks set to remain the growth engine of the world."
(Editing by Kim Coghill)