BEIJING China's vast manufacturing sector saw expansion accelerate in November for the first time in 13 months, preliminary results from a factory survey showed, a sign that the pace of economic growth has revived after seven consecutive quarters of slowdown.
The China HSBC Flash Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) rose to a 13-month high of 50.4 in November, the latest indicator of recovery in the real economy after data showing solid credit growth, firmer exports and rising industrial output in the previous month.
A sub-index measuring output rose to 51.3, also the highest since October 2011.
"This reflects that conditions for smaller firms, especially exporters, are looking up," said Li Wei, a Shanghai-based economist for Standard Chartered. "The consensus in the market is already for a small, gradual improvement."
An uptick in key economic activity indicators in October, following encouraging signs in September, cemented the view of many analysts and investors that a rebound in the world's second largest economy gathered momentum as it entered the fourth quarter, thanks to a raft of pro-growth policies rolled out by the government over recent months.
China is currently shuffling its senior officials after the seven top leaders of the ruling Communist Party were selected at a congress last week. The new appointments should end months of uncertainty in the highest ranks, although economic policy is not expected to change abruptly in the near-term.
Even before the congress, the central bank had moved to ease liquidity by pumping short-term cash into money markets rather than resorting to the interest rate cuts or reduction in banks' required reserve ratios that many investors had expected.
STEADY THROUGH YEAR-END
This month's PMI reading above 50 is likely to be seen as a turning point by the market, particularly if it is born out by the final reading due on December 1 and by official indicators.
Asian shares extended gains slightly after the data to stand up nearly 1 percent on the day and the Australian dollar, sensitive to demand from the biggest customer for Australia's resources, rose as far as $1.04.
"This confirms that the economic recovery continues to gain momentum towards the year-end," Qu Hongbin, chief China economist at index sponsor HSBC, said in a statement accompanying the data.
"However, it is still the early stage of recovery and global economic growth remains fragile. This calls for a continuation of policy easing to strengthen the recovery."
With a one-month exception in October 2011, the HSBC PMI -- which largely reflects the private manufacturing sector -- has remained stubbornly below the 50-point level separating accelerating from slowing growth since June 2011.
Unlike the patchy results seen in previous months, in November almost all the sub-indices in the HSBC survey concurred in showing an improving economy.
The one exception was a fall in the sub-index measuring output prices, demonstrating that manufacturers are still struggling with overcapacity and relatively weak domestic demand.
That could also reflect the weight in the survey of exporting firms, which have less ability to raise sales prices, said Standard Chartered's Li.
Indeed, China's exporters are increasingly squeezed by rising domestic costs and competition from new international suppliers, Zhou Haijiang, head of Chinese textile exporter Hodo Group, told reporters this month.
"Not only Western countries manufacture industrial goods, but also a lot of developing countries including former socialist countries who now have market economies are all exporting, thus creating a global surplus that cannot be changed," Zhou said.
"Because of this it is hard to raise sales prices, everyone is selling and it is hard for manufactured goods prices to rise. In some cases prices have even fallen."
Analysts expect no further cuts to interest rates this year or next after back-to-back cuts in June and July, and only one more 50 basis point cut to banks' required reserve ratios (RRR) in 2012 after three since late 2011 that have freed an estimated 1.2 trillion yuan for new lending.
Chinese banks are on course to make new loans worth more than 8.5 trillion yuan ($1.4 trillion) in 2012, expansionary versus the 7.5 trillion of new loans extended in 2011 and above the 8 trillion yuan that sources told Reuters back in February was the target for 2012.
Total social financing aggregate, a broad measure of liquidity in the economy, weakened to 1.29 trillion yuan in October, down from 1.65 trillion yuan in September, but still remained on track to hit a record 14 trillion yuan this year.
China also opened many previously-closed sectors to private investment with a view to funding new infrastructure projects and supporting economic growth without piling on more debt that local governments can ill-afford.
Although analysts expect fourth quarter GDP growth to outpace the 7.4 percent seen in the third quarter, full-year expansion for 2012 is expected to be the slowest in 13 years.
(Editing by Alex Richardson)