BEIJING—Factory activity in China unexpectedly expanded in March from a collapse the month before, but analysts caution that a durable near-term recovery is far from assured as the global coronavirus crisis knocks foreign demand and threatens a steep economic slump.
China’s official Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) rose to 52 in March from a plunge to a record low of 35.7 in February, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said on March 31, above the 50-point mark that separates monthly growth from contraction.
Analysts polled by Reuters had expected the March PMI to come in at 45.0.
The NBS attributed the surprise rebound in PMI to its record low base in February, and cautioned that the readings do not signal a stabilization in economic activity.
That view was echoed by many analysts, who warn of a further period of struggle for China’s businesses and the broader economy due to the rapid spread of the virus across the world, the unprecedented lockdowns in several countries and the almost near certainty of a global recession.
“This does not mean that output is now back to its pre-virus trend. Instead, it simply suggests that economic activity improved modestly relative to February’s dismal showing, but remains well below pre-virus levels,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics, in a note to clients.
The pandemic’s sweeping impact on production was underlined in two of Asia’s main export engines, Japan and South Korea. In Japan, industrial output rose at a slower pace in February and factories expect a plunge this month; while production in South Korea contracted the most in 11 years.
Economists are already forecasting a steep contraction in China’s first quarter gross domestic product, with some expecting a year-on-year slump of 9 percent or more—the first such contraction in three decades.
Nie Wen, economist at Shanghai-based Hwabao Trust, said given weak export orders, rising stockpile and soft prices, the underlying issue facing Chinese manufacturers has shifted to a lack of market demand, from production shutdowns…