Chilling times for Chinese executives in industrial-sector companies as profits fall. Photo: iStock

The festive spirit was eerily missing after the National Bureau of Statistics released another set of disappointing data illustrating the depth of China’s economic slowdown.

On Thursday, the Scrooge-like numbers showed that annual earnings in industrial-sector companies dropped for the first time in nearly three years last month after being battered by the trade war with the United States and by sluggish domestic demand.

As a chill wind rips through the business environment, firms are bracing for a tough year ahead by shelving investment plans.

In November, industrial profits fell 1.8% to 594.8 billion yuan (US$86.33 billion) compared to the same period in 2017, the NBS confirmed on its website. This was the first decline since December 2015.

“The fall in profits largely reflected slowing growth in sales and producer prices, as well as rising costs,” He Ping, the deputy director of the Research Institute of Statistical Science at NBS, said.

This has been a depressing fourth quarter for the economy despite the trade truce, which was hammered out by US President Donald Trump and China’s head of state Xi Jinping at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires earlier this month.

Earnings in the industrial arena face a tough time and they could continue to deteriorate next year.

Manufacturing activity has declined, consumer spending has shrunk and new car sales have stalled. A cooling property market has also been squeezed by tighter credit restrictions.

More pain could be on the way as the delayed shocks from tit-for-tat tariffs, which were rolled out in the summer, kick in.

“With the tariffs, we haven’t seen the direct impact, but we’ll see that next year,” Tom Rafferty, the principal economist for China, at The Economist Intelligence Unit, said.

“The risk here [is] it’s going to slow down pretty clear into 2019. Global demand is going to shift down a notch or two,” he added.

Earnings in the industrial arena face a particularly tough time and they could continue to deteriorate next year.

For Chinese companies, this was hardly the sort of Christmas present they were expecting.

“Survival is paramount for us [in 2019] – we will be more cautious with our investments,” Jiang Ming, the chairman of Tianming Group, which specializes in healthcare, construction and finance, told Reuters. “We also need to maintain better cashflows and save our ammunition to prepare for the tight, tough and difficult days ahead.”

At least, there was one ray of hope among the gathering dark clouds with the news that trade discussions are set to resume in Beijing next month, according to reports.

Even so, if Jiang’s prophesy proves correct, the Ghost of Christmas Past could linger on for the foreseeable future.

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