Slower growth and banking vulnerability make NZ economists watchful of Asian giant.
Shaky data out of China lately has economists keeping a wary eye on New Zealand's largest trading partner.
China's industrial production grew 9.7 per cent last year - enviable by most countries' standards but below expectations for the workshop of the world.
And credit risks have resurfaced, the Treasury said yesterday, reflecting on the latest monthly crop of economic indicators.
"A wealth management fund facing default was bailed out by an unknown buyer, highlighting growing imbalances in the large, informal banking sector," it said.
Meanwhile, ANZ points to China's sovereign credit default swaps spread being at a six-month high and "Shibor", a key interbank money market rate, approaching two-year highs.
"Liquidity conditions are tightening as policymakers crack down on the shadow banking system, and as the tide of rapid credit growth remains vulnerable to a rapid about-turn," ANZ chief economist Cameron Bagrie said.
Overall financial conditions remained accommodative, however, supported by low interest rates for borrowers and double-digit property price inflation, he said. "While we can take encouragement from financial conditions per se, they are too far predicated on asset values holding up for us to be comfortable."
More broadly, China faces the challenge of rebalancing its economy in the opposite direction to New Zealand, that is, towards growth less top-heavy in investment spending and more reliant on domestic consumption.
But Bagrie wonders how it would balance that economic objective with a social one - more jobs - that implied more investment.
"Can a centrally planned economy truly outdo ones that are more based on market forces over the long run? It all adds up to a raised risk profile.
"Our China economics team believes the risk of a hard landing can be managed with appropriate policy assistance, but these things can turn quickly. There may be question-marks over the rate of debt accumulation but let's not forget China has huge foreign reserves and a massive net external asset position, in effect meaning they have lent all the money to themselves. That's a huge plus."
Last Friday's trade figures underscored the importance of China to the New Zealand economy. A 45 per cent rise in exports to China last year offset declining exports to Australia, the United States and Japan, explaining all of the $2 billion improvement in annual exports overall and then some.
Emerging markets generally face challenges as the US Federal Reserve winds back its quantitative easing and global interest rates rise.
"Whether China grows at 6 or 10 per cent is of limited significance for New Zealand given our economic size," Bagrie said.
"What matters most for New Zealand through the transition - and particularly the withdrawal of policy stimulus globally and the impact on emerging markets - will be how Chinese households fare. If it goes pear-shaped we are talking an investment and not a consumption bust, though the two will never be completely divorced."
ASB chief economist Nick Tuffley said China's latest official annual economic growth target for the five years to 2015 is 7 per cent. While rapid by developed country standards it represents a slowdown from the average 11 per cent recorded between 2003 and 2012.
"Slower growth in China is a mathematical certainty. As the economy develops it becomes physically more difficult to sustain earlier rapid growth rates," Tuffley said. "But this slowing should not be seen as a threat to the New Zealand export story. Rather, we should welcome China's growth easing to a sustainable rate. GDP growth of only 6.9 per cent in 2014 would generate a similar addition to global growth as those earlier 10 per cent-plus growth rates and a similar increase in commodity demand."
He said New Zealand needed to continue to broaden its Chinese trade ties, with the hope of replicating the dairy story in other export industries.