China's bank lending plunged in July as the weakening property sector hit demand for loans, statistics showed Wednesday as other key indicators slowed, raising concerns for growth in the world's second-largest economy.
Domestic banks' new yuan loans amounted to 385.2 billion yuan ($62.5 billion) last month, the People's Bank of China (PBoC) said in a statement, a drastic decline from June's 1.08 trillion yuan.
Signs of strength in China's economy have been tempered by nagging worries over the potential for a downturn in the huge property sector to dampen growth.
An official of the PBoC, China's central bank, attributed the fall in lending to the real estate market "undergoing some adjustments" and "downward pressure in the domestic economy".
An independent survey of Chinese property prices showed their decline accelerated in July, dropping for the third straight month.
China's economy grew a stronger-than-expected annualised 7.5 percent in the April-June quarter, accelerating from 7.4 percent during the first three months of the year, which was the worst since a similar expansion in July-September 2012.
ANZ Bank economists Liu Li-Gang and Zhou Hao said the July lending data was a significant cause for concern.
"It means that the financial system is engaging (in) a rapid deleveraging process, which could have significant repercussions on the real economy," they wrote.
"Such a sharp drop in credit is in fact a quantitative tightening, which will lead to high interest rates and endanger China’s macroeconomic objective."
UBS economist Wang Tao, however, said the drop could be explained by factors including strong deposit and credit growth recorded in June, a crackdown on so-called shadow banking and weak credit demand in the real economy.
"We do not believe these data reflect a credit tightening" by the PBoC, she said in a note.
China's importance as a global growth engine was underscored by figures earlier in the day showing that Japan's economy -- the world's third largest -- shrank an annualised 6.8 percent in the April-June quarter after a sales tax increase doused spending.
- 'Mini-stimulus' -
Also Wednesday, China released figures for industrial output, retail sales and fixed-asset investment that were largely in line with expectations, although slightly slower compared to the previous month.
Industrial production, which measures output at factories, workshops and mines, rose 9.0 percent year-on-year in July, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said.
Retail sales increased 12.2 percent in the same month, the NBS said, while fixed-asset investment, a measure of government spending on infrastructure, rose 17.0 percent year-on-year in the first seven months.
The industrial output figure marked a slowdown from the 9.2 percent recorded in June but matched the median 9.0 percent increase predicted in a survey of 15 economists by The Wall Street Journal.
Retail sales growth, meanwhile, slowed from 12.4 percent in June.
Fixed-asset investment -- which is only released cumulatively -- came in below the 17.3 percent reading for the first six months of the year in June, and also below the median 17.3 percent forecast.
It was a new post-2001 low, when the increase for the whole year was 13.7 percent, NBS data showed.
"For the rest of 2014 we think most of China’s organic growth drivers will remain broadly intact but will not strengthen materially, while the weakness in real estate will continue to weigh on growth," Royal Bank of Scotland economists Louis Kuijs and Tiffany Qiu said in a research note.
China's leadership has stressed the importance of a new growth model driven by private demand such as consumer spending, rather than by the traditional engine of large and often wasteful state-supported investment.
Authorities in April began introducing steps to shore up the economy in the form of tax breaks for small enterprises, targeted infrastructure outlays and lending incentives in rural areas and for small companies. The measures have been dubbed a "mini-stimulus" by some economists.
China in March set its annual growth target for 2014 at about 7.5 percent, the same objective as last year. The economy grew 7.7 percent in 2013, matching 2012's result which was the worst since 1999.
"The 7.5 percent (GDP growth) in the second quarter had surpassed market expectations, so in the third quarter I think (the government) will maintain its 'mini-stimulus' efforts," Liao Qun, chief economist with Citic Bank International in Hong Kong, told AFP.
"The 'mini-stimulus' package was rolled out in the second quarter. Even if it’s not strengthened, it should still be able to support the economy to recover gradually in the upcoming two quarters."