BEIJING - China's economy grew at its slowest pace in 18 months at the start of 2014, but did a touch better than expected and showed some improvement in March, suggesting Beijing will not rush to follow up recent steps to support activity.
Authorities have ruled out major stimulus to fight short-term dips in growth, signaling the slowdown was an expected consequence of their reform drive, even as some analysts think the economy will lose further momentum.
The economy grew 7.4 per cent in the January-March quarter from a year earlier, the National Bureau of Statistics said on Wednesday. That was slightly stronger than the median forecast of 7.3 per cent in a Reuters poll but still slower than 7.7 per cent in the final quarter of 2013.
It was China's slowest annual growth since the third quarter of 2012, when the world's second-largest economy also grew 7.4 per cent.
"The slowdown of China's economy is a reflection of a transformation of the economic mode," said Sheng Laiyun, of the National Bureau of Statistics.
"There is no fundamental change in the improving trend of China's economy. The economy is still moving steadily towards the expected direction."
For the quarter, the economy grew 1.4 per cent, the slowest rate in two years, which Credit Agricole strategist Dariusz Kowalczyk said equated to annualized growth of 5.8 per cent.
"This highlights the depth of deceleration at the start of the year," he said.
Beijing has announced some modest measures, such as tax cuts for small firms and speeding up investment in railways, to try to steady growth near its target of 7.5 per cent without disrupting plans to restructure the economy or worsening problems of overcapacity and debt.
"Policymakers seem pretty comfortable with the current pace of growth," said Julian Evans-Pritchard, an economist at Capital Economics in Singapore. "I don't think they're going to announce any further significant measures to support growth."
Activity data for March, released with the GDP figures, showed that China may be making some headway in its attempt to enhance the role of consumption and cut its reliance on traditional growth engines of exports and investment.
Retail sales were a shade ahead of forecasts with an annual increase of 12.2 per cent, while factory output came in just below expectations with a rise of 8.8 per cent.
"That sector is continuing to moderate and now there is an even bigger gap between industrial production and retail sales. So the rotation from relying on heavy industries towards consumption is certainly coming to fruition," Annette Beacher, head of Asia-Pacific research at TDSecurities in Singapore said.
Cumulative fixed-asset investment in the first three months of the year was 17.6 per cent higher than a year earlier, again on the low side of forecasts.