China's manufacturing sector expanded for a fifth month in December but growth was slightly less than expected, with government measures to curb soaring asset prices beginning to have an effect on the broader economy.
The official purchasing managers' index slipped from 51.7 in November to 51.4 last month, compared to forecasts in a Reuters poll of a figure of 51.5. A reading above 50 indicates that the economy is growing. A year ago the index was at 49.7, and the start of 2016 saw global markets spooked by worries of a severe slowdown in the world's second largest economy, but since then it has been slowly recovering.
A housing boom in the second half of 2016 and a government spending spree on infrastructure have helped boost prices for commodities, from cement to steel, giving the country's manufacturing sector a much-needed lift.
But the government is cracking down on speculative property buying, and signals from policymakers that more will be done to contain asset bubbles and rising debt – even at the expense of slower growth – suggest extra stimulus measures could be limited.
''These (PMI) figures suggest that the change of policy tone has taken its toll, as the authorities are seriously concerned about the asset bubbles,'' The Guardian quoted Zhou Hao, senior economist at Commerzbank, as saying.
Factory output slowed in December, with the sub-index hitting 53.3 compared with 53.9 the previous month. Total new orders were flat at 53.2, logging the same as in November, while new export orders fell to 50.1 from 50.3.
Jobs were again lost, with the employment sub-index sitting at 48.9, compared to 49.2 in November, as the country pledged to cut excess capacity over a range of industries.
The Markit/Caixin PMI, a private gauge of manufacturing activity, which focuses more on small-and mid-sized firms, is due on 3 January.
A separate reading on the service sector showed the pace of growth slowed in December.
The official non-manufacturing PMI stood at 54.5 in December, down from 54.7 in November, but still well above the 50-point mark.