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Reality Check in China as the Economy Slows

And so what if it happens? It's not 7.5%, per se, that worries the already beleaguered world about where its second-largest economy is headed. It's the prospect that policymakers behind the $7.4 trillion GDP may be using that number to lie about a very different reality. Is the world looking at the economic equivalent of SARS, the respiratory disease that choked China in 2003 as the government tried to cover up a mounting caseload? Or will China grow at 10% again, claim itself the surgeon of the world economy and throw everyone off their market positions?

"No one would be worried if there were no doubt about 8.2%," says Tim Condon, Asia research head with ING Financial Markets in Singapore, citing the bank's growth forecast for China this year. "But there's also this 'unknown hard landing' camp."

Investors who think China's charts will fall into the red should start buying defensive stocks far from China. In the U.S., conservative utilities such as Consolidated Edison (shares up 14% over the past year) and Southern Co. (up 15.3%) might provide insulation. Avoid banks and real estate companies linked to China.

Better yet, forget the fear, likewise the math. Look at consumer appetite, the trailblazing by factories and China's lack of a Western-style credit crisis or sovereign debt problem. There's one other piece of the reality formula that often escapes debate: Beijing may lie about numbers, but it basically keeps broad promises.

China routed SARS within half a year of the outbreak. The government said in 2010 it would tighten controls over real estate prices. That crisis has passed its worst, and property share prices have risen accordingly since early April, notes Mark Williams, chief Asia economist with Capital Economics in London.

Most change in China is engineered or guided by the government, not a result of organic market forces. Whether China gets something done depends almost solely on how badly China wants to do it. China wants a mild slowdown but not a slump. So it's safe to park money in the broad category of risky assets, which include most company stocks linked to ongoing sources of growth in China.
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