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What China's Slower Growth Means for Investors

Stocks in this article: GM HPQ HNZ 0322.HK

TAIPEI (TheStreet) -- Each year, scribes and analysts eagerly await China's annual economic growth figures to see if the country's growth domestic product went up by double-digits, or since 2011, to see by how many percentage points it has moderated.

I wasn't around to see whatever frenzy took place Monday before the National Bureau of Statistics news conference in Beijing, but I imagine a lot of tails between legs once the bureau announced that the economy grew 7.7% last year, about the same as it did in 2012.

The announcement shows, as widely suspected, that China must rely less on factory output, export shipments and new infrastructure compared with the decade before 2011, and that China hasn't found a viable replacement. The government says it wants to shift to a more structurally sound, albeit slower growing, economy. It's still too soon to see the outcome.

What that means for the foreign investor: Don't pounce on anything risky.

The GDP increase that comes in below the 9-10% range that defined China's first decade of the century shows that the country continues to run on the fast-growth engines of the past.

A boost in consumer spending remains an official economic reform priority through next year, because more consumption implies a wealthier and more stable population and less reliance on Western markets. But consumption has failed government dreams because China is still a nation of careful bargain hunters.

The old formula of export manufacturing plus investment in related infrastructure kept growth at a still enviable figure last year, pushing the economy to $9.31 trillion but expanding it more slowly than before because of rising costs, tough credit and uneven demand from world markets.

Beijing is OK with the slowdown as the Communist Party turns its attention not only to domestic consumption but also to newer macroeconomic goals outlined at its plenary session in November. Among those goals: more freedom for private business, a pension system overhaul, an end to subsidized utility rates and liberalized interest rates.

"This set of data is consistent with our call that the economy is steady, with a weakening bias," Credit Suisse wrote in a research note this week about the 2013 GDP. "The authorities' focus has shifted from maintaining stability to reforms and (an) anti-corruption campaign. These are positive for China in the long run, but do undermine the current growth momentum."

Investors looking for plays in companies such as General Motors (GM)GM and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ)HPQ that see business fluctuate along with the overall economy should question their strategy after reading that last line from Credit Suisse.

Invesco investment director Joseph Tang says that investors are already sitting on the sidelines on Chinese shares in part because of macroeconomic concerns.

"A fundamental problem is that there is no improvement to the economic structure," explains Qinwei Wang, China economist with Capital Economics in London. "This should remind policymakers of the importance of structural reform that they pledged in the Plenum."

Until the over-ballyhooed economic transition boosts consumer spending more, stick with safer stocks. Consider, for example, H.J. Heinz (HNZ)HNZ or Tingyi (0322.HK)0322.HK, both popular suppliers of basic foods to middle-class Chinese. Every dog knows you've got to eat.

At the time of publication, the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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