Just a month after China's central bank hoisted interest rates, the economy hasn't slacked off its supercharged pace. For evidence, look to the latest round-up of tech earnings reports and last week's news of robust consumer buying (more below). On the downside, market watchers worried Monday about the potential for more rate hikes down the road -- especially given worries about overheating in the property sector. On Monday, Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index closed down 3.1% to 15,805, while the Shanghai Composite Index was off 0.1% to 1658. Nobody expects any near-term tightening so soon after a rate change. But the mere speculation of more rate hikes underscores the strength of recent consumer spending. Focusing on the good news first: as one of the beneficiaries of that spending trend, China tech stocks were basking in the green after a passel of strong earnings reports last week. Another name set to report later this week -- The9 ( NCTY) -- will offer more clues on the state of online gaming. So far the news in the sector has been mostly sanguine, especially for companies that pull in ad revenues. Sohu ( SOHU - Get Report) , Baidu ( BIDU - Get Report), 51jobs ( JOBS - Get Report) and Focus Media all posted better-than-expected first-quarter results and delivered guidance above expectations, notes Citigroup's Jason Brueschke, director of China Internet and media research. Advertising will stay strong in the second quarter, Brueschke says, noting the World Cup soccer tournament in Germany is expected to draw more Chinese viewers to the Web, supporting higher ad rates. But the analyst is less unenthusiastic about outfits with lots of exposure to wireless value-added services -- he doesn't see any near-term catalysts -- and notes that the gaming outlook is uncertain. NetEase ( NTES - Get Report) gave a "deteriorating growth outlook" for its two main games, prompting Citigroup to make a contrarian call and downgrade the stock, while Shanda's flagship games are likewise getting long in the tooth.
Brueschke says many China Internet names are "looking closer to being fully valued, given either the absence of near-term catalysts or the fact that a lot of near-term catalysts are
already in guidance" -- the World Cup being a prime example. At Credit Suisse, Internet and telecom equipment analyst Wallace Cheung agrees that the tech-sector reports have generally been strong, pointing to the number of companies beating first- quarter guidance. To be sure, second-quarter guidance has been on the conservative side, though that may be more a reflection of management caution than actual business prospects. In the bigger picture, Cheung notes that Chinese consumer markets look robust, a sentiment borne out in the latest mobile phone figures as well as last week's flurry of upbeat economic news. China now claims just over 416 million cell-phone users, according to information released Sunday from the Ministry for Information and Industry. That number may include some double-counting, since people sometimes buy multiple cell-phone numbers and phones to use in different locations around China. Still, it's a healthy climb from the 393.4 million reported at the end of 2005.
But if the government's numbers are on track, Chinese consumers are doing their best to close the gap: April trends could be considered "an early sign of the welcome release of pent-up consumption power in the economy," says a note from Frank Gong, J.P. Morgan's chief economist for China. One concern: lately the pace of consumption has been heady enough to arouse U.S.-style jitters that housing prices are spiraling out of reach for average income earners. Over the past week, top officials have met to discuss possible fixes. Analysts believe efforts to cool down property speculation will likely include hiking taxes and tightening credit. That said, Beijing "remains appropriately cautious, to avoid triggering a major property price correction nationwide -- since it recognizes that real estate is an important pillar of support for overall domestic demand," notes Gong. In earlier efforts to check surging growth, on April 28 the central bank raised interest rates by 27 basis points, to 5.85%. But some believe the government could resort to additional rate hikes to put the brakes on real estate. "While direct measures are superior to indirect measures for dealing with asset bubbles, the threat of monetary tightening cannot be ruled out," cautioned Tim Condon, chief Asian economist for ING. This likely isn't the last time you'll hear market watchers fret over rates, at least until there's reason to believe that growth has slowed a bit.
ICBC's public listing would follow the China Construction Bank listing frenzy last year and the looming IPO of Bank of China planned for June 1, both on the Hong Kong exchange. Investors have worked up an outsized appetite for Chinese banks, notwithstanding their still somewhat dubious reputations on accounting and corporate governance. Coming up Tuesday: a closer look at Dell's ( DELL) performance in China. In last week's earnings call, management boasted that the company's China units rose 40% in the latest quarter, nearly double the growth of the rest of the industry. Could a smart China strategy be enough to tilt the struggling tech giant back on course? Stay tuned.