March 8, 2015 / 9:14 AM / 3 years ago

Chinese cooldown and Greek funding in focus

MADRID (Reuters) - China’s cooling growth prospects and an interest rate decision in Russia will shift the economic agenda away from the euro zone next week, although Greece remains firmly in the spotlight because of its precarious funding outlook.

A trailer loaded with container boxes travels in Ningbo port in Zhejiang province, January 22, 2015. REUTERS/William Hong

China should provide further hints of the challenges it faces after the world’s No. 2 economy depicted its “new normal” last week -- a growth target of 7 percent for this year, the lowest for quarter of a century.

Chinese retail sales growth is expected by some analysts to have slowed slightly in February, with industrial production and investment growth data due out next week seen weaker too.

As Chinese leaders try to mould a more balanced long-term growth model, keeping the breakneck economic expansion of recent decades in check, all eyes will be on the reforms they are expected to outline further in the coming days.

“Asia will be firmly in focus,” Standard Chartered analyst Madhur Jha said. “The (Chinese) government is likely to emphasize the need for deeper structural reforms to ensure more sustainable growth, even if it is likely to be softer in the near term.”

As markets digest China’s warning shots, the euro zone’s ups and downs will not be far from investors’ minds.

A four-month respite for Athens after it extended a bailout program has done little to ease concerns that Greece may face a cash crunch before then.

Its funding options will take center-stage at a Monday meeting of euro zone finance ministers, who will discuss the economic reforms Athens hopes will help it unlock some financial aid from international lenders.

The government sent an updated list of reforms to Brussels on Friday and said it wanted to start talks with lenders immediately on concluding its bailout and a possible follow-up deal. It also repaid part of an International Monetary Fund loan that falls due this month.

With Greece insisting it has breathing space, the Eurogroup session is unlikely to prompt any key decisions on Athens’ next steps. Worries about the country’s prospects beyond June are adding to tensions, however, as European officials wrangle over the chances of a third rescue package.

Greece’s travails come against a rosier backdrop for the euro zone, after the European Central Bank, which kicks off its $1 trillion government bond-buying plan on Monday, raised growth forecasts.

Industrial production figures for the single currency area, due on Thursday, are expected to support this encouraging picture, rising slightly after a year-on-year fall in December, and echoing a strong start to the year for German output.

U.S. DATA, RUSSIAN RATES IN SPOTLIGHT

After strong labor data on Friday from the United States, attention will shift to retail sales numbers due on Thursday.

Firmer U.S. consumer spending would further support expectations the Federal Reserve is braced for a rate hike as early as June, following a sluggish start to the year even after a drop in fuel prices.

Retail sales excluding automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services -- “core” retail sales, considered to the best gauge of households’ spending patterns -- edged up only 0.1 percent in January.

Economists polled by Reuters expect core sales to have ticked up 0.5 percent in February, while overall retail sales are seen rising 0.3 percent after slipping 0.8 percent a month earlier. However, some analysts pointed to soft car sales and weekly department store data as potential drags.

U.S. employment accelerated in February, with non-farm payrolls rising a higher-than-expected 295,000, fuelling speculation the Fed will start laying the ground for a rate hike by altering its “patient” stance at a March 17-18 meeting.

“Such a blockbusting rate of job creation will encourage the Fed to be more aggressive, and increase the prospect of an imminent interest rate rise,” said David Lamb, senior dealer at foreign exchange brokerage FEXCO.

A series of interest rate decisions also pepper the economic calendar, with Russia likely to hog headlines on Friday.

Its central bank is expected to hold rates steady at 15 percent, according to a Reuters poll, even as tumbling oil prices and sanctions imposed on Moscow for its role in the Ukraine conflict bite into Russian economic growth.

The bank, which last cut the rate by 2 percentage points at the end of January, in a surprise move, is trying to juggle soaring inflation and the faltering economy.

An interest rate decision from Serbia, under pressure from the International Monetary Fund to gradually ease policy, is due on March 12, the same day as South Korea, Peru and New Zealand, where the central bank is expected to hold rates.

Additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels and Gyles Beckford in Wellington; Editing by Catherine Evans

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