Traffic and cinemas give measure of China’s downturn

Line chart of Ratio of peak to non-peak travel times across 100 cities showing Coronavirus keeps China's drivers off the road
Column chart of Box office revenue year to date (Rmb bn) showing Number of cinema-goers in China plunges

Beijing believes China’s economy will recover quickly from the coronavirus outbreak that is threatening global growth. However, two separate indicators show the nation’s downturn is unlikely to end anytime soon.

The first is average traffic congestion across 100 Chinese cities, based on daily figures provided by Wind, a data provider. This is measured by a ratio of peak to non-peak travel times: the higher readings climb above 1, the longer travelling the same distance within these cities takes during rush hour.

In 2019 the ratio dipped to 1.2 during the Lunar New Year holiday but quickly sprang back to about 1.5 after it ended. This year the ratio dropped to a record low of less than 1.2 and has since only inched back above that level.

The second indicator is box-office takings, which usually soar during the Lunar New Year period as people squeeze into theatres. But revenue in the first eight weeks of 2020 totalled just Rmb2.6bn ($372m), down more than 80 per cent from a year ago, according to Wind.

Julian Evans-Pritchard, senior China economist at Capital Economics, said the drop in cinema revenues, in particular, showed that even as some cities ease their containment measures, consumers are not yet willing to behave as they did before the outbreak began because of longer-term fears about a global threat.

“There’s going to be ongoing concerns about importing the infection back into China [from abroad], so it’s going to keep consumers on edge even if they’ve succeeded in containing it within China,” he said.

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