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A man walks through a mostly empty shopping area that would usually be busy during the Chinese New Year and Spring Festival holiday on Jan. 28, 2020 in Beijing.

Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

China’s economic growth may drop to 5 per cent or even lower owing to the coronavirus outbreak, possibly pushing policy makers to introduce more stimulus measures, a government economist said in remarks published on Wednesday.

The fast-spreading outbreak, which has killed more than 130 people and infected almost 6,000 in China, could cut first-quarter GDP growth by about one percentage point, Caijing magazine quoted Zhang Ming as saying.

“GDP growth in the first quarter of 2020 could be about 5.0 per cent, and we cannot rule out the possibility of falling below 5.0 per cent,” Mr. Zhang said.

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Mr. Zhang, an economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences – a top government think tank – said his forecast was based on the assumption that the outbreak will peak in early to mid-February and end by the end of March.

Mr. Zhang is among many government economists and, while the Academy’s views often serve as a recommendation for Chinese policy makers, his views may not fully align with those of the government, which has yet to issue any assessments

China’s growth slowed to a near 30-year low of 6 per cent in the fourth quarter and analysts have said they expect the epidemic to drag on the economy.

Mr. Zhang estimated its impact on China’s economy could be significantly bigger than that of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), a coronavirus that originated in China and killed nearly 800 people globally in 2002 and 2003.

The world’s second-largest economy is relying more on services and consumption now than then, Mr. Zhang said, by way of explanation.

About 60 cases of the coronavirus, but no deaths, have been reported in 15 other countries, including the United States, France and Singapore.

Airports around the world are screening passengers from China, while foreign companies are curbing travel to China and airlines are cutting flights, with British Airways one of the biggest names to do so.

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Domestically, the outbreak has hit sectors including transportation, tourism, catering and entertainment. Mr. Zhang said it could weigh on jobs, with the official survey-based unemployment rate likely to exceed 5.3 per cent in the coming months, he said.

In response, the government is likely to step up policy support, which could boost the annual budget deficit as a share of GDP to more than 3 per cent in 2020, he said.

The People’s Bank of China could further cut banks’ reserve requirement ratios and interest rates, Mr. Zhang added.

Economic growth could recover later this year, bringing the full-year expansion to 5.7 per cent, Mr. Zhang said. In 2019, growth was 6.1 per cent, the weakest in 29 years.

Iris Pang, economist at ING, has forecast 2020 GDP of 5.6 per cent.

Speaking before the start of the outbreak, policy sources said that Beijing planned to set a lower national growth target of around 6 per cent this year from last year’s 6 per cent to to 6.5 per cent, relying on increased infrastructure spending to ward off a sharper slowdown.

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The United States and Japan evacuated their nationals from a quarantined city while British Airways suspended flights to mainland China as deaths from a new virus leapt to 132 and a government economist predicted a huge hit to the economy. Reuters

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