From coal to cars – what big data is China tracking to put virus-hit businesses back on track?

By Muyu Xu and Shivani Singh

BEIJING (Reuters) – China is tracking big data on an array of industrial barometers such as power use and traffic flows to take the pulse of general activity and target stimulus measures aimed at mitigating the impact of the coronavirus on its struggling economy.

The flu-like epidemic – which has killed over 2,200 people and infected more than 74,000 – has disrupted businesses across China, spilling over several key global supply chains. Analysts say it will knock more than 1 percentage point off China’s economic growth in 2020 and cut electricity demand by 1.5%.

Beijing is aiming to restore normal business activity by offering financial support to companies that have been hit by the virus and has urged local authorities to reduce logistical hurdles for manufacturers and plant operators.

(GRAPHIC: China coal consumption before and after the Lunar New year holiday – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8627/8608/ChinaCoalUseFeb212020.png)

As part of efforts to track the industrial reboot, China’s state-owned electricity utility monopoly State Grid [STGRD.UL] this week launched an “electricity resumption index” aimed at measuring the number of companies that have reopened for business and the amount of electricity they consume.

“The index will help the government to monitor business resumption and risk of coronavirus outbreak at companies, while offering support for authorities to set up policies,” the State Grid said in a statement.

In Zhejiang province, a textile and machinery manufacturing hub on the east coast, the power use index was at 34.77 as of Tuesday, up from 24.79 on Feb. 9 but still well below a reading of 88.68 at the same period last year.

(GRAPHIC: Firms resumption electricity index by city in Zhejiang – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8619/8600/Zhejiang.jpg)

Among the 11 cities in Zhejiang, Wenzhou – a major producer of toys, office supplies and Christmas decorations – had the lowest resumption rate reading of only 13.96, as many of its vast industrial plants remain deserted.

(GRAPHIC: Firms resumption electricity index by sector in Wenzhou city – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8620/8601/Wenzhou.jpg)

State Grid’s power index aligns with the daily coal consumption at the six major power generation groups, another widely-tracked gauge of power demand. This shows coal use at utilities dropped to a 4-year-low and coal inventories rose to the highest level since at least 2013, enough for more than 45-days use.

“I am seeing fewer buyers making inquiries this week, as people are concerned about weak demand from downstream users,” said a Beijing-based coal trader.

WORKERS ON THE WAY

Transportation disruptions, road blocks and village lockdowns are the major obstacles preventing workers from returning to factories.

Location technology firm TOMTOM’s traffic index shows greatly reduced congestion levels across China’s major cities as virus containment measures continue to limit population movement.

(GRAPHIC: China traffic congestion in 2020 vs 2019 – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8646/8627/TomTomChinaTraffic.png)

China’s internet giant Baidu Inc also launched a real time traffic monitoring map, as well as a migrant worker movement tracker which show the extent of the enduring disruption.

There was 85.1% less traffic congestion during and shortly after the Lunar New Year holiday compared with the same period last year, the Baidu traffic map shows.

Peak congestion last year was seen on the sixth day after the Lunar New Year, the last day of the national holiday, but no significant traffic jams have surfaced this year despite a lower driving speed recorded on the highways near Yangtze River Delta, the most developed region in China.

The migrant map shows that nearly a fifth of the migrant workers in the country are flowing into Guangdong, an economic and export powerhouse in southern China, after the prolonged holidays. But the total amount of people moving in was less than half the level in the same period last year.

(GRAPHIC: Migrant flows in mainland China – https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/ce/7/8638/8619/Migrants.jpg)

The Guangdong government has plans to send chartered flights and trains to bring workers back from inland regions such as Sichuan and Yunnan.

The transportation ministry said 80 million out of 300 million migrant workers in the country have so far returned to work, with more travel from home expected in March. But there are reports some firms are quarantining employees on return, which could result in further production delays.

(Reporting by Muyu Xu and Shivani Singh Editing by Gavin Maguire and Kim Coghill)

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