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China consumers tighten belts, a red flag for the global economy

Thursday, September 24, 2015 - 08:03
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But the equity market turmoil, coupled with signs the economy is slowing means Mr Xu, and millions of other middle class Chinese consumers like him, is scaling back his spending in an ominous sign for China's policymakers and the global economy.

[SHENZHEN] Terry Xu considers himself one of the lucky ones.

The 32-year-old father-of-one invested 10 per cent of his savings earlier this year in Chinese stocks. Now, with markets down around 40 per cent since mid-June, he's selling off his portfolio at a loss.

Painful, but not a catastrophe - he says his colleagues lost more, and he earns well above the average wage.

But the equity market turmoil, coupled with signs the economy is slowing means Mr Xu, and millions of other middle class Chinese consumers like him, is scaling back his spending in an ominous sign for China's policymakers and the global economy. "This year's economy has been uncertain," he said. "It's not like before, where we just used to buy everything for our child. Now, we only buy and spend what we need".

Mr Xu earns 20,000 yuan (S$4,470) a month as a product development manager for a Western headphone maker in Shenzhen.

A flat he bought in 2012 for 900,000 yuan, which he shares with his 4-year-old daughter, wife and parents-in-law, is now worth 2.5 million.

Still, he plans to keep his Apple iPhone 4 rather than upgrade to the latest iPhone 6S, and his next pair of trainers will be from the Chinese brand Anta Sports rather than his preferred Nike.

Xu's worries are typical of middle class families - relatively minor compared with the millions of his compatriots who get by on lower incomes.

But his belt-tightening jars with the Chinese government's hopes that consumers will pick up the slack as exports fall and it tries to rebalance the economy away from a long-running reliance on trade and government spending.

Domestic consumption contributed 60 per cent of China's economic growth in the first half of 2015, up from 51.2 per cent in the whole of 2014, suggesting Beijing's desired rebalancing is on track.

But forward looking indicators and companies' experiences in China are more worrying.

A China consumer confidence index produced by ANZ Bank and polling company Roy Morgan fell to a record low in August.

Car sales in China could drop this year for the first time in two decades, while smartphone sales recorded their first fall in China during the second quarter, consumer research firm Gartner said.

If that translates into a slowdown in overall consumer spending, the impact will be felt beyond China.

Last week US Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen said concerns over a China slowdown were partly behind the central bank's decision to hold rates.

Global GDP growth, estimated by the IMF to be 3.3 per cent this year, would be about half a percentage point lower if there were a sharp fall in Chinese demand, according to study released this month by the OECD.

The study projected that if domestic Chinese demand growth fell by 2 percentage points for two straight years, combined with a 10 per cent fall in global equity markets, it would shave around 0.25 percentage points off the pace of US GDP, and more than half a percentage point off Japan's already-sluggish growth by the second year.

Japan's exports to China, its largest trading partner, are already flagging. They fell 4.6 per cent in August from a year earlier, partly due to falling shipments of car parts to Chinese factories, where activity has fallen to a six-and-a-half year low.

NO MORE FOREIGN BRANDS

Many of the world's biggest companies are feeling the effects of weaker Chinese consumer demand.

Volkswagen's high-end Audi brand said this month it had eased back output at its China plants. German rival BMW has reduced output of its locally produced 3 and 5 series models.

Xie Kang, 46, who runs a small plastic goods factory in Dongguan has scrapped plans to buy a Toyota Highlander for around 400,000 yuan, and will stick with his Volkswagen Polo instead.

His company supplies parts to the toy, electronics and bicycle industries but the number of his clients has fallen from 30 to 4. "To be honest, I need a better car but my debts are getting larger, and I've not made a profit for several months now".

Zhao Wenke, 32, who manages an auto parts company in Shanghai, is also curbing spending, despite a monthly income of 83,000 yuan.

The father-of-two says he now saves 40 per cent of his monthly salary given the economic uncertainty, up from 30 per cent previously.

"For the children, we're definitely cutting back on clothes.... especially from foreign brands like Mothercare," he said, adding that like Mr Xu, he won't be upgrading to Apple's iPhone 6S.

Apple shares have fallen 13 per cent since July 21, partly on China worries, though chief executive Tim Cook said its third quarter performance has been "reassuring".

Other Western consumer companies though flagged in their second-quarter earnings that China was turning into a tough market, before most of the recent equity market turbulence.

Mr Xu, after getting his fingers burnt with stocks, is putting more money into bank funds or time deposits.

The regular foreign holidays and restaurant meals he and his wife used to enjoy are on hold. "I don't want to blindly spend anymore," he said.

REUTERS