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Multinational China executives feel chill wind, not hot growth

Wednesday, September 30, 2015 - 13:35
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A man looks at the Pudong financial district of Shanghai in this on Nov 20, 2013 file photograph. China's economy is officially growing at a brisk clip of seven per cent, but many locally based executives at multinationals say they wouldn't know it from the performance of their businesses.

[SHANGHAI] China's economy is officially growing at a brisk clip of seven per cent, but many locally based executives at multinationals say they wouldn't know it from the performance of their businesses.

By China's standards, seven per cent is already the weakest annual growth in 25 years, but on the ground the slowdown in the world's second-biggest economy is being felt more acutely in many sectors, even those driven by consumer spending, which government data says is growing around 10 per cent. "How can China's economy be growing at seven per cent?" said an executive at a Western conglomerate that does business with a wide range of Chinese and foreign firms in China.

He said his business wasn't growing that fast, and those of his clients didn't appear to be, either.

Reuters spoke to 13 executives in charge of China operations at international firms, and nine said they felt they were operating in an environment where the economy was growing between three and five per cent.

The nine included those from the banking, consumer goods manufacturing, advertising, heavy machinery and commercial property sectors.

One executive at a shopping mall operator said he was seeing flat sales growth compared with a year earlier, while three in the education, healthcare and e-commerce industries said revenues were still growing in double-digits. "It's very possible that GDP is getting boosted by factors we don't see, such as government spending on infrastructure,"said an executive at a Japanese clothing wholesaler. "If that's the case, money isn't circulating to the broader economy." Zhou Hao, senior economist at Commerzbank AG in Singapore, said it wasn't only businessmen struggling to see seven per cent growth. "Many traditionally reliable indicators such as power output and rail freight have shown a serious deviation from GDP growth," he said. "Nobody knows what's the real economic growth." China's economy grew seven percent in the second quarter, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, and the government expects full-year growth to be about the same.

To be sure, there are pockets of the economy, such as education, healthcare and entertainment, where growth momentum remains strong.

Official retail sales data through August are still up more than 10 per cent from a year earlier, though signs are emerging that consumer spending is slowing, spooked perhaps by the summer's sharp declines in the stock market.

Xie Zongyao, chief operating officer at Shanghai's Super Brand Mall, one of Shanghai's largest shopping malls, backed by Thailand's Charoen Pokphand Group, said sales had shown a slowdown over the past two months after posting double-digit growth in the first half of the year. "Consumers are more cautious when buying high-end brands, instead opting to buy better-value products," he told Reuters. "Performance (in the last few months of 2015) is not expected to be better than the first half, so we will come up with more solutions to drive sales." E-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd said earlier in the month it expected its total value of transactions - one of the most closely watched metrics for e-commerce companies - to be lower than previously thought in the July-September quarter because of lower spending.

Growth in China's auto market, the world's biggest, slowed to a standstill in August, compared with 7.7 per cent growth a year earlier. If it turns negative, it would be the first fall since the market took off in the late 1990s.

The gap between official growth figures and the situation on the ground in many sectors is posing a headache for some local executives who say headquarters use GDP data to set revenue and profit targets.

A China-based executive in the heavy machinery industry said orders at his firm and affiliates were down about 50 per cent from a year earlier, mainly because of the sluggish real estate market, and he had his work cut out getting that message across to head office. "I am now increasingly sending news articles that highlight weaknesses in the economy to HQ to make them understand our situation."

REUTERS

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