Emma Liu has a good job in Beijing, but she has decided to forgo her normal Giorgio Armani face cream and started buying cheaper sweaters online. Her choices are reverberating in boardrooms around the world. A slowdown in the Chinese economy — and flagging consumer expectations — are clouding the outlook for foreign brands. From VW to Apple, the Chinese economy is now the world’s business.
No international brand can safely ignore China’s economic prospects. On a market exchange-rate basis, China accounted for 16 percent of the global economy in 2018. But for global businesses, what matters more is growth. China’s rapid development and 1.4bn consumers have helped it to account for about 30 percent of worldwide growth for the past decade even as its domestic expansion has slowed. If the Chinese consumer decides to hold back, companies around the world will tremble.
“I don’t feel any pressure at work,” the 20-something Ms Liu told the Financial Times. “I just feel like I need to use my money more wisely because saving would give me a greater sense of security.” China’s rift with the US has compounded fears for the global economy. The trade war may have had little direct effect on global trade volumes, but it has undermined business confidence. Manufacturing has been particularly affected, with sentiment and output indicators in the US, Europe and Asia performing poorly.
Financial markets are worried and economists are rapidly revising down global growth forecasts. The World Bank said on January 8 that “storm clouds are brewing for the global economy”. There have been sharp drops in stock and oil prices over the past three months while there is a widely held expectation that interest rates will rise. Although there are also reasons not to be alarmed — European employment growth remains strong, most US data are still robust and there are many one-off reasons for recent weakness in Asian and European economic data — few look at the signals from the Chinese consumer and feel reassured.
Chinese automotive sales fell for the first time in 28 years in 2018, official data are expected to show after tax breaks expired early in the year. “The willingness to buy big-ticket items such as cars has come down substantially,” said Louis Kuijs, head of Asia for Oxford Economics. The car sector represents about 5 percent of China’s gross domestic product and 30 percent of the global market.