China Falters, and the Global Economy Is Forced to Adapt

The New York Times, August 26, 2015


Chinese officials in Shandong Province preparing to take samples of iron ore imported from India. CreditChen Weifeng/European Pressphoto Agency

With deepening economic fears about China, multinational corporations and countries are having to respond to a new reality as a once sure bet becomes uncertain.

HONG KONG — The commodities giant BHP Billiton spent heavily for years, mining iron ore across Australia, digging for copper in Chile, and pumping oil off the coast of Trinidad. The company could be confident in its direction as commodities orders surged from its biggest and best customer, China.

Now, BHP is pulling back, faced with a slowing Chinese economy that will no longer be the same dominant force in commodities. Profit is falling and the company is cutting its investment spending budget by more than two-thirds.

China’s rapid growth over the last decade reshaped the world economy, creating a powerful driver of corporate strategies, financial markets and geopolitical decisions. China seemed to have a one-way trajectory, momentum that would provide a steady source of profit and capital.

But deepening economic fears about China, which culminated this week in a global market rout, are now forcing a broad rethinking of the conventional wisdom. Even as markets show signs of stabilizing, the resulting shock waves could be lasting, by exposing a new reality that China is no longer a sure bet.

China, while still a large and pervasive presence in the global economy, is now exporting uncertainty around the world with the potential for choppier growth and volatile swings. The tectonic shift is forcing a gut check in industries that have built their strategies and plotted their profits around China’s rise.

Industrial and commodity multinationals face the most pressing concerns, as they scramble to stem the profit slide from weaker consumption. Caterpillar cut back factory production, with industry sales of construction equipment in China dropping by half in the first six months of the year.

Smartphone makers, automobile manufacturers and retailers wonder about the staying power of Chinese buyers, even if it is not shaking their bottom line at this point. General Motors and Ford factories have been shipping fewer cars to Chinese dealerships this summer.

It is not just companies reassessing their assumptions. Russia had been turning to China to fill the financial gap left by low oil prices and Western sanctions. Venezuela, Nigeria and Ukraine have been heavily dependent on investments and low-cost loans from China.

The pain has been particularly acute for Brazil. The country is already faltering, as weaker Chinese imports of minerals and soybeans have jolted all of Latin America. The uncertainty over China could limit the maneuvering room for officials to address the sluggish Brazilian economy at a time when resentment is festering over proposed austerity measures.

The weakness in China is even compelling officials at the United States Federal Reserve to think more globally, as they consider raising interest rates. William C. Dudley, the president of the New York Fed, said on Wednesday that a September rate increase looked less likely than it did a few weeks ago.

“The entire world is focusing now on China, watching this crisis unfold,” Armando Monteiro Neto, Brazil’s minister of development and foreign trade, told reporters on Tuesday in Brasília. “Brazil is already feeling the effects of China’s deceleration. If the situation gets worse, the impact will get bigger.”

The trouble is, the true strength of the Chinese economy — and the policies the leadership will adopt to address any weaknesses — is becoming more difficult to discern.

China’s growth, which the government puts at 7 percent a year, is widely questioned. Large parts of the Chinese service sector, like restaurants and health care, continue to grow, supporting the broader economy. But the signs in industrial sectors, in which other countries and foreign companies have the greatest stake through trade, paint a bleaker picture.

Adding to the worries are recent events like the deadly explosion of a hazardous chemicals warehouse in Tianjin, which has delayed shipments through one of China’s biggest ports. Labor protests, already rising, jumped sharply across coastal China last week over unpaid wages at struggling export factories.

The leadership, concerned with maintaining social stability, has been quick to act, making aggressive moves to prop up the stock market, inject money into the financial system, and generally stimulate the economy. But President Xi Jinping doesn’t have much experience managing a downturn, and some economists worry that the government is making knee-jerk decisions that will do more harm than good.

Many company executives and global economists say that forecasting China’s growth has become so hard that they are hedging their bets for the time being. “This is a complete black art right now,” said Tim Huxley, the chief executive of Wah Kwong Maritime Transport Holdings, a large Hong Kong shipping company. “I can’t make any long-term decisions based on what is happening today, and so I just keep our fleet running until we get a bit of direction.”

The problems have been building for months in areas like commodities and industrials where just modestly slowing growth in China has been having outsize effects.

For more than a decade, prices surged for iron ore, a main ingredient in making steel, as new skyscrapers, rail lines and other infrastructure were built across China. Last year, BHP Billiton shipped enough iron ore each day to China to fill the Empire State Building.

Now, the industry is retrenching in the face of China’s weaker prospects and diving commodity prices.

Vale, the Brazilian mining giant, is racing to unload assets. In Australia, Vale and its Japanese partner, the Sumitomo Corporation, sold a coal mine in July for just $1, after it had been valued at more than $600 million three years ago. In Argentina, Vale is trying to sell a potash mine in which it invested more than $2 billion.

The fallout in commodities has been especially painful for emerging markets that depend on sales of those resources.

With Brazil’s revenues declining sharply this year, President Dilma Rousseff’s government is coming under criticism over the country’s dependence on China, which surpassed the United States as the top trading partner in 2009. Brazil’s exports to China fell 23.6 percent, to $24.7 billion, in the first seven months of the year from the same period in 2014.

In an editorial on Tuesday, the newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo described Brazil’s relationship with China as “semi-colonial,” claiming that the country’s economy “depends in excess on Chinese prosperity.”

Ilan Goldfajn, chief economist at Itaú Unibanco, one of Brazil’s largest banks, said he was already forecasting the economy to contract about 2.3 percent this year, without factoring in the possibility of a hard landing in China. “China is the most important risk factor for Brazil,” Mr. Goldfajn said.

China was supposed to be the financial savior for Russia.

Last year, Russia signed a $400 billion natural gas deal with China. China would help finance a nearly 2,500-mile pipeline to ship fuel from Siberia. Russia trumpeted that it would eventually sell more natural gas to China than Germany, now its biggest customer.

But the prices that China is willing to pay for the gas are dropping so low that it may no longer be worthwhile to build a pipeline. The Russian energy giant Gazprom has cut its planned capital outlays this year for the first leg of the pipeline by half, Dozhd television reported.

“China is an unclear country for us, opaque,” said Aleksandr Abramov, a professor of finance at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “We don’t know what to expect,” he said, adding, “Clearly, the situation will worsen in Russia.”

Some of the latest pressures reflect a belated recognition by businesses and politicians that China had been slowing down.

Automobile manufacturers cut their shipments of new cars to dealers by 7 percent in July, compared with a year earlier. Retail sales had not suddenly tanked, said Cui Dongshu, the secretary-general of China’s Passenger Car Association, which represents manufacturers.

Rather, too many cars had been sent to dealers’ lots in previous months, he said. In other words, manufacturers were slow to see the economy’s deceleration and waited too long to throttle back their factories.

“What manufacturers are doing is adjusting inventory levels to the ‘new normal,’ ” said Bill Russo, a former chief executive of Chrysler China, using a favorite phrase of President Xi Jinping of China in recent months to describe an economy that is expanding at a slower pace.

Similar adjustments are taking place around the globe.

For years, Germany has been well positioned to profit from Chinese growth because it specializes in machine tools and other factory equipment. Most important, China acted as a counterweight to the chronically slow-growing markets in Europe.

Now, major German exporters are seeing signs of pressure.

Trumpf says that sales of its signature product, machines that automakers use to cut sheet metal that sell for about 500,000 euros ($566,000) each, have continued to grow in China. But in May and June, sales of less-expensive cutting machines flattened and began to decline. At the bottom of Trumpf’s product line, sales have fallen sharply since November for machines often purchased by start-up companies.

How industries and economies ultimately fare will depend on how long the slowdown and how deep the economic woes.

Demand remains strong at Boeing for its 777-300ER and 787 jets, models that are capable of flights lasting 10 hours or longer, to Europe or North America. Long-haul international travel from mainland China soared nearly 30 percent in the first half of this year compared with the same period last year, Randy Tinseth, the vice president for marketing at Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, said during a visit to Beijing on Tuesday.

So far, it has been mixed for technology players. Timothy D. Cook, the Apple chief executive, said on Monday that business had stayed strong in China in July and August. But Meg Whitman, the chief executive of Hewlett-Packard, said in an earnings call last week that China’s consumer market for printers and computers was “pretty soft,” although demand from businesses was holding up better.

In the end, much of the China story will come down to whether the expectations meet the reality. Andrew Mackenzie, the chief executive of BHP, captured a broader corporate view on Tuesday when he spoke glowingly about China’s potential in the decade to come and predicted continued profitability. But he conceded that the country’s steel production would most likely “grow a little more slowly,” citing a forecast that works out to just 1.4 percent annually — a figure that sounds more like Europe than the formerly go-go economy of China.

A similar realization is taking place in various corners. “We had five fabulous years in China, of course, where we grew strong double-digit, and it has been gradually slowing down,” Frans van Houten, chief executive of Royal Philips, the Dutch conglomerate, said on July 27. “I think, going forward, we need to be much more modest on expectations with regard to China growth: That’s just being realistic.”


Reporting was contributed by Simon Romero from Brasília, Brazil; Jack Ewing from Athens; Andrew E. Kramer from Moscow; Paul Mozur from Hong Kong; and Vinod Sreeharsha from São Paulo.

A version of this article appears in print on August 27, 2015, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Global Economy Forced to Adapt as China Falters. 

Bill Russo to Join Future of Mobility Panel at IAA Frankfurt

Frankfurt, Germany, September 15, 2015

Gao Feng’s Managing Director and Auto Practice leader Bill Russo will join a panel discussion to discuss the Future of Mobility from 5:00 – 6:30pm at the Marriott Hotel.

Topic: How to Succeed in Digital Transformation


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Shanghai in slow lane as market crash accelerates slump in luxury car sales

The Guardian, August 1, 2015


Shanghai: the roads are impressive but car sales are not motoring.
Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Business appears to be slow at the Mercedes-Benz showroom in the Jing’an district of Shanghai. There are no customers and the staff look bored. A family comes in to look at the cars but appears to have no intention of buying. A salesperson is tight-lipped when asked whether they are seeing fewer customers through the doors.

Car sales in China are slowing after years of rapid growth, and have slumped in the last few weeks. According to the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers, numbers sold in June fell 5.3% from May; this drop coincided with the stock market crash that saw the Shanghai Composite Index lose 14% in July. The association previously estimated that sales would grow 7% this year; now it thinks that figure will only be 3%.

A number of international car manufacturers such as Peugeot, Citroën and Ford have warned of sluggish sales in China, while Audi lowered its global sales forecast last week because of slumping demand there. State media reports that some companies have been cutting prices since April in an effort to boost sales.

The sales staff at the Mercedes-Benz dealership would also not comment on whether they had been offering discounts. However, there were signs offering new deals for lower interest financing when purchasing some of the more expensive models on display.

Bill Russo, managing director of management consultancy Gao Feng Advisory Company, confirms that the sector is slowing down. The recent stock market crash is “noise in the system”, he says, but admits that “there could be a short-term impact”. Nonetheless, he believes that the industry should be optimistic about China: “The expansion of the market will be guided by the number of people who have enough money to buy a car, and that number will grow.”

The economic slowdown is also having an impact on the luxury goods market and there are concerns that the share crash will make it worse. “The luxury market has been in slowdown mode since 2012, the start of the anti-corruption campaign,” says Liz Flora, editor-in-chief of Jing Daily, a website covering the luxury industry in China. She adds that the crash “throws a new wrench into the system, and brands are worried it will create even more problems in terms of consumer confidence”.

At the Gucci store at the IAPM shopping centre on Huaihai Road in Shanghai on Friday, there were no customers. It is the largest Gucci store in China; on its two floors, sales staff were chatting to each other and two lingered by the entrance, ready to pounce on anyone walking in.

Many luxury brands have outlets in the IAPM centre, one of Shanghai’s most prestigious addresses. In the Prada store there were a few customers looking at bags but they were outnumbered by staff by two to one. In contrast, the shopping centre itself was buzzing, with many people strolling around, and the food court was doing brisk business.

Mr Kong and Mrs Li were walking around leisurely having a chat. They were in the mall “to take a walk”, said Mrs Li. “I don’t buy designer goods but my daughter does.” Wang Cheng was heading to the Nike store and said he didn’t think most people were there to shop. “Most are here for the air conditioning,” he laughed: temperatures this summer have hit almost 40C.

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