You have probably read, in the Financial Times and elsewhere, that China is the world’s largest car market.
It is not. It is the world’s largest new car market, with sales of 21.1m units last year compared with 17.4m in the US. When used cars are included, the US auto market swells to more than 40m units, against less than 30m total passenger car sales in China.
In value terms, the gap between the two markets is even larger. In 2014, the overall value of US car sales was almost $1.2tn, more than twice as large as China’s $470bn.
This is not surprising, considering that two-thirds of cars on Chinese roads are less than five years old and 80 per cent of all buyers are first-time drivers. The latter fact explains why crossing an intersection in China can be a harrowing experience for pedestrians.
Put another way, an industry that most Americans, Europeans and Japanese have grown up with and now take for granted does not yet even exist in China. Dismiss a shady character as a “used car salesman” and most Chinese people will not understand the reference.
As Chinese leaders gather at their annual parliamentary session later this week, it is worth bearing in mind that they are doing so in a country where one cannot very easily buy a used car.
That fact should reassure Chinese politicians and multinational executives worried about the pace of growth in the world’s second-largest economy, which will be a topic of much discussion at the National People’s Congress.
Government officials insist that the rising “new economy” will balance out the declining “old economy”, allowing the country to grow at an average rate of 6.5 per cent through 2020. The creation of entirely new industries will further support growth.
The inevitable rise of what will soon be the world’s largest used car market is one such example. While its emergence will initially cannibalise some new car sales — primarily those of cheap domestic brands — the potential for growth is huge. In most developed auto markets, there are at least two used car sales for every one new car sale. In China the ratio is inverted, with roughly three new car transactions for every used car sold.
Another new industry whose time should come soon is China’s private jet sector, which is a fraction of the size of its US counterpart.
But the development of business aviation has been constrained in China by the military’s grip on airspace and many of the smaller airports best suited for private jets. Similarly, a giant new used car market will not spring up by itself. Complicated financial reforms will need to be hammered out in order to facilitate its development.
As Janet Lewis at Macquarie Securities in Hong Kong points out, while regulations governing the sale of used cars vary from province to province, in general dealers must act as brokers between sellers and buyers. That is because value added tax would be incurred if they took temporary ownership of vehicles, putting further strain on already tight cash flows.
When such wrinkles are finally ironed out, the inevitable surge in Chinese used car sales will also benefit car manufacturers now contending with a “new normal” of falling margins in what has historically been their most lucrative market.
In developed economies, ancillary activities including maintenance, trade-ins and used car sales have helped dealers sustain profits as new car margins are squeezed. But in China dealers have too often been, as industry consultant Bill Russo puts it, “dogs who just want to be fed”, solely reliant on buoyant new car demand.
When the going got tougher over recent years, dealers demanded ever bigger discounts and one-off subsidies from their manufacturer suppliers. By contrast, in the boom years after the global financial crisis, China was one of the few countries where to own a car dealership was to collect a lazy economic rent. The pickings were so easy that in at least one recent high-profile corruption case, a senior official’s son was gifted a stake in a Toyota dealership.
The emergence of a proper Chinese used car market will help everyone from the ruling Communist party by boosting economic growth, to the world’s largest multinational carmakers by boosting dealer profits. Who knew that used car salesmen could be such an asset to society?