Asia can’t compensate for lost US spending

It’s not that Indian and Chinese shoppers aren’t eager, but how many Buicks, Barbie dolls and kiwi lip balms can they buy?

By Elaine Kurtenbach and Monika Mathur  /  AP , MUMBAI, INDIA

Fri, Dec 26, 2008 - Page 9

They were supposed to keep the good times going: Prakash Shetty, caught recently thumbing through Singh is Kinng DVDs at a mall in India, and Zhu Xiaolin, who enjoys cute Adidas sportswear and Body Shop cosmetics in China.

But how far can Shetty and Zhu, both 26, and other Asian consumers go to save the groaning global economy? Just how many Buicks, Barbie dolls, Wrangler jeans, waffle fries, kiwi lip balms and plastic thingamajigs are they willing or able to buy? Not enough, it turns out.

Much has been made of the power and promise of Indian and Chinese consumers. Each country has a rapidly growing economy, rising incomes and more than 1 billion people — many of whom have yet to burn through a single credit card or experience the joys a washing machine can bring.

China will be the world’s third-largest consumer market by 2025 and India will be No. 5, ahead of Germany, McKinsey & Co has predicted. As US sales swooned this year, emerging markets were the sole bright spot on many balance sheets.

But such heraldry obscures a painful bit of math: US consumers still buy more than five times as much as Indian and Chinese shoppers combined. And despite rambunctious growth, revenues from India and China have barely softened the blow of declining sales in the developed world — even for the companies that have chased after rupees and yuan most aggressively.

From Adidas to General Motors, companies that have plunged into India and China are finding that these markets are, by and large, still too small to make up for the slowdown in the US and other rich countries. Moreover, India and China are not immune to the global crunch. Declining exports, particularly in China, and tight credit have cooled spending growth, despite the favorable long-term trends.

Chinese consumer spending is projected to reach US$1.3 trillion this year, market research firm Euromonitor said. That would approach France’s US$1.4 trillion but pales in comparison to the US’ US$9.9 trillion. Indian consumers will spend US$660 billion, or about half of China’s.

In October, Americans spent US$102.8 billion less than they did in September. That one month drop is nearly two and a half times more than Indian consumer spending is expected to grow this entire year.

“In dollar terms they can’t offset,” said Arvind Singhal, chairman of Technopak Advisors, a retail consulting firm based in New Delhi.

It’s not that Indian and Chinese shoppers aren’t eager. Take Shetty. Trim and gregarious, he just got promoted to assistant manager at the Leela Kempinski, a luxury hotel in Mumbai where rooms were going recently for US$280 a night. After he got the news, he handed his mom a fistful of cash, bought a television set, two cell phones (one for his dad), a stack of DVDs, a US$700 gold necklace for his fiance and a couple of new outfits for himself.

“You feel great when you buy new clothes,” he said, fending off a small crowd at the DVD rack of Big Bazaar, a popular discount shop.

His appetite for shopping helps explain why growing markets such as India and China “may make up for some of the stagnation you have in more mature markets,” said Jan Runau, a spokesman for Adidas Group. By the end of this year, China is expected to surpass Japan as the second largest market for Adidas worldwide, after the US.

But, Runau cautioned that once other countries entered the recession, India and China would be affected: “They can’t make up for everything.” Dell Inc, the world’s second-largest PC maker, saw revenues grow 48 percent in India and 18 percent in China in the third quarter, but global sales still fell 3 percent to US$15.2 billion.

The two markets contribute about 5 percent of the company’s revenues, while the US accounts for half.

“It’s starting to have a meaningful impact on Dell’s results, but it’s not enough to offset what’s going on in the United States,” said Steve Felice, president of Dell Asia Pacific and Japan.

GM’s North American revenues fell US$4.1 billion in the third quarter to US$22.5 billion; the drop alone was almost as much as its total Asian sales of US$4.8 billion. Add in the US$1.3 billion slide in European sales, which totaled US$7.5 billion, and it is clear that Asia can’t save the company, teetering as it awaits federal assistance.

“We need to turn around our North American business. There is no choice,” GM president Fritz Henderson said in September, at the opening of a new factory in Pune, a growing Indian manufacturing hub outside Mumbai.

For Vodafone Group Plc, the world’s biggest mobile phone service provider by sales, India and China are “absolutely vital,” company spokesman Simon Gordon said. “That’s where the growth is.”

But more than 70 percent of Vodafone’s sales still come from Europe. In the first half of this fiscal year, India accounted for just 6 percent of the group’s US$29.3 billion in revenues and less than 1 percent of adjusted operating profits. Vodafone does not operate in China, though it owns a 3.21 percent stake in China Mobile.

During that period, the company posted a 35 percent fall in net profit, despite adding 10.5 million new customers in India and growing India revenues by 41 percent.

Now, the economies of India and China are themselves slowing.

Their stock markets have plunged, businesses and households are finding it harder to access credit and fears of job losses have shaken consumer confidence.

Lower export growth in China is spilling over into consumer spending, as workers fret about pay and job security.

Zhu, who works at an export company in Shanghai, has been trolling the Internet for shopping deals, because she is not getting a bonus this year.

“Companies that can’t manage to sell their export items are selling online at very low prices,” she said. “It doesn’t mean I don’t like shopping in stores, but I can’t afford that right now.”

Despite government efforts to spur domestic spending, many Chinese remain frugal, concerned about saving for health care and retirement.

“Consumer demand is not going to be the answer to disappearing exports,” said Robert Lawrence Kuhn, chairman of Kuhn Global Capital and a longtime adviser to the Chinese government.

“China’s domestic consumption is necessary but not sufficient to stabilize China, much less the world,” he said.

India relies less on exports. They account for about 20 percent of the Indian economy, versus 35 percent in China.

Still, the global financial crisis has hit the Indian stock market and sparked a nasty credit crunch. Many consumers are unable to get loan approvals or afford the high interest rates. That, plus lingering inflation, has hurt consumer confidence and crimped growth.

Gibson Vedamani, chief executive of the Retailers Association of India, says overall retail sales in India will likely grow 8 percent to 10 percent this year, down from about 30 percent last year.

Sales of basic items such as food and clothes, which account for most Indian spending, have held up far better than credit-driven purchases, such as homes and cars.

“We are not seeing a slowdown on basic products,” said Kishore Biyani, chief executive of the Future Group, India’s largest retailer, whose holdings include discounter Big Bazaar.

He’s still hiring and plans to expand total floor space from 3.3 million square meters to 4.8 million square meters by next June.

Most Indians won’t set foot in Biyani’s sweeping 4.8 million square meters for years, however. The masses still struggle, parceling out their rupees at the hot, hectic mom-and-pop shops that dominate the landscape.

“We won’t buy from the mall,” said Suraj Buralkar, 21, who dropped out of school and started driving a taxi to help support his parents and three siblings. “The mall is too expensive for us.”

Still, Buralkar, like many in this hopeful country, is on his way. Earning just 3,200 rupees (US$67) a month and working overtime to satisfy his gnawing desire for stuff, he saved enough to pluck a pair of jeans, at 1,300-rupees, or one-third of his monthly income, from one of India’s teeming roadside bazaars.