Mark Lister, 13 November 2018

There are numerous worries for investors across the world at present. Along with trade tensions and rising interest rates, the Chinese economy is quite high up the list.

As far as New Zealand goes, it's the health of the Chinese consumer that matters most, so let's hope the recording-breaking sales figures on Singles Day are a reflection of broader strength.

Chinese online sales giant Alibaba held it's 10th annual Singles Day sales event on Sunday, and the 24-hour bargain bonanza didn't disappoint. The previous record was last year's US$25.3bn, but the 2018 event smashed through those figures just after 5:30pm.

By the time it finished, Alibaba had racked up an astounding US$30.8bn of sales across it's various e-commerce platforms, more than 20 per cent higher than the previous record.

More broadly, the outlook for China remains murky. However, it is clear the economy has slowed. Manufacturing readings have been weak, with one measure falling to a 16-month low in September, as export orders declined by the fastest rate in more than two years. Third quarter GDP also missed expectations, with the official pace of economic growth falling to the slowest since 2009.

That’s without the full effects of the US trade war being fully felt. Should nothing come of the meeting between Presidents Trump and Xi at the end of this month, things could get ugly in 2019.

The Chinese yuan has fallen to near decade lows against the US dollar, which is another concern for the global economy. While a depreciating currency would soften the domestic slowdown for China, it would be a clear negative for growth and activity across other parts of the world. It would reduce Chinese imports and make other economies less competitive across global markets.

All of that matters for us down here, perhaps much more so than anything else going on in the world at present. China is our biggest export partner, taking just over 20 per cent of our goods and services each year.

Australia is our number two market with almost 18 per cent. They are even more dependent on China, which takes 30 per cent of Australian exports. That means a significant Chinese slowdown could give us the double-whammy, as we would be impacted directly and also through dealings with our friends across the Tasman.

One positive point for us is that should Chinese authorities choose to stimulate the economy this time around, they could focus on consumption, rather than capital investment, as has traditionally been the case.

Alibaba isn't the only company to report good news out of China lately. French beauty giant L'Oréal also noted very strong Chinese sales last month. The company said Asia was a strong point for the business with China, India and Korea all looking healthy.

In the wake of the good result, L'Oréal's Chief Executive Jean-Paul Agon said he sees no slowdown facing Chinese consumers, suggesting there was little evidence of trade tensions having an impact.

With America forging its own path ahead, and being a relatively closed economy, the outlook for China will be the most important issue for economic growth elsewhere over the coming period.

So let’s hope the Chinese consumer is as strong as the Singles Day numbers suggest.


This article was also published in the NZ Herald on 13 November under the title "Mark Lister: Why Singles Day bonanza gives us hope ".