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China demand for Europe’s luxury goods lifts virus-hit economy

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Like many European businesses, Italian luxury wine producer Marchesi Antinori has been hit by the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic — but help has come from a surprising direction: China.

“China is one of the few markets for which we expect rising sales this year,” said Stefano Leone, worldwide sales director of the company which traces its history back to 1385.

Marchesi Antinori is not alone; businesses across Europe have received a boost from buoyant demand from China in recent months, even as they struggle to shake off the continuing economic drag at home.

Data published on Saturday showed that in October, Chinese imports from Germany rose by an annual rate of 24 per cent and those from Italy increased by 21 per cent, following strong expansions in September.

And in the three months to August — the latest available data — EU exports to the US and the UK were down 14 per cent compared to the same period last year, but exports to China were up 9 per cent.

This has contributed to China surpassing the US as the EU’s main trading partner this year for the first time.

The surge in demand is largely owing to China’s strong economic recovery from the pandemic. Its gross domestic product grew 4.9 per cent year-on-year in the third quarter, aided by industrial growth and new infections slowing to a trickle. 

Column chart of $bn, by source of imports showing China's imports from Europe are rising

Mr Leone said Marchesi Antinori’s rising sales there suggested that China “showed signs of recovery from the Covid-19 slump earlier than the rest of the world”.

In contrast, while European economies rebounded from a historic recession in the third quarter, their output remains well below pre-pandemic levels. New lockdowns are already choking off the region’s services activity and are expected to plunge the economy into a double-dip downturn in the fourth quarter.

One of Europe’s few bright spots is manufacturing, where sentiment continues to improve, partly off the back of exports growth. Bert Colijn at ING said that in the eurozone “Chinese demand for export goods has been an important factor in the recovery of new orders for manufacturing”.

Daniela Ordonez, economist at Oxford Economics, said that because China was the first country to “put the [coronavirus] situation under control”, demand from the country “has been an important driver in the rebound of eurozone exports”.

Column chart of Annual % change, by destination of exports (June to August) showing EU exports to China are running at well above last year's level

Among the companies benefiting most from this demand boost are Europe’s luxury goods producers. Demand for more expensive products has remained resilient in China and the popularity of European brands has persisted despite the sharp reduction in global tourism.

“Previously, Chinese people went to travel all the way to Europe to buy these luxury goods, but this year there’s no such travel, so they have to import,” said Ting Lu, chief China economist at Nomura. “They will have to wait in line for LV [Louis Vuitton] shops in Shanghai.”

In the third quarter, Paris-based luxury company Kerin’s sales of brands Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta were “fuelled by excellent momentum in mainland China” while its revenues in western Europe and Japan fell, the company recently announced.

Fashion producer Salvatore Ferragamo reported revenues in China “solidly increasing” in July and August, following a second quarter in which it cited China as a key expanding market.

Line chart of EU exports to China as % of all EU exports going to non-EU destinations (rolling six-month average), by sector showing China's share of EU exports is rising rapidly

Rising demand from China is also helping Europe’s large automotive sector, which was struggling with structural change even before the pandemic hit. In October, German new car production rose to its highest level since February, according to the German automotive industry association.

“While the main European customer countries — the UK, France, Italy, Spain — and the US are still firmly in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, in China demand for German cars is once again climbing markedly,” said Oliver Falck, director of the Ifo Center for Industrial Organization and New Technologies.

The pandemic is “likely to accelerate China’s ascent in the ranking of the EU’s top export destinations”, said Katharina Utermöhl, senior economist at Allianz.

“Out of Germany’s top 10 trading partners, China stands out as the only country that we expect to avoid a pronounced tightening in Covid-19 restrictions,” she said.

From China’s perspective, meanwhile, Europe is just one part of a wider recent growth in imports. Tech imports from Taiwan have jumped, while huge volumes of Australian iron ore have continued to flow into China despite escalating trade tensions between the two countries that have hit other products, from beef to wine. 

As well as consolidating its dominant role in global exports, China’s imports hit their highest level ever in dollar terms in September, though the jump was partly driven by one-off effects from tech imports ahead of US sanctions.

However, China’s growing role as a driver of global trade may not last. In the longer term, it aims to reduce its reliance on external inputs and substitute imports in technology and commodities for domestically produced items, as part of its so-called “dual circulation” plan.

The economic theory, first expounded by Chinese president Xi Jinping in May, emphasises domestic demand and “indigenous innovation” over certain imports from the rest of the world.

This could hit high-end technology exporters in Europe in particular.

At China’s annual import fair in Shanghai on Wednesday, President Xi spoke of “China’s sincere desire to share its market opportunities with the world and contribute to global economic recovery”, adding that the new approach is “not a development loop behind closed doors”.

For now, European exporters will be hoping that Chinese demand for their products remains strong — especially as the continent’s wider economic outlook and number of coronavirus cases continue to worsen.



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Indian foreign minister self-isolates after Covid cases detected in G7 delegation

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India’s foreign minister on Wednesday said that he was self-isolating after two members of the country’s delegation to the G7 meetings in London tested positive for coronavirus.

The face-to-face meetings in the UK capital began on Monday and are scheduled to end on Wednesday. Representatives from G7 countries such as Canada, Germany and France are attending alongside Australia and India as the UK seeks to strengthen its ties within the Indo-Pacific region.

Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s external affairs minister, confirmed on Twitter that he was informed on Tuesday evening that he had been exposed to a possible Covid-19 case.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode,” he added. It is understood that the rest of the Indian delegation will self- isolate for the remainder of the G7 meetings.

Jaishankar held a socially distanced meeting with UK home secretary Priti Patel on Tuesday, where two agreed on a “migration and mobility deal” which will provide a “bespoke route” for young professionals from India looking to live and work in the UK. He met Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, earlier this week.

“We deeply regret that foreign minister Jaishankar will be unable to attend the meeting today in person,” a senior UK diplomat said. “(He) will now attend virtually, but this is exactly why we have put in place strict Covid protocols and daily testing.”



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Blinken rejects claims of ‘cold war’ between US and China

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America’s top diplomat Antony Blinken has rejected claims the US is entering a cold war with China during a visit to London to discuss with G7 counterparts how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing.

In an interview with Financial Times editor Roula Khalaf for The Global Boardroom, Blinken said he resisted “putting labels on most relationships including this one, because it’s complex”.

“This is not about initiating a cold war, this is all about doing our part to make sure that democracy is strong, resilient, and meeting the needs of its people,” he said, referring to Washington’s intention to hold a “democracy summit” later in the year.

Joe Biden, US president, has promised to “win” the 21st century in what he has portrayed as a “battle” between democracies and autocracies and has pointed to Chinese activities that the US says are damaging the international order.

Relations between the US and China deteriorated under the Trump administration and the countries remain at loggerheads over security, human rights, intellectual property, and rules governing trade and commerce.

“We’re not asking countries to choose [between the US and China],” Blinken added in remarks at the FT Live event on Tuesday, which were broadcast after G7 countries opened their meeting with a session on China.

Ahead of the event, a US state department official said the G7 session on Tuesday morning was intended to be a forum to discuss how to work closely with allies and partners to address shared challenges from a position of strength.

Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, far right, is meeting with G7 leaders in London to discuss how best to respond to the challenges posed by Beijing © Stefan Rousseau/Pool/Getty

Blinken said the US recognised that countries have complicated relationships, including with China, and that the US did not believe other countries’ economic relationships with Beijing “need to be cut off or ended”. However, he said the US wanted to foster and protect basic rules governing commerce, the environment, intellectual property and technology.

Biden has surprised many foreign policy experts by taking an approach to China that has more in common than not with the harsh stance taken by former president Donald Trump. One big difference has been a significant effort to work with US allies and partners to create more leverage to deal with Beijing.

His approach has been welcomed by allies in Asia, such as Japan and Australia. But there is concern in the EU about the bloc being caught between the US and China, particularly in Germany.

Angela Merkel, German chancellor, has said the EU and the US do not agree on everything and that it was “absolutely clear” that their interests were “not identical” when it came to China.

The G7 comprises the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Italy and Japan, and this year the UK has also invited Australia, India, South Korea, Brunei and South Africa to attend as guests.

Biden recently convened the first leader-level meeting of the Quad — a group that includes the US, Japan, India and Australia — as part of this effort to work with allies to counter Beijing.

Evan Medeiros, professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said the Biden team’s engagement with the G7 formed part of its effort to assemble coalitions to tackle the China challenge.

He said the administration was pursuing the right strategy by saying the US did not want a cold war and did not want countries to pick sides, but he added: “The reality is everybody is going to have to make choices when it comes to China.”

But Bonnie Glaser, Asia programme director at the German Marshall Fund of the US, highlighted concerns among some that Washington’s stance was “too aggressive and too confrontational”.

“I definitely have the impression that the Germans and some other Europeans are really quite unhappy about the US approach to China,” she said.

In March, the US, EU, UK and Canada co-ordinated the imposition of sanctions on Chinese officials over the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in the western Xinjiang region, triggering retaliatory sanctions from Beijing.

Biden administration officials including Blinken frame the future of the US relationship with China as “competitive, collaborative and adversarial”, depending on the issue in question.

Washington wants to co-operate with Beijing on foreign policy issues including Iran, North Korea and climate change while also defending US interests in the military, technological and economic spheres and pushing back on human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

Blinken said that “a democratic recession around the world” had occurred over the past 15 years, but admitted the US had its own challenges “visible for the world to see” when it comes to democracy, in a thinly veiled reference to the disputed presidential election and January 6 Capitol attacks.



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A broken state is failing India under Modi too

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The writer, Morgan Stanley Investment Management’s chief global strategist, is author of ‘The Ten Rules of Successful Nations’ 

Over the past month, even as the pandemic raged, nearly 150m Indians voted in five state elections. The ruling Bharatiya Janata party wanted to draw out the voting in multiple phases so that prime minister Narendra Modi could appear as widely as possible. He made more than two dozen personal appearances in the key battleground of West Bengal alone.

Rarely has a party tried harder to take over a single state’s government. The BJP mobilised its vast political machine with a lavishly funded army of cadres. Yet, when the final tally was announced on Sunday, it had failed to dislodge West Bengal’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee. In the later phases of balloting, the BJP lost momentum as the virus spiralled out of control, showing Modi’s government was way behind the curve.

Over the past six weeks, India has suffered one of the biggest surges of Covid-19 any country has seen, with cases rising by around twelvefold, according to official figures. The real numbers are probably many times worse. A crisis of this magnitude would stress even the world’s best healthcare system. In India, it has exposed a pre-existing frailty — a broken state.

A few developed countries, such as France and Italy, also suffered rapid case surges during their later waves of the pandemic. Even so, they managed to lower death rates from the first wave as their health systems had readied for the shock. In India, by contrast, the second wave has brought with it scenes of devastation reminiscent of the dark ages.

When I watch video clips of overwhelmed hospitals blocking their gates and leaving desperate patients to die, I am haunted by thoughts of my grandfather. He died of a heart attack under similar circumstances, turned away from a public hospital where there was no doctor on night duty and an orderly tried but failed to install a pacemaker. But that was in 1993. India’s underlying tragedy is how little progress has been made since.

Among the world’s 25 biggest emerging markets, India ranks last for the number of hospital beds per 1,000 citizens, fifth from last for doctors, and fourth last for nurses and midwives. Even if you drop richer emerging markets and compare India to other large countries with average per capita incomes of between $1,000 and $5,000 — which includes Pakistan and Bangladesh — India still looks mediocre on these basic healthcare measures.

Government spending generally rises as a share of the economy as countries grow richer. Indeed, India spends about as much as a typical nation in its income class, about 30 per cent of gross domestic product. So the problem is not the size of India’s state, but how it spends.

When Modi came to power in 2014, he mocked the welfare populism of his predecessors. Yet within a few years he was vying with them in his promises of generous freebies, from gas to food or houses. Today, welfare spending accounts for 9 per cent of GDP — far higher than the miracle economies India would like to emulate, like South Korea and Taiwan, when they were at similar levels of development.

Modi has, meanwhile, done little to modernise India’s state, which in many ways still operates in ways that hark back to British rule. The model for many state agencies dates to the late 1800s, the healthcare system to the 1940s. In past elections, I’ve travelled thousands of miles on India’s back roads and seen too many understaffed public health clinics — operating rooms without surgeons, X-ray machines without radiologists — to be surprised they have now faltered.

Modi promised “maximum governance.” But rather than reform India’s outdated state, he has centralised power like no other leader in India’s democratic history. He set himself up as the nation’s saviour, who would solve its every problem. But even a Formula 1 driver cannot make much progress in an Ambassador, the old Indian-made jalopy. The reality is that the BJP can no longer claim to offer a superior model of governance. This shortcoming is now starting to show in the polls.

The good news is that private groups, as so often, have rushed in during this pandemic to provide what the government does not. Expats are sending money and medical resources from abroad. Residential associations provide whatever they can to ailing neighbours. So far, the Indian stock market has barely flinched over the rising death toll. This is probably due to a collective intuition that India will survive this crisis too — but that will not be thanks to its leader or the broken state.



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