Price Wars Help Spark $157 Billion Rout in China Consumer Stocks

(Bloomberg) — The seemingly relentless decline in prices of Chinese goods amid tepid consumer demand is denting expectations that corporate earnings can revive the flagging stock market.

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From electric vehicles to fast food, companies are engaging in a battle of promotions aimed at luring customers who are spooked by dim job prospects and have seen a persistent property slump hurt wealth creation. Consumer prices fell for a third-straight month in December, the longest streak since 2009, deepening concerns about companies’ profits and share prices.

“That’s all symbolic of a very weak consumption environment that includes lack of consumer confidence and weak income growth,” said Xin-Yao Ng, an investment director for Asian equities at abrdn. “We are cautious on 4Q earnings across most sectors, and would assume that continues in 1Q unless the government starts doing something massive to support the economy.”

Gauges of consumer stocks have been the worst performers on the MSCI China Index since the end of September, after the real estate measure. The aggregate market value of companies included in the two consumer indexes has fallen by about $157 billion since. And the biggest drags on the MSCI benchmark in this span include e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., restaurant operator Yum China Holdings Inc. and EV maker BYD Co. — which have all been offering big discounts.

The world’s second-largest stock market has started 2024 on a dismal note, with the MSCI China gauge already down more than 4% so far this year. It capped a third straight annual decline in 2023.

“The bigger picture is that the weak demand is leading to a deflationary environment, which particularly bodes ill for businesses that cannot achieve higher volumes with lower prices,” said Daisy Li, a fund manager at EFG Asset Management HK Ltd.

READ: China Price Wars Break Out Among Consumer Brands as Growth Slows

Wider Discounts

The EV industry has been among the worst hit by intense competition as growth slows, with Chinese makers following the lead of Tesla Inc. in lowering prices to boost sales. BYD and local peers including Xpeng Inc. and Li Auto Inc. have shed billions of dollars in market value in the past few months.

“Retail prices are falling fast,” Morgan Stanley analysts wrote in their 2024 outlook report for the Chinese EV sector. “While local brands, in general, have fared better than luxury and foreign brands in terms of widening discounts, we expect discounts to further widen into 1Q24 on the back of seasonality effects.”

READ: Tesla Declines on China Price Cuts and German Plant Shutdown

Even China’s vaunted internet giants have been impacted, with Alibaba and Inc. seeing their stock prices tumble as they wage a fierce battle for market share. The price war has made US-listed PDD Holdings Inc., operator of discount site Temu, one of the rare bright spots in China’s e-commerce industry.

Many economy and market observers are hoping for interest-rate cuts and government spending to help prevent the nation from entering a deflationary spiral.

Fund managers say the next catalyst they are watching is pricing and sales data around Chinese New Year in February, which will offer more clues on consumer confidence. The next few weeks may also be key for policy action, given Chinese leaders will soon gear up for the National People’s Congress. That annual legislative session, held in March, is where the government is expected to announce its official growth target for 2024.

READ: China Seen Cutting Rate, Boosting Cash to Support Economy

‘No Player Is Immune’

A Morgan Stanley survey conducted late last month suggests seasonally better consumer sentiment ahead of the holidays. However, “sustainability is in doubt amid slowing economic recovery,” analysts including Lillian Lou wrote in a note.

Salary cuts and job losses have remained among the top concerns of households, they wrote, adding that the number of consumers anticipating the economy to worsen ticked up by two percentage points from November to 13%.

In all, there is little hope for a quick fix. Citigroup Inc. expects consensus estimates to fall for Li Ning Co. and Anta Sports Products Ltd. around the upcoming results season, hurt by foreign competition and pushes into lower-tier cities with cheaper products.

Fast-food companies are still locked in a protracted fight for customers, with some offering full meals for around $3. It’s difficult to make money at such low prices.

“We expect industry margins to erode until the irrational price war ends,” Kevin Yin, an analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co., wrote in a note while cutting estimates for Yum China. “No player is immune” to the headwinds created by the nation’s slowing demand growth, he added.

READ: China’s Deflation Shows Domestic Demand Is Big 2024 Challenge

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