As the Chinese National Congress meets this week in Beijing to plot the course of the Chinese economy in 2009 and beyond, it’s worth reflecting what an exceptional, juddering year 2008 was. Sure, the Olympics stole most of the headlines, and provided the lasting images of Chinese progress and triumph. But, those images also dulled, in many respects, our perceptions of the brunt force of the economic blows China sustained during 2008. Make no mistake, 2008 was a year of challenge, disruption and dislocation not seen in China for a generation or more.
The year started with the worst winder storms in decades. This was followed, just months later, by the cataclysmic Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan. Beyond the colossal loss of life and destruction, the earthquake had a much broader, unprecedented social impact across China. There was an enormous outpouring of national compassion and grief. While wholly positive as an expression of China’s rightful growing self-confidence, this vast prolonged period of national mourning also had a very direct and negative impact on economic activity. For weeks if not months, as I saw firsthand, there was a tangible unwillingness to spend as freely, to enjoy life as unabashedly as in the years previously. It was as if much of China received some intimation of their own mortality in the wake of the Sichuan Earthquake.
Next came an accelerated fall in property values across much of China. Alongside this, the stock market fell sharply. These two, the property and stock markets, are the main stores of wealth for many middle class Chinese. People felt poorer because they were poorer. The fall of both property and share prices wiped away billions of dollars in national household wealth. People in their hundreds of millions were suddenly poorer, as household net worth plummeted, and Chinese pulled back even more strongly from their spending. Then, in late summer, came the financial tsunami in the USA, with the credit crisis, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the intensifying recession.
Any basic college economics textbook – to say nothing of common sense — could foretell the next step: a fall in overall confidence levels among Chinese consumers. This further muffled already depressed levels of personal spending.
We’re now well into the first quarter of 2009, and my own sense, after spending these last three weeks in China, is that the cumulative impact of all of 2008’s bad news is still being felt, acutely. However, my sense is that the worst may indeed be over, and that 2009 will be a year of rebuilding and reasserted economic confidence in China.
Of course, when talking about general economic trends in the world’s third largest economy, a lot of the clarifying detail gets lost. But, we have a real sense, in our day-to-day work, of just what an extraordinarily difficult year 2008 was for even the best Chinese businesses. Our firm, China First Capital, has focused on serving China’s middle market private Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), assisting them with capital-raising strategic M&A and other financial transactions.
Unlike traditional investment banks reliant mainly on short-term transactions, China First Capital’s role as financial and strategic advisor to Chinese SMEs often begins at early stages of corporate development and continues through the capital raising process from private equity to a successful IPO and beyond to global leadership.
Even our strongest clients had a tough time in 2008. In one example, a business that is one of China’s leading consumer fashion brand, maintained outstanding growth last year in overall revenue, with domestic sales rising by 30%. That’s mainly testament to the company’s no less outstanding management and brand-positioning. But, the bottom line was less stellar. Profit margins were squeezed, and the company earned half as much in 2008 as it expected to as late as July 2008. That represents a shortfall against plan of almost $6mn. That equates, of course, to having less money to invest in building on that growth rate in 2009.
They remain a great company, and there’s little doubt 2009 will be a better year. But, when we met with them recently, the company’s financial management are still reeling from the brutal effects of 2008. If nothing else, it drives home as little else can the importance of fortifying the company’s balance sheet, which has been overly-reliant on retained earnings and short-term bank loans to finance growth. This client, like the Chinese economy, has weathered the once-in-a-generation turmoil of 2008. Better days lie ahead — my bet is sooner, rather than later.