The Middle Kingdom’s Mighty Middle Class

Ming Jiajing from China First Capital blog post

China recently overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy. China’s population, of course,  is ten times larger than Japan’s. So, per capita, China is still one-tenth as affluent as its Asian neighbor.

A far more important, if little noticed, economic trend is that China’s middle class is now far larger than Japan’s. Indeed, the Chinese middle class will soon surpass, if it hasn’t already,  America’s, and so become the largest middle class country in the world.

There is no standard definition of “middle class”. So, measuring the number of people falling within this category is an imprecise science. It generally refers to people whose household income allows them to enjoy all the comforts of life well-above pure subsistence: these include vacations, air-conditioned homes, the full assortment of labor-saving home appliances, personal transport, and sufficient savings to cope with shorter-term economic problems like unemployment or a health emergency.

In China, by my estimate, there are at least 250-300 million people who now fall into this category. This is an economic achievement of almost unimaginable scale. Thirty years ago, there was no “middle class” in China, and but for a tiny group of top or well-connected party officials, virtually no one in the country of 1.4 billion could be described as living above basic subsistence.

Today, China has more internet and mobile phone users than anywhere on the planet. It is the world’s largest market for new cars. Housing prices across the country, in most of the major cities, are at or above the average levels in the US.

These housing prices are a big reason for the swift rise in the middle class in China. With few exceptions, anyone who owns a home in a Chinese city can now be considered middle class. That’s because most urban housing now is worth at least $50,000-$70,000. In major cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Shenzhen, housing prices are now among the highest in the world, and so just about every property-owner is sitting on an asset worth well in excess of $100,000.

Most Chinese either own their homes outright, or have mortgages that represent less than 50% of the home’s current value. Even in more rural parts of China, there are tens of millions of home-owners who have equity of at least $20,000 in their home.

Unlike in the US, Chinese can’t easily tap into the wealth locked up in their homes by taking out second mortgages. But, the wealth effects are still very real in China. People know how much their home is worth, have confidence the price will likely continue to appreciate. So, spending habits can reflect this.

In fact, most Chinese have a better idea of the current value of their homes than anyone in the US or Europe. That’s because property is sold based on price per-square-meter, and everyone in China seems to know that current value of the square meters they own. The Chinese government has been trying for the last sixth months, with limited success, to moderate the fast rise in property prices across the country.  Most housing has appreciated by at least 15% this year.

Housing is the main bedrock of middle class status in China. But, salaries are also rising sharply across the board in the professional class (as well as those working in factories), putting more cash in people’s pockets. The stock market has also become a major additional source and store of wealth.

It’s a common characteristic of the middle class everywhere to feel a little dissatisfied, and a little anxious about one’s economic future and ability to remain among the more better-off. This is very noticeable in China as well. Many of China’s middle class don’t consider themselves that comfortable.

The pace of social and economic change is so swift, and prices for many middle-class staples like cars, foreign vacations and housing are so high,  that people don’t have a real sense of “having made it’.  They also fret about their retirement, about saving enough to put their kids through the best schools, about job security. In other words, they’re very much like the middle class in the US.

Middle class spending is the single most important source of economic activity in the US. This isn’t yet true of China, but each year, it will become more important. This reality should be at the top of the agenda for boardroom planning at companies in China and much of the rest of the world. China’s middle class will become a market not only larger in size, but in purchasing power, than America’s.

China’s very rich (it now has more billionaires than any other country except the US) and poor tend to be the focus on most of the reporting by the world’s financial press. They are generally blind to the most significant development of all, the emergence over the last ten years of an enormous middle class in China. Without a doubt, more Chinese join the middle class each year than in the US, Europe and Japan combined.

Remember, many of the most successful global businesses in the US over the last 50 years – Ford, McDonalds, Disney, Coca-Cola, P&G, Wal-Mart to name just a few – got that way by focusing originally on selling to America’s middle class. China’s middle class is fast becoming an even richer target.

Anyone selling services or products for the middle class ought to find a way to do so in China. Quickly.


Why China’s Retail Prices Are Surprisingly High

Ming Dynasty porcelain detail from China First CApital blog post

Making things in China is cheap. Buying things in China is not.

People living elsewhere, or ones like me who move here, will be rather surprised  to find out how expensive prices are for many of the more familiar brand-name products on sale in China. At current exchange rate of 6.78 renminbi to the dollar, many goods and services in China are sold at prices similar to the US.

Years ago, the Economist came up with their “Big Mac Index” as a way to measure real exchange rates. In their most recent survey, the renminbi looks 48% undervalued, because a Big Mac costs $1.95 in China, compared to $3.73 in the USA.

Big Mac Index
Source: The Economist

Of course, those prices tell only part of the story. Chinese wages are about 1/15th America’s. So, while it takes an average working American about ten minutes to earn the money to buy a Big Mac, in China, a reasonably well-paid office worker would need to toil about about four times as long to earn the Rmb 13 needed to buy a Big Mac. By this measure, the price of a Big Mac in China, to truly equal the price in the US, should be about 33 cents, and therefore the exchange rate should be over Rmb35 to the dollar.

Of course, the renminbi is never going to get that low. In fact, the overwhelming likelihood is that renminbi will get much stronger than the current rate of 6.78 to the dollar. Upward pressure comes from China’s $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves and large balance of trade surplus with the US. As the renminbi rises in value, the prices of many goods in China will become even higher, when translated into dollars, than those in the US.

How expensive are things in China? To find out, I did a little comparison shopping at the Wal-Mart closest to my office in Shenzhen. As in the US, Wal-Mart in China is highly successful, and got that way by offering “low everyday prices”. Considering the big gap in income levels between US and China, it would be a fair assumption that prices at Wal-Mart in China would be appreciably lower than those at Wal-Mart in the US.

But, that assumption would be wrong, for the most part. Here’s a rundown of prices on some popular branded products at my local Shenzhen Wal-Mart — prices below are in renminbi and current dollar equivalent at prevailing exchange rate. Quite a few are Procter & Gamble products. P&G are very strong in China, and its products are often market leaders. As in the US, P&G enjoys a close relationship with Wal-Mart.


PricesSource: Peter’s Shopping


A few days after my visit to Wal-Mart in Shenzhen I flew to New York on business. In between meetings, I did some comparison shopping. 

Wal-Mart is the largest retailer in the US, but does not have any stores in New York. One reason is New York City’s unfriendly labor laws that would make it hard for Wal-Mart to operate in New York without unionized workers. Instead, I checked prices at local Food Emporium supermarket, Walgreens and CVS

While there are some pretty good deals in China, for example Heinz Ketchup and Coke, most things on the list are in line with prices in the US.  In other words, they do not reflect the vast differences in average earnings and therefore purchasing power.

Chinese workers manufacture wholesale, but buy retail.

Prices in China are high, in part, because there is a VAT of 13% on most things. More important, retailing in China is not nearly as efficient as it is in the US. While Wal-Mart is successful in China, it doesn’t enjoy anything like the market share it does in the US. Smaller, but my guess is, far more profitable. Wal-Mart faces very limited low-price competition in China. Most stores are of the Mom-and-Pop variety, which keeps overall prices high. Urban real estate is also expensive, and that also has an underlying impact on consumer prices.

In China, it’s easier to make money selling than manufacturing. Retail margins are higher and less squeezed than they are in the US. This will likely be true for many years to come. For Chinese consumers, especially the +40% who live in cities, they will likely continue to pay prices on par with those in the US, while earning appreciably less.