SHANGHAI/ZURICH (Reuters) - A slowdown in China is forcing multinational companies to treat the world’s second-biggest economy more like a developed market, turning away from a headlong dash for growth to focus on premium businesses, or improving productivity by investing in staff.
As the main driver of global growth for much of the past decade, China has been a godsend to big international firms looking to boost profits as economies elsewhere struggled.
Now, though, Beijing is attempting to rebalance its economy to a more sustainable rate of expansion dubbed the “new normal” by President Xi Jinping, and with growth at its slowest in a generation, the current quarter has seen a slew of companies citing China as a reason for underwhelming earnings.
“We’ve entered the new phase, a new normal with slower growth, and that changes the business dynamic, and it changes the outlook,” said John Lawler, Ford (F.N) China CEO, at a recent conference for U.S. businesses in Shanghai.
In recent weeks, weakness in Chinese demand has been blamed for soft sales and trimmed forecasts from companies ranging from luxury fashion retailer Burberry (BRBY.L) and KFC owner Yum Brands (YUM.N) to U.S. computer hardware and consulting firm IBM (IBM.N) and Japanese robot maker Yaskawa Electric Corp (6506.T).
Economic data released in October also showed export growth slowing sharply in Japan, while South Korean exports fell - both blamed on the slowdown in their giant neighbor.
Companies in sectors such as construction and mining have felt the biggest pinch. Heavy equipment maker Caterpillar (CAT.N) has outlined plans to slash capital spending and cut about 10,000 jobs, while industrial conglomerate United Technologies Corp (UTX.N) said its business in China could drop as much as 15 percent next year.
And the days of double-digit growth that had foreign companies scrambling to enter China in the first decade of the millennium may not be coming back. President Xi said on Tuesday growth would remain around the 7 percent level for the next five years.
As Beijing tries to steer the economy away from the export and investment-led growth model that fueled China’s rise, companies are having to re-evaluate their strategy.
“Generally, it has probably moved from ‘go, go, go, growth, growth, growth,’ to ‘things are getting complicated’,” said Abinta Malik, general manger for Gap Inc (GPS.N) in Greater China, when asked at the Shanghai conference how the message from head office had changed.
In response, some firms are investing more in development to cater to Chinese consumers’ growing sophistication.
“We have reformulated our products, we have invested in innovation and renovation very much like we do in Europe,” Nestle NESN.VX Chief Executive Paul Bulcke told reporters after the world’s biggest packaged food firm warned in mid-October it would miss its long-term growth target this year.
China’s Premier Li Keqiang said on Sunday that Beijing’s policymakers estimated consumption in China’s vast market was still only half its capacity. The problem is that consumers are not yet picking up the slack from falling industrial demand.
“The rapidly rising consumer spending has yet to offset the decline in traditional industrial investments,” said Ulrich Spiesshofer, chief executive of Swiss engineering group ABB ABBN.VX, after reporting a fall in net profit and revenues for the third quarter last week.
Healthcare is one promising area to target as the Chinese consumer grows older, richer and better informed.
“The underlying fundamentals haven’t changed,” General Electric Co. (GE.N) Chief Financial Officer Jeff Bornstein said in October of GE’s healthcare technology business.
“There is still 1.5 billion people. They’re still building hospitals. The private market in China has grown 15 percent to 20 percent a quarter.”
Drugmaker Roche ROG.VX, which bucked the trend by increasing third-quarter sales in China, said the market for its mainstay cancer drugs was growing strongly, offsetting struggling sales for older products facing generic competition.
“What we’re really seeing is our strategic products that are just beginning to really find their way to patients in China are growing very well, double-digit growth overall,” said Dan O’Day, Roche’s pharmaceuticals chief.
Flatlining car sales have prompted global car makers such as BMW (BMWG.DE) to intensify training programmer, teaching dealers who have previously derived the bulk of their income from selling new cars how to maximize revenue from auto financing, repairs and insurance.
Services have been one of the few recent economic bright spots, with a private sector survey on Wednesday showing the fastest pace of expansion in three months.
ABB’s Spiesshofer said the company had opened a new service center to supply spare parts, maintenance and consulting services for oil and gas, chemical, utility, metals, transport and infrastructure sectors.
“Historically, customers have not yet taken out the service offering as strongly,” he said. “We are pushing that very hard.”
Reporting by Adam Jourdan in Shanghai and John Miller in Zurich; Additional reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York; Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by Will Waterman