Signs of a growing hush in China's economy

As China's stock market tumbled over the last month, some wealthy apartment owners began trying to sell. Shopping malls became quieter. And customers at automobile dealerships across the country asked to defer delivery and payment for previously ordered cars.

While share prices have rebounded modestly in recent days, many business owners in China remain nervous, as they start to notice a perceptible economic chill.

"Of course car sales have not returned to normal levels — people are still very wary," Cui Dongshu, the secretary general of the China Passenger Car Association, which represents manufacturers, said on Friday. "They feel this spike in the stock market today is probably not sustainable."

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Even with the rebound, $3.1 trillion in market value, much of it financed with borrowed money, has been erased since mid-June. Many experts worry about the damage to the Chinese economy, particularly if stocks continue to fall. Consumer confidence could suffer, weighing on the country's growth and on economies elsewhere that depend on exports to China.

The government is clearly worried about the potential fallout, at a time when growth is already slowing. In recent weeks, Beijing has moved aggressively to prop up stocks, which is helping to stabilize the market.

"The stock market problem is a heart attack," said Dong Tao, the chief Asia economist at Credit Suisse. "For the time being, their overwhelming priority is to stop the bleeding and control systemic risk."

The economic damage could take two forms.

The more straightforward lies in the so-called wealth effect. Chinese consumers may buy less if they feel less prosperous after stock market losses.

The more complex risk lies in whether China's financial drubbing has created yet-unseen problems in the country's vast array of structured products. Many were introduced over the last year, allowing investors to borrow large sums and control big blocks of stock.

The harm has so far been limited. The Chinese stock troubles have not prompted a global rout over concerns about a slowdown.

While car dealers, real estate brokers and other sellers of big-ticket items are upset about the market's fall, Chinese businesses selling less expensive goods, from glove makers to power tool manufacturers, say they see no effect.

"So far, so good," said Ravin Gandhi, the chief executive of Hong Kong-based GMM Nonstick Coatings, which sells chemicals that houseware manufacturers use to make rice cookers and woks. These manufacturers "don't see things falling off a cliff the way we did in October 2008" in the global financial crisis.

The economic ripples have been muted because stocks are not broadly owned and the market is only a few weeks into a slump. The ultimate economic impact will depend on what happens in the coming months.

If the market bounces back, the economy is unlikely to take a major hit. If the stock market sell-off resumes, the pain could spread across the economy — and potentially around the world.

China is now the world's largest importer of commodities like crude oil and copper, making many developing countries dependent on China's continued economic health. China is also the largest market for cars, flat-panel televisions and Apple iPhones

Because China's wealthy suffered most of the stock market losses, sales of designer luxuries from Western European and American brands could slip. "It's concentrated among the wrong people for a lot of these Western companies," said Brian Buchwald, the co-founder and chief executive of Bomoda, a consumer research company in New York and Shanghai

The government efforts are bearing fruit.

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A rebound that began on Thursday continued on Friday. The Shanghai stock market rose 4.5 percent and the Shenzhen stock market rose 4.1 percent on heavy buying by the China Securities Futures Corporation.

But bolstering the stock market was much easier for the government because trading in about 50 percent of the listings has been halted or suspended. Given that, the government was able to concentrate its purchases on the listings that were still active.

The state-owned China Securities Futures Corporation exists to help ensure that the country's thinly capitalized brokerage firms are able to sustain margin lending to stock buyers even during crises. After providing large sums of money to help sustain loans to stock buyers in the broader economy, the corporation began buying stock itself.

The China Securities Futures Corporation "now has unlimited credit support from the central bank," said Lu Wenjie, a China stock market strategist at UBS.

China's strategy closely parallels the steps the Hong Kong government took to reverse a stock market rout in 1998. During that Asian financial crisis back, Hong Kong quickly bought $15 billion of shares in 33 component stocks of the Hang Seng Index.

Some economists suggest that the economic effects of China's stock market tumble since June 12 could be small. Paul Gruenwald, the chief Asia economist for Standard & Poor's, said that changes in financial wealth, like securities, have less effect on spending in Asian countries than changes in real estate prices. And because foreign investors own less than 4 percent of China's shares, the wealth effect in other countries is very small.

The wealth effect in China depends to a considerable extent on how many people own shares. Some researchers say that stock ownership in China is extremely concentrated in a small, very wealthy elite, and that the general public is not so exposed.

The recent China Household Finance Survey at the Southwestern University of Finance and Economics in Chengdu, China, found that only 9 percent of households actively traded shares. Some 6 percent of these stock traders borrowed money to do so, said Li Gan, a professor at Texas A&M University who has helped write and oversee the survey. Another 4 percent of households owned mutual funds.

Mr. Gan said that the survey found that most individual investors had responded calmly to the drop in share prices and had begun trimming their positions carefully. He attributed the speed of the stock market's decline, and sharp reductions in margin debt, to what he described as a relatively small group of extremely wealthy investors who had taken big risks with mostly borrowed money.

"It is driven by big accounts, enormously big accounts," Mr. Gan said.

Wealthy families play an outsize role in China's high-priced urban real estate markets. And there have been some signs of panic in these markets.

"I have come across apartment owners who urgently want to sell their apartments since they are in desperate need for cash," said Su Hua, a real estate agent in Shenzhen, in southeastern China. "Compared to a few months ago, people looking to buy have really dwindled."

The auto industry is feeling the effects of the stock market's troubles as well. On Friday, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers — a different group from Mr. Cui's — reduced its estimate for sales growth this year to 3 percent, from a forecast of 7 percent in January.

There are also hints that retailing might be more broadly affected, although national statistics on such sales in China during July will not be available until mid-August. "Business is so slow, there is hardly anyone coming into this shopping area," said Qiu Jian, the owner of an electrical wiring shop in Changsha, in western China.

With pockets of stress emerging, some economists are worried that China could be more heavily affected. They also fret that nobody really understands the risks involved when steep securities losses are suddenly incurred in a country where many brokerage firms and asset management companies are weakly capitalized. The new structured financial products introduced in the last year add to the uncertainty.

"This is why Beijing needs to stop this malaise now," said Mr. Dong of Credit Suisse, "because no one knows where the risk is until it's too late."

Prime Minister Li Keqiang issued a statement Friday evening expressing confidence that the economy fared better in the second quarter. While he did not mention the stock market, he seemed to allude to the troubles.

"Though there will be various challenges and risks along the way," he said, "we will never let down our guard and we have the capability and confidence to prevent regional and systemic risks."