Asia Economy

The global trade storm is unlikely to change Asia's positive consumer story

Key Points
  • The outlook for consumer spending in Asia remains bright despite global trade tensions, Daiwa Capital Markets says.
  • Consumers may be forced to tighten their belts, but the overall scenario for continued growth is unlikely to change drastically given positive fundamentals.
  • Authorities in China may be ready to step in and provide policy support to counter spending weakness, UBS says.
Shoppers in Hong Kong.
Lam Yik Fei | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Consumer spending in Asia, with a big push from China, is an increasingly important economic driver for the region.

But with the global trade environment fragile and U.S.-China tariff conflict escalating, it remains a question whether the momentum can continue.

The answer, according to some strategists, investors and analysts, is largely that it will — though there are potential bumps in the road.

The outlook for consumer spending in Asia, a region which accounts for 60 percent of the world's population, remains bright overall, according to a report issued Monday by Daiwa Capital Markets in Hong Kong.

Optimism is buoyed by factors such as an overall relatively young and growing population, an expanding middle class and increasing wealth.

"Consumption will likely be a dominant economic theme in Asia in the next few decades, underlined by population expansion and rising private incomes," wrote the report's lead author, Paul M. Kitney, Daiwa's chief equity strategist for Asia-Pacific research.

"Possible setbacks caused by renewed protectionist sentiment and global liquidity tightening in the near term are unlikely to derail the uptrend in Asian consumption, in our view," the report said.

Karine Hirn, partner at asset manager East Capital in Hong Kong, also said that Asia remains an attractive consumer proposition given positives such as demographics and increasing purchasing power.

Hirn added that it is important to remember that even though tariffs can impact consumer prices and inflation, trade itself will continue and Asian consumer spending is likely to avoid major disruption.

'Policy action'

Asia, in general, is "quite immune" to any major pain from the ongoing tariff battles, she told CNBC on Wednesday.

Daiwa noted that trade risks could have some negative impact, especially if global supply chains, in which Asia plays a key role, take a significant hit.

"This could in turn dampen individual income growth and dent consumer confidence, leading to reduced private spending," it said.

Consumer spending in Asia has also been boosted in recent years by a world awash in liquidity in the decade following the global financial crisis. Central banks, led by the U.S. Federal Reserve, turned on the taps after credit seized up following the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers 10 years ago this month.

Daiwa said that despite some "marginal tightening" in Asia in the wake of Fed rate rises in recent years, the overall monetary policy environment remains loose.

"However, if global liquidity conditions tighten by more than expected, Asian economies are likely to see capital outflows, slow economic growth, and rising inflation," the report said, noting that households could possibly cut spending.

That would be a particular problem for South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Thailand where households have resorted to heavy borrowing as higher interest rates would force them to tighten their belts, the report added.

But Daiwa and others stressed that authorities in Asia are ready to step in with stimulus to avoid any major downturns.

"The recent weakness in Chinese onshore domestic consumption might provide the opening for the government to initiate supportive policy action, in our view," UBS said in a report dated Tuesday, referring to authorities in Beijing.