Business News

Companies from Apple to Ford are flashing warning signs about the Chinese economy

Key Points
  • The trade war between the world's two largest economies is starting to slow their pace of growth, especially in China.
  • Apple lowered its first-quarter revenue projection, blaming a slowing economy in China and the trade war for a drop in consumer demand.
  • Stocks in Asia were mostly lower Thursday and U.S. futures pointed to another volatile session for Wall Street following Apple's forecast.

The Trump administration's trade war is sending a bit of a chill across the Chinese economy, and that has U.S. executives over a wide swath of industries bracing for a tough beginning to the new year.

Apple CEO Tim Cook made a rare cut to the company's sales forecast Wednesday, laying the blame entirely on falling sales in China and the trade war that has levied high tariffs over the last several months across hundreds of products and commodities sold between the U.S. and Asia. The ongoing tension is starting to bleed into balance sheets and stock prices of companies across the U.S. — at automakers in Detroit, retailers on Fifth Avenue and tech companies in Silicon Valley.

The trade war between the world's two largest economies is being blamed, at least in part, for slowing their pace of growth, especially in China — even as the two countries suspend plans to ratchet up tariffs while trying to negotiate a deal.

China sales growth slows

As the trade war tariffs continue to take their toll — despite an agreement between President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping not to apply new levies during a 90-day negotiation period — there are plenty of signs that China's growth is slowing. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-led think tank, recently cut its growth estimate for China's economy from 6.5 percent this year to 6.3 percent. While that seems like a small difference, it signifies a big drop in consumer spending when spread out over the country's 1.4 billion people.

Retail sales in China grew 8.1 percent in November, the slowest rate of growth in 15 years, Coresight Research said, citing data from the National Bureau of Statistics of China. Growth in exports plummeted to 5.4 percent in November, from 15.5 percent in October, Coresight said.

"We did not foresee the magnitude of the economic deceleration, particularly in Greater China," Apple's Cook said in a letter to shareholders Wednesday.

Apple lowered its first-quarter revenue projection to $84 billion, down from the $89 billion to $93 billion it had previously expected.

Although Apple has faced significant pressures in China before the trade war kicked off, Cook told CNBC: "It's clear that the economy began to slow there for the second half, and what I believe to be the case is the trade tensions between the United States and China put additional pressure on their economy."

Stocks in Asia traded mostly lower on Thursday and U.S. futures pointed to another volatile session for Wall Street following Cook's comments.

It's a 'big market'

Apple isn't the only technology company worried about China.

Intel CFO and interim CEO Bob Swan said on an earnings call in October that "China is a big market for us," adding that the company was working with customers and suppliers to adapt to any new tariffs. "It's going to be a wait-and-see as we go into 2019," he said.

HP Inc. CEO Dion Weisler told investors in November that China was a "very strategically important market for us."

"We obviously continue to assess the situation and the potential impact on our business and our plans that we may or may not need to make as a result — but again, we're not chasing ghosts, but we're also not sticking our heads in the sand either," he said of the trade war.

The tariffs have already cost U.S. automakers, especially Ford. CEO Jim Hackett complained earlier this year that the tax penalties on steel and aluminum were costing it $1 billion last year alone. That pain has been exacerbated by a slowdown in car sales in China. Auto sales there fell 14 percent in November over the same month in 2017, according to the Chinese Association of Automobile Manufacturers.

Ford sales fall

Ford's sales in China fell more than 30 percent during the first 11 months of 2018 compared with the same time frame in 2017. In November, Ford's China sales fell more than 50 percent over the same month in the prior year.

"This is the first sustained downturn in memory," said Michael Dunne, CEO of ZoZo Go, which advises automakers on China. "We would have to go back to the Asian financial crisis in 1998-1999 to see the last time China had flat or down sales for four months or more in a row."

Visitors look at Ford models at Auto Guangzhou in Guangzhou, China November 17, 2017.
Bobby Yip | Reuters

Tesla, meanwhile, is speeding up construction of a factory outside of Shanghai and has cut prices on some of its models in China to try to offset the trade war's impact on sales there. The company said it was operating at a 55 to 60 percent cost disadvantage compared with local manufacturers in the country.

Wells Fargo analyst Ike Boruchow told investors Wednesday there are high levels of uncertainty around potential new tariffs in 2019, raising fears that the rhetoric between the two governments will lead to a backlash against American brands that operate in China. This has already played out between China and Canada: Chinese consumers were reportedly boycotting the Canada Goose brand due to the recent tension between the two countries.

Chinese tourists

Retailers are getting hit particularly hard on China-related news, even if the impact hasn't quiet hit their bottom line. Tiffany's shares fell 9.6 percent on Nov. 28 after it released disappointing third-quarter sales that were hurt by weaker spending from Chinese tourists in the United States and Hong Kong. The luxury jeweler's earnings were in line with estimates, but revenue of $1.01 billion was shy of the $1.05 billion estimate from analysts surveyed by Refinitiv.

Target said in September that it was "deeply troubled" by the Trump administration's escalating trade war, saying it threatens to undermine the U.S. economy, penalizes American families and raises prices on everything from backpacks to playpens.

The trade war hasn't impacted all U.S. companies equally. Lululemon and Nike have cited China as a bright spot in recent earnings reports. Nike sales there grew by 31 percent during the company's fiscal second quarter that ended Nov. 30.

"Now, while there has been uncertainty of late regarding U.S.-China relations, we have not seen any impact on our business," Chief Financial Officer Andy Campion told analysts on a conference call last month. "Nike continues to win with the consumer in China."

Lululemon, Starbucks and other U.S. retailers have fared better by partnering with local companies in China.

China is also the world's fastest-growing aviation market, and a slowdown would hurt aircraft manufacturers and carriers, although it hasn't affected them so far.

The International Air Transport Association, an industry group representing commercial airlines around the globe, has said it expects China to overtake the U.S. as the largest aviation market in the world by 2022.

So far, the industry mood has been upbeat. In September, Boeing, the world's largest commercial aircraft manufacturer, raised its estimate for the number of planes China will need through 2037 by 6 percent to nearly 7,700, planes worth some $1.2 trillion.

Luxury products

Luxury retail and product companies, meantime, are at risk of losing a valuable set of customers should Chinese sales slow. Chinese shoppers are expected to account for 45 percent of the luxury market by 2025, according to a recent study by consulting firm Bain.

So far, the effect has been slight. Sales of luxury cosmetics in China, where companies like Estee Lauder sell their products, slowed to 4.4 percent in November, down from 7.8 percent in July, according to analysts at Jefferies.

Executives at luxury goods maker LVMH told analysts in October it is seeing only a modest decline in demand from its Chinese shoppers.

Still, fear of losing Chinese luxury customers has rattled the market nonetheless. LVMH executives in October said Chinese authorities are enforcing regulations around luxury importation with more strength. That acknowledgment sent shares of luxury companies worldwide skidding, including Gucci owner Kering SA, Prada and Shiseido.

—CNBC's Steve Kovach, Jordan Novet, Ari Levy, Lauren Hirsch, Lauren Thomas, Amelia Lucas, Joanna Tan, Robert Ferris and Leslie Josephs contributed to this article.