Rein: Are China’s Wealthy Pulling Back on Spending?

Robert Frank in a piece for the Wall Street Journal’s Wealth Report argues that China's wealthy, the biggest winners in China, are losing confidence and are beginning to spend less. Any pull back in spending by wealthy Chinese could spell disaster for the luxury goods industry, which is looking to China for growth as markets in Japan and Europe slow.

A man walks past a billboard outside a shopping mall housing luxury brands in Shanghai.
Phillippe Lopez | AFP | Getty Images
A man walks past a billboard outside a shopping mall housing luxury brands in Shanghai.

Chinese consumers, at present, account for more than 25 percent of global luxury sales, up from less than one percent 15 years ago, according to my firm’s estimates. The country is also poised to become Porsche’s biggest market according to the company.

Also for the past several years Louis Vuitton stores in Paris have been full of Chinese tourists demanding the latest hand bags. The rush has been so much that Louis Vuitton has had to limit the number of purchases per shopper.

In the article, wealthy Chinese have been defined as those with $78,520 to $157,000 in investments, according to data from a survey conducted by Allianz China Life Insurance. However, I think today, with that level of investable assets one would be classified as the lower middle class and certainly not the wealthy in China.

Among the different socio-economic classes in China, my firm found that the lower middle class had the least confidence in the economy. Inflation is hurting their ability to purchase more expensive items, their incomes are not rising fast anymore and they feel most acutely the drop in spending power.

To find out how China’s wealthy feel, one actually has to analyze wealthy people, not those in the middle. There are over one million people with more than $1 million in investable assets, and 271 billionaires, according to data from the Hurun Report.

Any analysis needs to look at that segment to determine the trends among wealthy consumers. My firm in the past two months interviewed several dozen people with more than one million dollars in investable assets, as well as a dozen people worth more than $10 million.

The results show the ultra rich, people worth more than $10 million, are actually getting richer and remain very confident about their earning ability and those worth more than one million dollars also reported being very confident. The vast majority reported that they planned to spend at the same or higher level in 2012. One businessman in the services sector in Shanghai told me, “The economic problems are serious but we expect profits to rise by 30 percent next year. Even if profits don’t go up, I plan on spending at the same levels or more.”

What do these wealthy Chinese want? Our research suggests that they are continuing to go for ultra-high end products and are looking to buy luxury cars like Mercedes and BMW. Restrictions on the number of houses one can buy and a weak stock market is also making the wealthy spend more and invest less.

The result is that exclusive brands, like watch and jewelry brand Van Cleef & Arpels for instance, will continue to do well in 2012 as the wealthy start to differentiate themselves from others. Many wealthy Chinese told us they are tiring of the more popular luxury brands like Louis Vuitton because they are becoming too common.

Fears of a slowdown in China’s luxury sector are exaggerated. Even if China’s economy continues to slow, the confidence of China’s wealthy remains high. Luxury firms need to use real data about China’s wealthy to determine how best to sell to them. My firm estimates luxury sales will hit $15.6 billion in 2011 up from $13.6 billion in 2010 and will grow 20 percent in 2012.

Shaun Rein is the founder and managing director of the China Market Research Group ( a strategic market intelligence firm, and is based in Shanghai.

He is the author ofthe upcoming book “The End of Cheap China: Economic and Cultural Trends that will Disrupt the World”published by John Wiley & Sons in the U.S. He does not own shares in any company mentioned. Follow him on Twitter at @shaunrein.