The Changing Face of China's Consumer Companies

Our recent trips to China have highlighted emerging Chinese consumer trends and their impact on Chinese corporations. We continue to see evidence of the economic shift toward consumption and services. The sheer abundance of companies in these new areas is staggering—including new entertainment companies, pharmaceutical firms and travel start-ups. And these are often not listed in Hong Kong.

Consumers have evidently developed more quickly than companies have been able to adapt to fulfill their new needs. Supply-side reform is not just about cutting capacity in industrial areas. It is also about creating capacity in areas that are not currently serviced, but where there is overwhelming demand. The sheer quantity of online cross-border purchases highlights the supply deficit within China.

The causes of this lack of supply are twofold; firstly consumer companies overseas have underestimated the pent up power of the Chinese consumer and are now struggling to catch up. Foreign companies are well aware of the high costs of executing branding and distribution in a country so vast and heavily populated. The second reason for supply deficiency is the speed with which the Chinese consumer has evolved, and the inability of domestic corporations to adapt to this change.

A Missing Piece: Branding

What we are witnessing is a broad rollout of strategies that involve outsourced manufacturers, referred to as OEMs (original equipment manufacturers), attempting to develop a domestic brand either organically or by overseas acquisition. Domestically developed brand power in China is immature, and very often a brand exists today not because of extensive brand-building investment, but because the company has found a gap in the consumer market that is not being serviced. The strategy of OEMs attempting to develop brands is not new but it has become exponentially more aggressive. Among companies we recently visited, we identified a variety of gaps between supply and demand. These impact a wide array of consumer products and services—custom wardrobes, young men’s fashion, children’s car seats, low priced SUV, cinemas, live sports entertainment, and the list goes on.

With the forceful growth in demand for consumer products and services comes the inevitable supply, and there is no barrier to supply in China. Today, national distribution in China is easily achievable given the country’s vast investments in IT and physical infrastructure. What we are seeing today are many new companies with new brands or distribution models with no management track record, where the only real barrier to entry is economies of scale. This new world of the Chinese consumer company is making stock picking exciting but ever more challenging, and necessitating bottom-up analysis. Although these developments present many compelling opportunities, buyers of new Chinese consumer corporates beware—there are bound to be hitches along the way as firms navigate the road to China’s new consumer-driven economy.

Andrew Mattock, CFA
Portfolio Manager
Matthews Asia

The views and information discussed in this article are as of the date of publication, are subject to change and may not reflect the writers' current views. The views expressed represent an assessment of market conditions at a specific point in time, are opinions only and should not be relied upon as investment advice regarding a particular investment or markets in general. Such information does not constitute a recommendation to buy or sell specific securities or investment vehicles. It should not be assumed that any investment will be profitable or will equal the performance of any securities or any sectors mentioned herein.

The subject matter contained herein has been derived from several sources believed to be reliable and accurate at the time of compilation, but no representation or warranty (express or implied) is made as to the accuracy or completeness of any of this information. Matthews International Capital Management, LLC does not accept any liability for losses either direct or consequential caused by the use of this information.

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© Matthews Asia

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