Why China is Raiding the Piggy Bank
Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007 By PETER WONG
Entre corchetes están algunas de las palabras que eran del «fill in the gaps».
If you believe some U.S. officials, the Chinese people are way too [thrifty]. Hoping to help bring down the soaring U.S. trade deficit with China, [which] rose by 15% to $232.5 billion last year, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke have (urged) Beijing to encourage Chinese consumers to spend more ([preferably] on U.S. imports) and save less. It’s true that a culture of financial prudence has [shaped] the psyche of generations of Chinese, leading to a national savings account of $2 trillion at the end of 2006. But it isn’t quite [fair] to suggest that overly frugal Chinese consumers are largely responsible for trade deficits. Households only [account] for half of China’s total savings. High levels of government and business savings also contribute. China’s central bank, for example, [holds] more than $1 trillion in foreign currencies and securities. Moreover, the widely held [view] of China as a nation of supersavers appears to be increasingly [out of touch] with reality—a shift that has dramatic implications for the global economy.
HSBC recently [conducted] a survey on saving and spending patterns (among) the middle class in six Asian cities: Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, Seoul, Taipei and Tokyo. Surprisingly, it was Shanghai’s middle class that [stood out] as having the highest propensity to spend. Nearly three out of four Shanghainese who answered the survey said they agreed with the [statement] that «people nowadays will choose a balanced spending and saving mode [rather than] sacrificing to save.» Of this group, 47% said they saved only what was left [at the end] of the month; almost one out of three said they did not save at all. These results [suggest] that scrimping and delayed gratification are becoming outmoded [traits] of an older generation. China’s [burgeoning] middle class is hungry to enjoy the fruits of its labor today, especially in the most prosperous mainland cities, where [disposable] incomes rose around 12% last year.
By some estimates, there are already [as many as] 100 million members of China’s middle class, defined as people with monthly incomes of (over)$650. Their ranks are projected to triple in a decade, with middle-class lifestyles (spreading) beyond the big coastal cities such as Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou to smaller ones such as Xiamen and Wuxi. Across China, spending is already [surging], with retail sales rising by 13.7% last year and 12.9% in 2005. Spending patterns are changing, too. Consumer demand is expanding to service industries as Chinese [splash out] on travel, sports and entertainment. [According to] HSBC research, middle-class Chinese consumers now dine [out] three times a week, belong to fitness clubs and travel for pleasure at least twice a year, [albeit] mostly within China. Mobile phones and personal computers have become common in this land of [former] hand-to-mouth farmers. That’s providing abundant opportunities for companies looking to [ride] the spending wave. The emerging Chinese middle class has become an important (target) market for international businesses [keen to] supply it with products and services.
This is not to say that mainlanders are as [profligate) as, for example, middle-class Americans, whose savings rate is zero. The survey shows that they are value-[conscious]. Although they are exposed to new trends in high-fashion consumption through the media, many middle-class Chinese still regard «luxury» as a synonym for «unnecessary waste.» They tend to buy luxury items such as watches and jewelry [sparingly] and only when shopping outside the mainland.
It’s often assumed that Chinese feel obliged to set aside large [chunks] of their income because the government no longer provides [cradle-to-grave] benefits as it did under a purely communist system. But China’s urbanites are not just stashing away money to fund retirement and [meet] rising medical costs. Many Shanghainese [respondents] to the HSBC survey said their two main motivations for saving were to buy real [estate] (the majority already own at least one (property)) and pay for their kids’ education. Travel was listed as the third most important reason to save. Only 14% of respondents said they were saving for retirement.
(Clearly), this is not a picture of a population obsessed with dire financial [scenarios]. In coming years, this (shift) to a culture of consumption can be counted on to [boost] Chinese imports, contributing to more balanced global trade and putting Messrs. Paulson and Bernanke more at [ease]. Meanwhile, the aspirations of Chinese to improve their living standards, (seek) better education for their children, invest their growing wealth in new ways and [savor] a more worldly lifestyle will present huge opportunities for companies nimble enough to (take advantage) of this profound cultural change.
With reporting by Peter Wong is HSBC’s executive director for Hong Kong and mainland China.