china apple sales Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

Whither the Chinese Consumer?

Between 2010 and 2017, consumer spending in China increased by almost $3 trillion dollars, and global brands came to rely on the Chinese market for a growing share of sales. But now that Apple has revised downward its expected revenues, citing slowing Chinese growth, the outlook for such firms – and for the world economy – has dimmed.

WASHINGTON, DC – For most of the past decade, the growing spending power of China’s expanding middle class has fueled the global economy. After the 2008 financial crisis, I argued that the United States and China would need to swap places – with the US saving more and consuming less, and China doing the opposite. Until the past year, that is largely what had been happening. Not so anymore.

Last week, Apple published a letter to shareholders revising down its expected revenues for the first quarter of 2019, citing an economic slowdown in China, which has become an increasingly important market for iPhone, Mac, and iPad sales. Though tech industry analysts are debating whether internal dynamics at Apple might also explain the change, the company’s new guidance nonetheless adds to the evidence that Chinese consumption is slowing.

A sustained decline in Chinese consumption would be even more worrying than the current US-China trade dispute. Given that US trade policies and other external influences should not have much effect on domestic Chinese spending, the problem may be more deeply rooted in China’s economic model.

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