China’s slowdown looks to have bottomed out, at least for now. Third-quarter GDP grew by 7.4% , the lowest rate in three years, but in line with what economists were expecting.
But most encouraging was the news that Chinese retail sales saw growth that was nearly double that figure at 14.4%.
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I’m not the biggest fan of China’s “managed capitalism,” and, eventually, I believe that this model will reach the end of its road. In one critical aspect, it already has. China’s leaders have stated it is their goal to make China’s economy more “balanced,” meaning less dependent on exports and investment and more focused on domestic consumer spending.
But whether Beijing desires it or not, I believe this transformation would be happening anyway. As China’s middle classes expand and adopt acquisitive Western lifestyles, it is inevitable that their economic clout will be felt.
Ah, the elusive Chinese consumer. Just hearing him mentioned is enough to trigger a Pavlovian dog response in investors. But getting real access to him has proved to be difficult.
Consider that familiar consumer staple we know and love: beer. I have been a consistent advocate of global “Big Beer” as a play on rising consumer incomes. Heineken (HINKY) is a favored long-term holding of my Covestor Sizemore Investment Letter portfolio , and I have also written favorably about Anheuser-Busch InBev ($BUD). Both of these megabrewers have excellent exposure to the growing — and beer swilling — emerging market middle class.
But what about Chinese brewer Tsingtao Brewery (TSGTF)? It is, after all, the best pure play on Chinese beer consumption. Unfortunately, it is also too expensive to be taken seriously. Investors wanting access to Chinese beer drinkers have bid the shares up to 25 times earnings and to a dividend yield of less than 1% (as of 10/22).
Chinese Web browser Baidu ($BIDU) is also a bit on the pricey side at 29 times earnings, a valuation I might have expected to see 12 years ago. China Mobile ($CHL) remains attractively priced and pays a respectable 3.5% in dividend yield (as of 10/22).
Otherwise, it is a real struggle to find Chinese stocks with decent liquidity that cater to the country’s domestic consumers.
Instead, I continue to be a fan of the indirect approach, finding American and European companies with high exposure to China. Luxury goods stocks have been a good fit, and most have sold off, or at least traded sideways, in recent months due to fears that China’s slowdown would hit sales.
With China looking to be turning a corner, luxury firms will likely have a nice finish to 2012. One that I particularly like is the British Burberry (BURBY) . Burberry lost a quarter of its value last month on fears that its sales in China were slowing worse than expected. Shares have recovered about half of those losses in the weeks that followed, but expectations for the company are mixed.
Should Chinese luxury spending recover even slightly — and I expect that it will do much better than that — I expect Burberry to enjoy a nice multi-month rally.
This article first appeared on MarketWatch.
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