By Keith Fitz-Gerald
Money Morning/The Money Map Report
This is the time of year in which many investors really start to study corporate earnings, jobless statistics and all sorts of other state data in an effort to divine what’s next for China.
But I simply prefer to head for the Wan Chai Street Market in Hong Kong, or the Temple Street Night Market across the harbor in Kowloon, and check on hairy crab prices as we approach the Lunar New Year.
These delectable little guys are usually served steamed, with a splash of soy sauce. When China’s booming like it was in recent years, shoppers are hard-pressed to find a store that can keep them on the shelves. And at 720RMB, or $420HK (about $60 U.S.), that’s no small feat for a palm-sized morsel. They’re expensive, and taste great.
A hairy crab, if you’ve never seen one, is usually a bit smaller than the Dungeness crabs many Americans are more familiar with. These freshwater crustaceans start to fatten as soon as the autumn chill cools the Yangtze River Delta. That adds to their taste and desirability.
When China’s feeling pinched, hairy crab sales drop and prices plummet. At the moment, hairy crab prices are off by more than 80%, which is a steeper drop than during the Asian Financial Crisis a decade ago, or during the SARS epidemic in 2003. After the best sales in history last year, that’s significant because of what falling hairy crab sales imply about the state of China’s economy at a time when it is struggling to stave off the effects of a global recession and growth may drop to the slowest pace China’s seen in nearly a decade.
Since hairy crabs are a luxury both in the home and at restaurants, the falling prices suggest that people are “eating cheaper.” Rather than ordering up haute cuisine – including hairy crabs – at such restaurants as Cuisine Cuisine in the International Financial Centre (IFC) Tower, or the famous Jumbo Floating Restaurant in Hong Kong Harbor, most Chinese are eating “cheap” and seem to prefer smaller, more modest places these days.
They’re also apparently “shopping cheap,” too. Call it a Chinese version of the “Wal-Mart Effect” (WM), but that’s what’s happening as savvy Chinese consumers downshift. They’re still spending – as reflected by Chinese retail sales figures, which suggest year-over-year growth of 21% in 2008 – but they’re spending differently.
Nowhere is this change more evident than in those stores where luxury items are sold. Shanghai and Hong Kong store managers I’ve spoken with recently told me privately that such big-ticket brand names as Chanel, and others aren’t moving as fast as they were a year ago.,
Knock-offs, of course, are still flying off the shelves.
On a related note, many Chinese merchants are actually refusing to take credit cards these days, at least from Chinese consumers. Don’t think for a minute this is limited to convenience store items, either. Big-ticket items like tours and holiday excursions that have long been paid for on credit are now cash or check only as many travel companies – like Hong Kong’s Sincere International Travel Service Co. Ltd. – look to avoid getting caught short.
Many merchants say that banks are hoarding cash and delaying payments on personal credit cards. While no banks would comment officially in response to my inquiries, it’s clear that Chinese lenders are dumping riskier credit-card holders just like their Western banking brethren. Only faster.
Unlike their Western cousins, for whom credit has been a bonanza, Chinese banks have only relatively recently gotten into the credit game after being so cash-centric that the rest of the world’s bankers viewed China’s lenders as antiquated. But now that generation of cautiousness is paying off.
Chinese banks are apparently also going the extra mile to ensure they don’t get burned. Lenders are making credit-card transactions as unattractive as possible for the merchants who process the charge slips and they’re doing so by using the most effective tool of all – delayed payments.
Only a year ago, most banks paid credit-card transactions in 14 days. But now, according to reports by CNN and other news outlets, it’s not uncommon for a merchant to have to wait 20, 40 or even 90 days to get paid. And that obviously affects cash flow at a time when luxury businesses in China are already under pressure.
This all speaks to something we at Money Morning have talked about repeatedly over the past 12 months: Investing in China is not about luxury as so many investors have mistakenly thought. It’s about the basics. To be sure, luxury items and top-shelf brands have enjoyed a heyday in China that coincides with the dramatic growth spurt the country has experienced in recent years. But luxury brands are hardly the key to steady growth and profits over the long term.
That mantle, instead, belongs to much more basic industries, such as power-generation, railway-and-infrastructure construction, water filtration, and pollution control. All will benefit substantially from China’s $583 billion stimulus package, which is designed to fuel growth that not only benefits the economy, but also staves off social unrest, which is what Beijing’s power elite fears the most. To China’s Politburo, running out of power is a far more significant risk than running out of Gucci.
[Editor’s Note: Money Morning Investment Director Keith Fitz-Gerald will be personally leading our 7th annual Chinese investment tour this April and invites anybody who wants to sample hairy crabs to join him. It’s a great way to see firsthand how and why China is critical to the global economic recovery and to our individual investing futures – not to mention that it’s also a great opportunity to sample some truly spectacular food. Please click here to learn more.
Fitz-Gerald is also the editor of the new “Geiger Index” trading service.As the whipsaw trading patterns investors have endured this year have shown, the ongoing global financial crisis has changed the investment game forever. Uncertainty is now the norm and that new reality alone has created a whole set of new rules that will help determine who profits and who loses. Investors who ignore this "New Reality" will struggle, and will find their financial forays to be frustrating and unrewarding. But investors who embrace this change will not only survive - they will thrive. With the Geiger Index, Fitz-Gerald has already isolated these new rules and has unlocked the key to what he refers to as "The Golden Age of Wealth Creation." The Geiger Index system allows Fitz-Gerald to predict the price movements of broad indexes, or of individual stocks, with a high degree of certainty. And it's particularly well suited to the kind of market we're all facing right now. Check out our latest report on these new rules, and on this new market environment.]
News and Related Story Links:
12HK.com (The Unofficial Guide to Hong Kong):
Wan Chai Street Market.
Hong Kong Voyage:
Temple Street Night Market.
Money Morning News Analysis:
Massive China Stimulus is Viewed as an Attempt to Help the West.
SFGate.com (The San Francisco Chronicle):
It’s a Hairy Crab Extravaganza.
Asian Financial Crisis.
Cuisine Cuisine Restaurant.
The Politburo of the Communist Party of China.
Money Morning Outlook 2009 Series:
China’s Red Dragon Turns Financial Crisis into Opportunity.
Money Morning Buy, Sell or Hold Series:
Buy, Sell or Hold: For a Defensive Stock, Wal-Mart Plays a Great Offense.