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Forget the Year of the Rabbit. 2011 was supposed to be the year of the Chinese consumer. Unfortunately, it's starting to look like the year of the premature call.
Chinese consumers should have taken off already in 2011, according to the talking heads on television. But the race car that is the Chinese economy seems to be out of fuel, in part because China still has its foot on the brakes. The broad-based SPDR S&P China (GXC) is up only 7% for the past six months, but the plain vanilla S&P 500 beat it by 18%.
What caused it to stall out? Simply put, Chinese inflation. Recent figures from China's statistics bureau show consumer prices almost 5% higher in January than during the same month in 2010. Economists expect that number to keep growing. The growing concern of a massive Chinese real estate bubble and the huge jump in food prices are adding fuel to the fire of concerns about even higher inflation.However, this does not mean that investors should clear out of Chinese exposure. It only means you have to change your approach. Often, when we talk about investing in the Chinese economy, it's implied that the right play involves a hopeful outlook for China's consumers and internal activity. However, that's not what's working in China right now. If you look at the funds that track Chinese sectors, you'll see the real story emerge: ETFs, such as the Global X China Materials ETF (CHIM) and the Global X China Technology ETF (CHIB) are up, while the Global X China Consumer ETF (CHIQ) and Global X China Financials ETF (CHIX) ETFs are down. Energy is up big, while the Global X China Industrials Fund (CHII) is stuck in the middle. Basically, what's working in China now is not domestic China, it's the rest of the world, such as sectors built around shipping and selling goods to you and me. The right move for a China-focused investor, oddly enough, is to not focus on China. Instead, look to funds that track what China is doing for the rest of the world.