The global economy has been relying on American consumers for decades. But China's middle class is ready to take on some of the load.
China's middle class is ready to explode. According to global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, by 2022 China's middle class will account for 76% of the country's urban population. The study defined "middle class" as urban households that earn $9,000-to-$34,000 a year. (That's not a lot of money in the U.S., but once adjusted for what it can buy in China it pays for a comparable "middle class" lifestyle.) That will be up from just 4% of the urban population in 2000.
In 2015, China's urban population was about 730 million people. Even if that number doesn't change (and it will likely only get bigger) it means that by 2022 China's middle class will have more than 550 million people. If China's middle class became its own country, by 2022 it would have the third-highest population in the world.
China's Middle Class Will Have Higher Incomes
In 2012, the "mass middle" class made up 54% of urban Chinese households, according to the McKinsey study. This means their income was between $9,000 and $16,000 a year. But because of a growing number of higher-paying jobs in the high-tech and service industries, by 2022 54% of urban households will be considered "upper middle" class. This means they will be earning between $16,000 and $34,000 a year.
Meanwhile, the Boston Consulting Group predicts that Chinese consumption (the amount of stuff people buy) will grow 9% each year until 2020. China's consumer economy as a whole is expected to grow by 55%, to $6.5 trillion. That's $2.3 trillion more than it was in 2015 -- which is equal to adding a consumer market 1.3 times bigger than the U.K.'s or Germany's current consumer market. And that's based on the assumption that China's GDP growth will be just 5.5% a year -- even though it's projected to be 6.5% to 7% a year.
Chinese Households Don't Have a Lot of Debt
China's low levels of household debt also support growth in consumer spending. China's household debt-to-GDP ratio is less than half of the U.S.'s household debt-to-GDP ratio -- it's currently at 40%. As shown below, this is also much lower than that of other developed countries.
Not only does this mean that Chinese consumers spend less on servicing debt (leaving them more money to spend on buying things), but it also means they're able to take on more debt. Even though there is some cultural resistance to taking on too much debt, this will in theory support further consumption growth.
The "Young Generation" Likes to Spend Money
The younger generation of Chinese consumers, those born after 1980, have higher incomes than their predecessors. They're also less frugal and more consumer-oriented than their parents and grandparents. And they now have access to all the goods available to the rest of the world's consumers, unlike previous generations.
This young generation's consumption spending is growing by 14% a year. That's double the consumption growth for those aged 35 or more, called the "last generation." The young generation currently accounts for 45% of total Chinese consumption, but that's expected to grow to 53% by 2020.
How investors can profit
China's coming middle class spending spree will obviously benefit Chinese consumer companies. And you can invest in the Chinese consumer sector using ETFs.
For example, the iShares CSI A-Shares Consumer Discretionary Index ETF (Hong Kong; code: 3001) tracks the performance of China's CSI 300 Consumer Discretionary Index using derivatives. The consumer discretionary sector includes companies that provide goods and services that are considered non-essential but that people will buy when they have more money. Discretionary items are an increasing focus of China's growing middle class.
Kim Iskyan is the founder of
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This article is commentary by an independent contributor. At the time of publication, the author held no positions in the stocks mentioned.