Why a slowdown in China is still good for business

Story highlights

  • All of China's economic indicators point to a slowdown in 2015 as wages rise and inflation takes holds
  • The slowdown presents a good opportunity for emerging markets to take some of China's market share
  • Chinese companies are already seeking out lower labor costs in countries across the Asia region
  • Experts say the prospects for countries such as Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan have never been better
Virtual Think Tank is a digital series focusing on the emerging markets, covering their startups, the power of the middle classes on their economies and the macro environment.

(CNN)Rising wages, sagging property prices, inflation: all of China's indicators point to a slowdown of its powerhouse economy in 2015.

After decades of double-digit growth, China slumped back into single digits in 2012 as stimulus money from the global financial crisis began to dry up. With the latest GDP figures showing growth of just 7.3% (GDP growth regularly stood around 11% in the lead up to 2008) the September quarter of 2014 was one of the slowest since the crisis.
    Analysts said China may even fail to hit its targets for the first time.
    While these problems may be giving Beijing pause for thought, for China's regional neighbors in Cambodia, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Laos and beyond, a China slump is good news.
    Cheaper labor
    Not only is the rising cost of the Chinese workforce pushing many manufacturers to seek cheaper labor offshore, but China's slackening demand for some natural resources has been a boon for the rest of South East Asia.
    Brent crude has fallen more than a third over the year, hitting a four-year low of US$76.76 a barrel this month.
    For countries in South East Asia that heavily subsidize energy to fuel their economies, the China slowdown is a welcome respite.
    "Chinese garment manufacturers have been pouring into Asia's low-wage countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh, accelerating these countries' industrialization and urbanization, and creating millions of new jobs," Doug Clayton of frontier investor Leopard Capital told CNN.
    It's a drift that is likely to benefit China's neighbors for some time to come, he said.
    "This trend will continue until the surplus rural labor pool is mopped up and the wage gap narrows," continued Clayton. "If China's wage inflation continues, (this situation) could last another 5-10 years at least."
    Bright prospects
    While the exporting economies in the region may take a hit in the short-term, he said the long-term picture is encouraging.
    "Frontier markets tend to export commodities to China, so the falling resource prices hurt their rural economies," he said. "On a macro level, however, lower oil prices help offset the pain, since most frontier economies are oil importers."
    China's planned economy, too, also means that Beijing looks at its economic prospects in terms of decades rather than financial quarters.
    "China's appetite for financing and building infrastructure projects across its borders seems undiminished by its economic slowdown," Clayton said.
    "The country's leaders have a long-term viewpoint and see strategic benefits in opening new markets and expanding prosperity in countries within its sphere of influence.
    "These mega-projects also help employ surplus Chinese workers and showcase China's engineering capabilities."
    China still growing
    For many analysts, however, China's economy is still on an upward trajectory despite concerns over credit bubbles, property slumps and general slowdowns.
    "China's economy is slowing but it's still growing," Ben Simpfendorfer, founder and manager of Silk Road Associates, told CNN. "It's larger than the combined value of Brazil, Russia or India's own GDPs.
    "We spent the last few months speaking with regional CEOs from some of the world's biggest multinationals and they all say the same thing; yes the country is growing but it's growing in complexity."
    He said it is important for investors to now segment their markets to make sure that a product or service is reaching the right people and the right geographies.
    "If you're a bit more sophisticated in your approach, you can make good money in China."
    Crucial reforms
    Analysts say much will hinge on whether the government of Xi Jinping can institute bold and scheduled reforms to its highly regulated domestic capital markets and to interest rates.
    In the meantime, however, the landscape for the other emerging economies in the region has never been better, said Thomas Hugger CEO and Fund Manager for Asia Frontier Capital.
    "Frontier markets have lower income and labor costs so countries in Asia like Vietnam, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Pakistan, will benefit and it will have a dramatic impact in those societies or economies.
    "More and more people go from the rural areas to the big cities they start earning salaries, start consuming, start using medical services and healthcare and that's where we have a major focus when we invest."
    He said the pendulum was now swinging in favor of other emerging markets in the Asia regions as they gained market share from China.
    "The cycle started 40 or 50 years ago in Hong Kong, moved to Taiwan and then to China and now it's time to move to other places," he said.