The world’s economy has seen a dramatic shift in its centre of gravity in recent years. The auto industry has been at the forefront of developments – typified by the collapse of the US vehicle market and the untrammelled growth of China’s, making it the world’s biggest. But we could be about to see the pendulum shift, ever so slightly, the other way.
The money markets have been spooked lately over the adverse implications of ballooning sovereign debt – especially in Europe. The whole sorry situation will require deft managing for some time to come, even if the most immediate danger – a country actually defaulting on its loan repayments – has perhaps been averted.
Thank goodness for the emerging markets of the world. At a time of economic weakness in North America, Europe and Japan, places like China and India have continued to show growth and that’s helped companies across the world. But it’s not just China and India; Brazil has been a bright spot as have the Asean economies (Indonesia’s vehicle market has now become ASEAN’s largest). Even Russia’s car market has turned the corner, helped by a scrappage incentive.
The economic forecasters certainly have their work cut out at the moment. On balance, it looks like interest rates will be staying low for a while yet. And that will help to support demand while some governments move to reduce national debt. How quickly they tighten things up fiscally will be a tricky line to tread. Acting too slowly prolongs the underlying malaise and attendant risks; acting too fast risks choking off what little economic recovery we have already had. And the voters on the streets are something of a wild card.
A ‘double-dip’ recession can’t be ruled out at this stage. Later on this year will be a crucial time. The money markets may well have moved on from sovereign debt worries. If things are still looking better in the major developed economies, even if it’s still only a shallow incline, that may please investors if interest rates are still low, inflationary pressures in check.
A big question for the global economy later this year may well become the sustainability of perky growth in emerging markets. China’s economic boom has been accompanied by an unprecedented asset price bubble – evident in its property sector and stock markets. Double-digit economic growth has raised fears in Beijing of overheating. Measures have already been taken to dampen down activity in some sectors.
And a slowdown is virtually inevitable for the Chinese car market. Later this year, China’s car market will struggle to maintain year-on-year growth when the comparison is against the strong monthly markets of the second half of 2009. Local market analysts will want to keep a close eye on the Chinese vehicle market over the next six months. The summer is a period when sales in China can show seasonal weakness.
The rising price of gasoline is a new area of concern that could also coincide with rising official intervention over chronic traffic congestion and air quality in China’s big cities. While the gasoline price hike won’t derail car market growth, it will have some psychological impact on already under-pressure city car users.
If, as expected, the Chinese vehicle market and industry slows, how far will it slow and how quickly? Will motorisation continue to grow away from China’s already congested mega-cities? Overcapacity could quickly become a serious problem in 2011 if the market is falling by then, confidence heading south after a prolonged period of unprecedented growth.
Some will perhaps say that a market adjustment of some sort in China is inevitable and that the Chinese government is well aware of the need to manage that in a way that minimises harm to the economy. If nothing else, it’s about political self-interest and China’s economy has been skilfully managed so far. Maybe.
But if China’s asset bubble bursts in chaotic fashion and its economy goes into something like a heavy landing, that would carry spillover effects that will worry investors, bankers, governments and automotive executives alike.