The litmus test for the global economy

Chain’s smartphone and auto sales tumble as coronavirus hits demand

China is the world’s largest market for smartphones and autos – responsible for c30% of global sales for both.  Yet as Reuters notes:

“Most western policymakers and journalists view the world economy through a framework that is 10-15 years out of date, failing to account fully for the enormous shift in activity towards China and the rest of Asia.”

The critical fact is that both markets are now about to go into a severe downturn as a result of the coronavirus epidemic. This is already having a major impact on domestic sales in China, and is starting to create major disruption to today’s globalised supply chains.

SMARTPHONES SALES HAVE BEEN IN DECLINE SINCE 2017

As the chart shows, global smartphone sales were down again in Q4.  2019 sales were 1.4bn, versus their 2017 peak of 1.5bn. And, of course, Q1 is going to be a terrible period for sales, given the coronavirus impacts.

China has been the world’s largest market since 2012, but sales were down 37% in January as consumers began to worry about the risks from the virus.  February will clearly be much worse, as a result of the major lockdowns in place.  As Strategy Analytics warn:

“The smartphone market will be adversely impacted by the slowing GDP growth and the plunging consumer spending. It will also impact global smartphone supply and manufacturing, because China makes 70% of all smartphones sold on the planet.”

Research firms IDC and Canalys are already forecasting that China’s market will be down 40% in Q1. But this is likely an under-estimate, given the impact of the lockdowns.  Most retail stores, including Apple’s, have been shut during February, after all. And as Chinese business paper Caixin reported:

“China’s capital might be officially back to work, but it would be hard to tell from walking around the normally congested city. Tourist sites and other popular destinations remain unusually free of sightseers, customers or pedestrians.”

Outside China, parts arriving in the West today came from factories that were still open before Lunar New Year.  But now, supply chain problems are about to become evident:

  • Port calls in China fell 30% last month, as ships worried about crews being quarantined
  • Los Angeles – the largest US gateway for seaborne China imports – saw volumes drop 25%
  • Things will now get worse, as shipping times of 4 – 6 weeks mean new supplies are reducing
  • And back in China, it seems workers are often frightened to return – Apple’s main supplier, Foxconn, is having to offer $1k bonuses to persuade new workers to join

And, of course, the recession is also seeing major paradigm shifts take place.

For example, used smartphones are now becoming a viable market in their own right for the first time.  207m were sold last year, up 18% from 2018, and IDC see the market growing to over 300m phones by 2023. As they note:

“In contrast to the recent declines in the new smartphone market, as well as the forecast for minimal growth in new shipments over the next few years, the used market for smartphones shows no signs of slowing down across all parts of the globe. Refurbished and used devices continue to provide cost-effective alternatives to both consumers and businesses that are looking to save money when purchasing a smartphone.”

CHINA’S AUTO MARKET IS IN CRISIS

China’s auto market also matters. It is easily the largest in the world, with peak sales in 2017 of 24.7m, versus 17.9m in the USA and 15.3m in Europe.  And without China’s four-fold stimulus-powered sales increase since 2008, the global market would have seen no growth at all.

But today, the used market has become key to auto sales growth, as the chart confirms.  Consensus opinion still believes that its new car sales would continue to grow until at least the end of the decade. But this conclusion fails to reflect the unique nature of China’s market:

  • Back in 2000, there were just 16m cars on the road – and the quality was so bad, they mostly fell apart within a few years. There were still only 65m cars in 2008, before stimulus began
  • As a result, used car sales hardly existed. Instead, as in most poor countries, local mechanics would strip out parts from abandoned cars and reuse them to keep others on the road
  • It was only when China’s “subprime on steroids” stimulus programme began in 2009, with shadow banks funding speculative house purchases, that Western companies introduced their technology
  • Even then, it took until 2014 for used sales to start motoring, and they have still not reached a 50:50 ratio with new cars. And the direction of travel is clear, as used sales are normally 2x-3x new in most countries

China’s used sales rose 8% in 2019, whilst new sales fell 9%. They may well equal new sales this year for the first time, given the collapse underway in new sales.

Thus the virtuous circle of the last decade is turning vicious.  China’s new car sales fell by 90% in February, and salary losses during the lockdowns make it unlikely that the crisis has left a backlog of pent-up demand to create a V-shaped recovery.

Similarly, used car sales are set to cannibalise new car sales in all the major markets. Lending standards are already tightening, making new cars simply unaffordable.

THE WORLD WILL SEE MAJOR CHANGE DURING THE RECESSION

People sometimes say they ‘can’t plan until they know what is happening’. But in reality, what they mean is that they have become used to doing tactical planning, based on the idea of ‘business as usual’.  Today, however, we all have to relearn how to plan for uncertainty.

The question now for investors and companies is to start contingency planning for what may happen next.  We have to ask the question – how quickly will used smartphones and cars cannibalise new sales over the next year? Will they take 10%, 20% or more?  And what will happen to prices and margins as a result?

As the saying goes – “to fail to plan, is to plan for failure.”

Smartphone sales continue their decline, whilst $25 smart feature phones open up new markets

Global smartphone sales have now been falling for 8 consecutive quarters, since Q3 2017. They are now down 9% from their peak, as the chart shows, based on Strategy Analytics data.  As always in a falling market, Winners and Losers are staring to appear:

LOSERS

  • Apple’s market share fell to its lowest level for 10 years at just 11%; revenue and profit are falling
  • Samsung’s Q2 profits fell 56%, hit by Galaxy Fold problems plus Japan-Korea and US-China trade wars
  • Smartphones themselves are losing ground to smart feature phones that retail for just $25

WINNERS

  • China’s Huawei, Xiaomi and OPPO now have a combined 35% market share, double their Q2 2014 share
  • Huawei’s Operating System is being readied to compete with Android, as the US-China trade war continues
  • 85 million smart feature phones, developed for Reliance’s Jio telecom company will likely be sold this year

As discussed here before, the Western majors have failed to recognise this paradigm shift in the market.  Cash-strapped consumers are no longer prepared to pay $1000+ for the prestige of an up-market brand, as analysts IDC note:

“A key driver in Q2 was the availability of vastly improved mid-tier devices that offer premium designs and features while significantly undercutting the ultra-high-end in price”.

President Trump’s new China tariffs will, of course, create further problems for Apple and Google as these will:

  • Push up prices in the US domestic market and hit consumer demand in the critical Thanksgiving/Christmas period
  • Galvanise Huawei’s development of its new Operating System – helping it to become a major competitor in the global market

COMPANIES ARE FOCUSING ON THE WRONG MARKETS

But the really critical issue for most smartphone sellers is their continued focus on the Wealth Creator 25 – 54 age group. This was a great strategy during the Boomer-led SuperCycle, as there were vast numbers of Western Boomers with money to spend and a liking for innovative products. But not today, as the chart above confirms:

  • Increasing life expectancy means the Perennials 55+ generation is now the fastest growing segment
  • There were 500m Perennials in the Top 10 economies in 2000, and their numbers will double by 2030
  • And they represent an entirely different market opportunity

Perennials don’t need ever-more complicated “bells and whistles” on their phones.  They just want the basic features, clearly laid out. And they need their phones to be affordable, as their incomes decline as they move into retirement.

Equally important is the other major untapped market for growth –  the 3.4bn people in the world who currently don’t own a smartphone and can’t afford one.  As the Wall Street Journal has reported:

“Smart feature phones aren’t only inexpensive, but they also have physical keypads that are less intimidating than touch screens for those new to the technology. Meanwhile, their batteries last for days, a bonus in places where electricity is unreliable”.

These phones represent a major threat to smartphone sellers, and their supply chains around the world:

  •  As Reliance’s Jio network found after launching in 2016, millions of Indians could afford its ultra-cheap data plan, but couldn’t afford a smartphone
  • Many people in the developed world, old and young, would happily swap an over-complicated smartphone selling for an average $300+ for a more basic feature phone selling for $25

Already apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp have been modified to work on feature phones, further extending their appeal.  Google has also invested in Hong Kong’s KaiOS, which makes the operating system most widely used in feature phones.

The Orange network is also starting to realise the potential. It is rolling out cheap data services on the Jio model in the Ivory Coast, and plans to extend service elsewhere in Africa and the Middle East. Meanwhile Indonesia’s WizPhone is about to offer a phone for $7, and is planning a launch in Brazil.

As the world moves into recession, losing companies will stick their heads in the sand. They will hope central banks somehow find a way out of the debt mess they have created. Winning companies, however, will go back to first base and focus on unmet market needs, such as for smart feature phones, and figure out a way to supply them profitably.

 

Smartphone sales decline begins to impact global stock markets

The bad news continues for the world’s smartphone manufacturers and their suppliers.  And President Trump’s decision to add a 25% tariff on smartphone component imports from China from June 25 is unlikely to help. Morgan Stanley estimate it will add $160 to the current US iPhone XS price of $999, whilst a state-backed Chinese consumer boycott of Apple phones may well develop in retaliation for US sanctions on Huawei.

Chances are that a perfect storm is developing around the industry as its phenomenal run since 2011 comes to an end:

  • Global sales fell 4% in Q1 as the chart shows, with volume of 330m the lowest since Q3 2014
  • China’s market fell 3% to 88m, whilst US volume fell 18% to 36m
  • Apple has been badly hit, with US sales down 19% in Q1 and China sales down 25% in the past 6 months
  • Foldables have also failed to make a breakthrough, with Gartner estimating just 30m sales by 2023

This downbeat news highlights the fact that replacement cycles are no longer every year/18 months, but have already pushed out to 2.6 years.  Consumers see no need to rush to buy the latest model, given that today’s phones already cater very well for their needs.

Apple’s volumes confirm the secular nature of the downturn, as its volume continued the decline seen in 2018 as the iPhone comes to the end of its lifecycle. Its market share also fell back to 13%, allowing Huawei to take second place behind Samsung with a 17.9% share.  This decline came about despite Apple making major price cuts for the XS and XR series, as well as introducing a trade-in programme. Meanwhile, Samsung saw its profits fall 60%, the lowest since its battery problems in 2017.

The President’s tariffs are also set to impact sales, as manufacturers have to assume that today’s supply chains will need to be restructured. Manufacturing of low-end components can perhaps be easily relocated to countries such as Vietnam and other SE Asian countries.  But moving factories, like moving house, is a very disruptive process, and it is certainly not easy to find the technical skills required to make high-end components – which represent the core value proposition for consumers.

This highlights how second-order impacts are often overlooked when big announcements are made around tariffs and similar protectionist measures.  Not only do prices go up, as someone has to pay the extra costs involved. But companies along the supply chain see their margins squeezed as well – Apple suppliers Foxconn and Pegatron saw their gross margins fall to 5.5% and 2.3%, the lowest level since 2012, for example. So they will have less to spend on future innovations.

We can, of course, all hope that the current trade war proves only temporary. But President Trump’s decision to embargo Huawei from US telecom equipment markets suggests he is digging in for a long battle. Ironically, however, Huawei was one of the few winners in Q1, with its volume surging 50% despite its planned 2018 US entry being cancelled due to congressional pressure.  And other governments seem notable reluctant to follow the US lead.

The bigger risk, of course, for investors is that the profit downturn caused by protectionism cannot be “solved” by central bank stimulus. Since 2009, as the chart of the S&P 500 shows, they have rushed to support the market whenever it appeared poised for a return to more normal valuations. But it is hard to see how even their fall-back position of “helicopter money” can counter the impact of a fully-fledged trade war between the world’s 2 largest economies.

Fed’s magic money tree hopes to overcome smartphone sales downturn and global recession risk

Last November, I wrote one of my “most-read posts”, titled Global smartphone recession confirms consumer downturn. The only strange thing was that most people read it several weeks later on 3 January, after Apple announced its China sales had fallen due to the economic downturn.

Why did Apple and financial markets only then discover that smartphone sales were in a downturn led by China?  Our November pH Report “Smartphone sales recession highlights economic slowdown‘, had already given detailed insight into the key issues, noting that:

“It also confirms the early warning over weakening end-user demand given by developments in the global chemical industry since the start of the year. Capacity Utilisation was down again in September as end-user demand slowed. And this pattern has continued into early November, as shown by our own Volume Proxy.

The same phenomenon had occurred before the 2008 Crisis, of course, as described in The Crystal Blog.  I wrote regularly here, in the Financial Times and elsewhere about the near-certainty that we were heading for a major financial crisis. Yet very few people took any notice.

And even after the crash, the consensus chose to ignore the demographic explanation for it that John Richardson and I gave in ‘Boom, Gloom and the New Normal: How the Western BabyBoomers are Changing Demand Patterns, Again’.

Nothing seems to change.  So here we are again, with the chart showing full-year 2018 smartphone sales, and it is clear that the consumer downturn is continuing:

  • 2018 sales at 1.43bn were down 5% versus 2017, with Q4 volume down 6% versus Q4 2017
  • Strikingly, low-cost Huawei’s volume was equal to high-priced Apple’s at 206m
  • Since 2015, its volume has almost doubled whilst Apple’s has fallen 11%

And this time the financial outlook is potentially worse than in 2008.  The tide of global debt built up since 2008 means that the “World faces wave of epic debt defaults” according to the only central banker to forecast the Crisis.

“WALL STREET, WE HAVE A PROBLEM”

So why did Apple shares suddenly crash 10% on 3 January, as the chart shows? Everything that Apple reported was already known.  After all, when I wrote in November, I was using published data from Strategy Analytics which was available to anyone on their website.

The answer, unfortunately, is that markets have lost their key role of price discovery. Central banks have deliberately destroyed it with their stimulus programmes, in the belief that a strong stock market will lead to a strong economy. And this has been going on for a long time, as newly released Federal Reserve minutes confirmed last week:

  • Back in January 2013, then Fed Governor Jay Powell warned that policies “risked driving securities above fundamental values
  • He went on to warn that the result would be “there is every reason to expect a sharp and painful correction
  • Yet 6 years later, and now Fed Chairman, Powell again rushed to support the stock market last week
  • He took the prospect of interest rate rises off the table, despite US unemployment dropping for a record 100 straight months

The result is that few investors now bother to analyse what is happening in the real world.

They believe  they don’t need to, as the Fed will always be there, watching their backs. So “Bad News is Good News”, because it means the Fed and other Western central banks will immediately print more money to support stock markets.

And there is even a new concept, ‘Modern Monetary Theory’ (MMT), to justify what they are doing.

THE MAGIC MONEY TREE PROVIDES ALL THE MONEY WE NEED

There are 3 key points that are relevant to the Modern Monetary Theory:

  • The Federal government can print its own money, and does this all the time
  • The Federal government can always roll over the debt that this money-printing creates
  • The Federal government can’t ever go bankrupt, because of the above 2 points

The scholars only differ on one point.  One set believes that pumping up the stock market is therefore a legitimate role for the central bank. As then Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke argued in November 2010:

“Higher stock prices will boost consumer wealth and help increase confidence, which can also spur spending. Increased spending will lead to higher incomes and profits that, in a virtuous circle, will further support economic expansion.”

The other set believes instead that government can and should spend as much as they like on social and other programmes:

“MMT logically argues as a consequence that there is no such thing as tax and spend when considering the activity of the government in the economy; there can only be spend and tax.

The result is that almost nobody talks about debt any more, and the need to repay it.  Whenever I talk about this, I am told – as in 2006-8 – that “I don’t understand”.  This may be true. But it may instead be true that, as I noted last month:

“Whilst Apple won’t go bankrupt any time soon, weaker companies in its supply chain certainly face this risk – as do other companies dependent on sales in China. And as their sales volumes and profits start to fall, investors similarly risk finding that large numbers of companies with “Triple B” ratings have suddenly been re-rated as “Junk”:

  • Bianco Research suggest that 14% of companies in the S&P 1500 are zombies, with their earnings unable to cover interest expenses
  • The Bank of International Settlements has already warned that Western central banks stimulus lending means that >10% of US/EU firms currently “rely on rolling over loans as their interest bill exceeds their EBIT. They are most likely to fail as liquidity starts to dry up”.

I fear the coming global recession will expose the wishful thinking behind the magic of the central banks’ money trees.

Global smartphone recession confirms consumer downturn


Q3 smartphone sales data show the global market in recession, as Strategy Analytics confirmed:

The global smartphone market has now declined for four consecutive quarters and is effectively in a recession.

The warning signs began in Q1, when the market plateaued for the first time, as discussed here in May:

“The global smartphone market has finally gone ex-growth as China’s slowdown continues. In turn, the market is starting to polarise – with Apple pushing further up-market whilst Chinese brands such as Xiaomi focus on volume. Samsung’s middle market positioning looks increasingly under threat.”

The chart highlights the key issues:

  • Samsung’s market share has declined from a third in 2013 to a fifth today, as its mid-market positioning leaves it without a clear value proposition for consumers
  • China’s Top 3 players have meanwhile soared from just a 12% market share to 29% today, powered by their low-cost positioning
  • Apple’s market share has remained very stable, as it has focused on the top end of the market, prioritising price over volume
  • “Others”, also usually without a clear value proposition, have seen their share drop to just 36% from a peak of 46% in Q3 2016


China remains the world’s largest smartphone market, with 103 million phones sold in Q3. But its volume was down 8% compared to Q3 2017, as the stimulus programmes continue to slow. As the Counterpoint chart shows, the market is now consolidating around a few winners:

  • Huawei are emerging as the market leader with a 23% share
  • Vivo and Oppo remain key challengers at 21%
  • But “Others” have dropped to 13%, and Samsung has almost disappeared at just 1%

As Counterpoint note, the top 5 brands now hold 86% of the market:

“The Chinese smartphone market is saturated with accelerated market consolidation. The competition in 2018 is almost a zero-sum game for the top five players. It is challenging however, even for the leading brands to create clear product differentiation. In Q3, only Huawei and vivo managed to achieve positive YoY growth among the top 5 brands.”

Meanwhile, of course, Apple continue to dominate the premium segment after the launch of the new iPhones in September.

This divergence between low-cost and premium will no doubt spread across the rest of the global market as the downturn continues.  And the main growth is likely to be in the low-cost area.

India, for example, saw volume grew 5% versus Q3 2017.  But with average per capita income less than $2000, price is all-important.  Reliance Jio’s ultra-low pricing strategy has been critical in making bandwidth affordable, and there are now over 400 million smartphone users in the country.

But iPhone sales are actually falling, and will be down by a third to just 2 million this year.  Functional phones in the $150-$250 price segment are driving sales growth, via online sales.  Q4 is expected to see these grow 65% to reach 50 million, due to their 50%-60% discounts.


The smartphone market thus continues to confirm that the BabyBoomer-led SuperCycle is over. As the chart shows, this created a new and highly profitable mid-market from the mid-1980s:

  • Before then, companies had competed on the basis of price or perceived value
  • But from the mid-1980s onwards, the mid-market became the most profitable sector
  • Now, with the Boomers retiring and stimulus programmes ended, we are going back to basics again

Instead, the market is segmenting again on the basis of price or perceived value. Chinese players compete on price, while Apple focuses on profit and is moving up-market. this means that previously profitable market leaders such as Samsung are slowly disappearing along with the mid-market segment that they supplied.

These very different strategies highlight the new world ahead for consumer markets and those who supply them.