China's big spenders tightening their belts?

Posted at 08/13/2014 2:26 PM | Updated as of 08/13/2014 6:01 PM

HONG KONG - China's big spenders are reining in overt shows of wealth, shelving shopping trips in Hong Kong and Macau gambling sprees in the face of the Communist Party's anti-corruption and frugality drive, analysts say.

President Xi Jinping has launched a much-publicised graft crackdown since taking office last year with a series of high profile takedowns of party officials sending shockwaves through an elite who once did little to hide their prosperity.

A related austerity drive -- ordering an end to excessive gift-giving and banquets within the state sector -- has also meant officials are wary of popping too many champagne corks.

Fearful of attracting any scrutiny that might lead to a potentially career-ending probe, many of China's most powerful are either tightening their belts or being much more careful about how they spend their money publicly, analysts say.

That shift has been most keenly felt in the Chinese elite's nearest playgrounds of Hong Kong and Macau. But a ripple effect is beginning to have an impact as far afield as the luxury fashion houses of Europe.

"The corruption crackdown shows no signs of slowing down. It has created a lot of concern within the country and as far as I can see a lot of high profile individuals are much more cautious about their overt spending," Steve Vickers, a risk consultant and former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police's Criminal Intelligence Bureau, told AFP.

Recent key indicators of the luxury market in Hong Kong and Macau have shown a noticeable downward trend in areas where China's elite play a key role.

VIPs shunning Macau

Gambling revenues in Macau have fallen for the second month in a row while retail sales in Hong Kong, a city that many locals complain has become a giant shopping mall for wealthy mainlanders, have been slipping since the beginning of the year.

The dip in Macau's gambling revenues -- the first major drop since 2009 following the global economic crash -- is particularly stark.

The territory's gambling watchdog, the Gaming Inspection and Coordination Bureau, said casino income dropped by 3.6 percent year on year in July following a 3.7 percent dip in June.

Analysts attribute the fall in part to a drop-off in so-called "VIP junkets", organised trips where Chinese high rollers from the mainland blow huge sums of cash on casino floors and in private rooms.

"We believe there is nothing on the horizon to suggest that a VIP recovery is imminent," Union Gaming Research Macau analysts Grant Govertsen and Felicity Chiang wrote in a briefing note shortly after the figures were released.

"To the contrary, the anti-corruption crackdown in the PRC (China) seems to be accelerating / expanding, which in our view should result in continued, although indirect, pressure on the VIP segment."

Analysts say Hong Kong's falling retail sales have been affected by a number of causes, including the general slowdown of the world's second-largest economy, anti-mainlander sentiment in the southern Chinese city and the tendency of high spenders to splurge further afield where their shopping sprees are less noticeable.

Sales of jewellery, watches and other valuable gifts slumped 28.2 percent in June according to official government data.

Avoiding attention

"At this critical moment, you don't want to lavishly spend a lot of money and draw attention overseas even if it's your own money," David Ji, head of research and consultancy for Greater China at realtor Knight Frank, told AFP.

On the mainland itself, other key indicators illustrate the more cautious approach officials and big spenders are taking.

The nascent but growing market for private jets has slowed as business tycoons opt for smaller or less flashy models while demand for yachts has also seen a hiccup.

John Watkins, CEO or ASC Wines, one of the most prominent wine importers to China, said sales of high end bottles and vintages purchased by state officials have dropped by 80 to 90 percent.

"The premium end of the imported wine market has been affected starting two years ago. The impact is still felt today," he said.

"With government officials we are seeing very little activity in restaurants, hotels and clubs."

Last month British drinks maker Diageo said its international brands fell 14 percent in China during the last financial year, largely driven by weakness in demand for its whiskies.

Luxury goods houses in Europe are beginning to feel the pinch. France's Hermes reported that sales decreased in the second quarter, in part because of slowing sales in China.

Spirits group Remy Cointreau and clothes designer Burberry had similar woes for the period while Swiss-based luxury giant Richemont also noted slowing China sales.

But in Europe itself the spending power of the luxury yuan is still going strong, analysts say, partially because China's elite believe they can set off fewer alarm bells the further they are from Beijing.

"It's no longer just Hong Kong and Macau that are their stomping grounds for luxury purchases," says Vickers.

"They have other places to go where they are under less scrutiny."

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