UK: Global Powers Of The Consumer Products Industry 2010

Last Updated: 24 March 2010
Most Read Contributor in UK, August 2017

Article by Deloitte LLP

Global economic outlook

The year 2009 has come to a close and all one can say is good riddance. It was the worst year for economic performance in recent memory. The year began on the heels of a near breakdown of the financial sector. At the start of the year, economists found themselves opining on the probability of another Great Depression. Thankfully, the year ended on a more positive note with economists offering their views on the potential strength of the all but certain recovery.

The main theme of the economic outlook for the coming year is that the global economy seems to be on track for a better than expected outcome. Most of the world's major economies are now growing and some, like Japan and the Eurozone, started growing sooner than most analysts expected. The global crisis was notable for the near synchronicity of the downturn. Likewise, the upturn appears to be happening everywhere at once – something that is not usually the case. The good thing about this is that strengthening global demand is self-reinforcing, especially as it boosts global trade flows and export oriented production. The mostly synchronous policy response to the crisis (fiscal and monetary expansion) probably played a key role in the global recovery. Likewise, the risks of the recovery are similar in most places. These include the lingering effects of financial market stress as well as the possibility of future inflation.

As for the world's Consumer Products companies, economic recovery will return the industry to a growth path. However, the nature and geographic distribution of that growth will be quite different than the recent path. In the decade prior to the current economic crisis, there was strong consumer spending growth in the United States as well as smaller economies such as the UK, Spain, and Ireland. Such growth was funded, in part, by borrowing against the increased value of homes, itself the result of a flood of liquidity from surplus countries such as China. This excessive consumer spending growth was not only the principal source of economic growth in these countries, it also fuelled export driven growth in surplus countries such as China, Japan, and Germany. In fact, the symbiosis between these "consuming" and "producing" groups of countries was the hallmark of the global economy in the first decade of the twenty-first century.

The next phase in consumer spending growth

All of that is about to change. The global economic crisis of 2008-09 exposed the fault lines of the imbalanced global economy. When the inflated values of property-based assets peaked and then collapsed, global financial institutions suffered huge losses. The resulting loss of confidence caused a near shut-down in global credit markets as investors fled to the safety of short-term government securities. Moreover, indebted consumers were forced to dramatically shift gears. They increased savings, paid off debts, and ceased to spend with abandon. Of course this crisis is now ending and the recovery is clearly underway. Yet the global pattern of consumer spending of the past decade will not return soon.

In the coming decade, the countries that borrowed heavily to finance excessive consumer spending may experience slower consumer spending growth as households struggle to de-leverage, repair tattered balance sheets, and accumulate wealth for future retirement and other needs. More of the economic growth of these countries will likely be driven by exports, business investment, and government spending. Conversely, those countries whose growth was fuelled by exporting to borrowing countries will no longer be able to depend on such markets. The U.S. consumer will not be able to sustain China's export sector as it did in the past. Consequently, countries such as China will likely shift away from export oriented growth toward growth driven by consumer spending. The degree to which this adjustment takes place, and takes place smoothly, will depend on the policies put in place by various governments. Nevertheless, an adjustment of some sort will almost surely take place.

For global consumer products companies and the retailers they supply, the next decade will entail a very different business environment than that of the past decade. Not only will the growth of consumer spending shift geographically, the nature of consumer spending will shift as well. In countries such as the U.S. and UK, retail spending growth will not only be slower, but will be focused on the needs of a value oriented consumer.

The recent shift in market share toward discount formats may very well be sustained during the recovery. The weakness of housing markets in countries that experienced frothy housing prices will have consequences as well. Spending on discretionary items, especially those for the home, will be restrained.

On the other hand, countries that ran large surpluses such as China will experience faster consumer spending growth. A larger share of the growth of global consumer spending will now take place in such markets – especially the big emerging markets.

Let's consider some of the major markets and the outlook for their consumers.


China is the toast of global economic policymakers. No other major country in the world has performed as well as China during the global crisis. Most analysts have revised their forecasts for 2010 to economic growth of about 9 percent. This exemplary performance is a bit of a surprise given the collapse of global trade that followed the onset of the credit crunch in late 2008. Given China's significant role as an exporter, there was widespread expectation that China would suffer considerably. Yet the drop in net exports was more than offset by strength of consumer spending, business investment, and especially government investment. Indeed investment alone contributed six percentage points to economic growth in the first half of 2009.

That strength, of course, was due to massive monetary and fiscal stimulus on the part of the Chinese government. That stimulus not only assisted economic recovery. It also fueled new increases in property prices, leading to fears of a new bubble. It fueled excessive investment in industrial capacity, and strengthened the role of state run enterprises at a time when the private sector needs to gain market share. Hence, while the recovery is under way, the policies that have brought on recovery are laden with risks for the future.

The authorities in China have begun the process of shifting monetary policy to a tighter stance. As usual, timing is everything. By starting now, when the economy is not yet fully recovered, the authorities may be able to navigate China toward strong growth without inflation and without ruinous and destabilizing asset price bubbles. Still, risks remain. China's history of credit policy is one of blunt instruments leading to volatility in asset prices. That may recur. Yet the policy stance of the past year has had the positive effect of moving China along the road toward domestically driven growth. This is helping to lessen the negative effects of lower export growth.

What about the Chinese consumer?

As for consumer spending, it will perform well if China makes a successful adjustment away from export-oriented growth and toward growth based on consumer demand. For China, adjustment means undertaking measures to stimulate consumer spending. This could include liberalizing consumer finance, improving the social safety net so as to discourage saving, and allowing the currency to appreciate in value – thereby suppressing import prices.

There are indications that China intends to move in this direction, but there are obstacles as well. First, China's government appears to be of two minds on the currency. On the one hand, it wants to encourage domestic demand so that it need not accumulate more foreign currency reserves. On the other hand, it complains about the potential capital loss on its existing reserves should the dollar fall further. During the economic crisis, China stopped allowing the currency to appreciate lest it harm its export competitiveness. However, once global recovery is fully extant, China is likely to allow further revaluation. The question is how much?

Second, China's response to the crisis was to massively stimulate investment in infrastructure and state-owned companies. The result is an economy distorted by excessive investment and insufficient consumer demand. If the consumer is to play a bigger role in the economy going forward, China will have to adjust policy accordingly. The degree to which this will take place remains uncertain.

If China and the United States both do all the right things, then adjustment in the global economy should go smoothly. The growth of global consumer spending will shift away from the United States and toward China. If policymakers fail to act, however, then the road to adjustment could be bumpy. It could, for example, entail volatility in financial markets – especially currency markets – that could have onerous consequences for economic growth.

United States

The good news is that the U.S. economy will most likely experience a robust recovery in 2010. Indeed the economy has shown impressive signs of healing in recent months. As the billions in monetary and fiscal stimulus slowly work their way into the economy, continued improvement can be expected. Housing prices have stabilized and, with heavy government incentives, sales have risen. Auto sales have soared on government subsidies aimed at improving sales and fleet mileage. Manufacturing is showing signs of renewed strength. Bank profitability has rebounded sharply. Most importantly financial markets appear to be healing. Risk spreads are now lower than when the crisis began and bank balance sheets are mostly far better than a year ago.

The recovery, however, will look very different from the traditional economic rebound. While domestic consumers will play their part, they will not be the biggest driver of growth. Instead, government spending, foreign consumer purchases of U.S. exports, and business investment will lead the U.S. economy to a stronger-than-expected recovery.

As for the consumer, there are signs of improvement. High debt levels and rising unemployment have led many analysts to write off any potential contribution to future growth from consumer spending. The consumer only looks dead: the reality is much better than it first appears. The fundamentals for consumer spending have improved sharply in recent months. Real consumer purchasing power is soaring. Real hourly wages grew during the summer at their strongest pace in more than 40 years. At the same time household net worth, which took a pounding over the past two years, is beginning to rebound. Given the pent-up demand, it is likely that there will be an uptick in consumer spending in the U.S. in 2010. Still, the consumer will not be able to behave as in the recent past.

The longer term

It is not sufficient to predict that American consumers will simply decide to spend less in the future. Something will compel them to do this, and there are several factors that will likely contribute to a significant shift in U.S. consumer behaviour. First, the destruction of wealth that has transpired over the past two years (roughly $14 trillion) will not be reversed quickly unless both the equity and property markets experience unusually rapid price increases. Thus, consumers will feel the necessity to rebuild wealth by saving, a process that has already begun.

Second, given the destruction of housing wealth, most consumers will no longer be in a position to borrow against increased property values. Thus, consumer spending will be constrained by income. Third, while financial markets are showing signs of recovery, history suggests that banks will remain cautious in their lending behaviour for some time to come. Thus, consumer credit will not be as readily available as in the recent past.

Moreover, prospective changes to the regulatory environment will likely exacerbate this factor. If banks are forced to hold more capital, and if the market for securitization remains a shadow of its former self, there will be less credit available for consumers.

Fourth, other areas of government policy may play a role in restricting consumer spending. Increased taxes on upper income households will have a negative impact on spending. In addition, efforts to restrict emissions of carbon gases are likely to increase the price of energy, thus shifting consumer spending away from other goods and services. Finally, there is the elusory psychological factor. That is, the length and depth of the recent recession, the worst of the post-war era, may have a lasting impact on the willingness of consumers to engage in risky behaviour. This may compel a permanent shift toward more frugal spending (fewer big ticket items purchased, more discount shopping).


The Eurozone is staging a surprising recovery, thanks to stable consumer spending and a revival of demand from trading partners in Asia. A belated yet aggressive monetary policy response is playing a role as well.

The corporate response to the uncertainty faced at the end of 2008 was to slash inventories and freeze investments. However, with manufacturing orders picking up, companies are expected to start rebuilding inventory, aiding the rebound in industrial production and contributing positively to GDP growth.

If the recovery in global demand can be sustained and capacity utilization rises, companies will likely take advantage of the low interest rate environment to initiate some investment spending. If investment spending is slow to pick up, it will not be for lack of money. As part of the financial rescue plan, and in the hope that it would rebuild banks' confidence in lending to the real economy, the ECB flooded the banking system with liquidity. Some of this liquidity is seeping through to the corporate sector.

Overall, however, corporate lending remains at an extremely low level. And surveys suggest this is not due to an issue with the supply of but rather with the demand for money. Even the ECB accepts that business borrowing to fund investment will likely pick up only slowly as the recovery unfolds. Hence, the future pace of recovery remains somewhat uncertain.

The European consumer sector

While the clampdown on spending by corporations has been a drag on growth in recent quarters, consumer spending has held up better than expected during the recession – not least because of government incentives such as the "cash for clunkers" schemes. But now there are fears that Eurozone consumers could tighten their purse strings as unemployment rises.

The impact might be less severe than feared, though. Lower wage income is partly compensated by higher social transfers (unemployment benefits), which in Europe can run up to two-thirds of the last income for a year or longer. Also, the savings ratio (currently at about 15 percent in the Eurozone, slightly above its longer-term average of 14 percent) has room to decline as unemployment rises, acting as a buffer for spending. The bottom line is that, while consumer spending did not suffer egregiously during the recession, it will probably not grow rapidly in the recovery.

United Kingdom

Like most advanced economies, the United Kingdom has seen a marked improvement in its economic prospects. Financial markets have stabilized and this has been reflected in the continued rally in equities and corporate bonds, in narrowing corporate bond spreads and falling inter-bank interest rates. Most lead indicators of economic activity signal recovery. Still, recovery is likely to take place at a modest pace.

A slow recovery is the price the United Kingdom is likely to pay to rebalance its economy. Consumers entered the downturn with low savings and relatively high levels of debt. Household debt as a proportion of income increased from 100 percent to 165 percent in the 10 years to 2007 while the savings ratio dropped from 4.5 percent to -0.5 percent. Financial innovation had enabled more consumers to access credit more readily, and this helped fuel house prices and consumption.

Since 2007, lower house prices have eroded consumers' collateral and, therefore, their ability to raise credit. At the same time, banks have become more cautious about lending. The result is that a process of balance sheet rebuilding is well underway.

The pace of consumption growth depends largely on the pace of rebalancing in the economy. The general view is that this will be a slow process. The corollary is that growth in consumer spending will remain subdued into 2011 and possibly beyond.

UK consumer balance sheets are certainly stretched, but the problems may be less acute than they appear at first. Borrowing has risen sharply, but so too has the overall value of consumers' financial assets. This is because part of what has been driving the housing market is older homeowners selling large homes, buying smaller ones, and putting the extra cash into financial assets. UK households accumulated an additional £1 trillion of debt between 2000 and 2008 but also acquired over £750 billion of financial assets over the same period. And while lower house prices are seen as an economic depressant, more affordable housing provides a boost for those planning to trade up or buy their first house.

For now it looks as if the process of strengthening consumer balance sheets will take time. The United Kingdom's economic recovery over the coming quarters is unlikely to come from the consumer. Rather, the main drivers are likely to be investment, exports, and a switch in demand from foreign to UK producers.


Japan appears to have come out of the worst postwar recession. The recovery appears fragile, bringing back memories of the "lost decade" of the 1990s when the economy showed signs of recovery only to keep faltering again. Record unemployment, falling wages, and a decline in business investment have kept the mood somber. The accelerated decline in consumer prices (excluding food and energy) recently increased fears of the economy being caught in a deflationary spiral.

The massive fiscal stimulus coupled with an almost zero interest rate policy is nearly the same that fueled the recovery between the period 2000 and 2007. Consumer spending is set to rise modestly despite a worsening job outlook. The current recovery, however, is being led by exports, a pattern similar to the past. Exports have grown thanks to the massive stimulus spending programs launched by governments across the world, especially China.

A short-term euphoria may be created by the landslide victory of the main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ). However, there is some uncertainty regarding the policies the DPJ is likely to adopt and their impact on economic growth in the medium and long term. The DPJ has indicated that it will try to boost domestic consumption through reduction in taxes and fees and through provision of a social safety. The idea is to increase household income and reduce precautionary savings and, thereby, boost household spending. Skeptics, however, are worried that households may divert the increased income to savings rather than increase consumption.

A big concern is how the DPJ will fund these policy measures. It plans to raise the money by eliminating waste in government and reevaluating public works projects. The suspension of dam construction projects has already been announced. Yet even if the government withholds the entire public works spending, however, it will likely get only around half the amount needed.

The real hope for the economy is that exports are likely to continue to expand. The recent strengthening of the yen against the dollar, however, has worried exporters. A stronger yen erodes earnings by reducing the amount exporters repatriate to cover their costs. Further, the Chinese yuan being closely tied to the dollar means that earnings of Japanese exporters from China, a price-sensitive market, could also get hurt. China has emerged as the single biggest market for Japanese exports and the current growth in exports is mainly being fueled by China and other Asian.

The bottom line for Japan is that it remains highly dependent on exports at a time when its currency is rising in value and its second most important market (the US) is retrenching. Hence, overall growth will likely remain slow while the outlook for the consumer is uncertain.


There are several things clear about Russia. It had a very bad 2009; it will have a better 2010; and its longer-term outlook depends heavily on the price of oil. The big question then is whether Russia, even with higher oil prices, is capable of returning to the high growth of the past decade. The answer depends on several factors. These include the policy response of Russia's authorities, the health of global credit markets, the degree of confidence in Russia on the part of foreign investors, and, of course, just how high oil prices go.

The outlook for the coming year depends on a number of factors. First and foremost, the price of oil will have a big impact. When oil was close to $150 per barrel, Russia was doing very well. Yet when the price fell to $60 per barrel, the situation became troubling. However, the price of oil throughout the past decade was lower than this. And yet Russia's economic performance was quite good. Export revenue in 2009, while considerably lower than last year, will probably be roughly comparable to that of 2006. The problem is that during the past decade, Russia took advantage of the relatively high price of oil and low capital costs to borrow heavily from abroad.

Today, external debt is much higher than three years ago. Given this and the state of global credit conditions, Russia requires an even higher level of export revenue in order to restore economic credibility.

Russia's performance next year will depend heavily on the stance and flexibility of government policy. Fiscal policy has been highly expansive, the effect of which has been widely debated. But there is almost no debate as to what comes next. Russia will ultimately have to remove fiscal stimulus, something it seems determined to do in a credible way. Indeed, the government is making very pessimistic assumptions about the price of oil and the rate of economic growth in forecasting its budget deficit of 7.5 percent of GDP for next year.

Monetary policy will matter as well. It has lately been relaxed, aimed at providing liquidity to the financial sector. Yet inflation remains stubbornly high, possibly necessitating another tightening of monetary policy in the near future.

Finally, longer-term prospects will depend on other aspects of economic policy such as regulation, investment in infrastructure, efforts to stave corruption, and respect for private property rights. Such issues have been an impediment to economic diversification. Russia's excessive dependence on the resource sector is a concern for policymakers and diversification will require a new business environment.

The outlook for the consumer sector, however, looks good. If Russia grows, consumer spending will grow. Moreover, with limited government interference, retail modernization will likely continue and foreign investors will be welcomed.


Brazil is on fire. Its economy has recovered nicely from a very modest recession. Moreover, there is a general consensus that the outlook is quite strong. Nearly two decades of low inflation, modest deficits, and strong growth have convinced the global investment community that Brazil is a relatively safe bet. A combination of stable politics and economics has generated very strong direct investment from overseas. Plus, the recent awarding of the 2016 Olympics to Rio de Janeiro has increased the sense of confidence and even euphoria in the Brazilian business community.

Another positive aspect to Brazil is that the social policies of the current government have led to a lessening of income inequality – a sharp reversal from past experience. Thus, the number of people moving from poverty into the lower middle class is substantial. In addition, for the first time roughly half the population is considered middle class. This represents a major opportunity for consumer products manufacturers.

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