The dynamism of the mostly-private consumer sector comes not from stimulus, argues Andy Rothman of Matthews Asia, an investment firm, but from strong income growth and low household debt. (Chinese household debt stands at about 40% of GDP, roughly half the level seen in America.) Real urban incomes rose by 5.8% in the first quarter. Willis Towers Watson, a consultancy, estimates that white-collar salaries are now significantly higher in China than in South-East Asia. That fuels a bristling optimism. A recent study by McKinsey, a consultancy, found that 55% of consumers in China are confident that their incomes will rise significantly over the next five years.
Many big firms seem willing to look past current clouds over China's economy to brighter days ahead. Pepsi, an American snack-food firm, opened its first Quaker Oats manufacturing plant on the mainland in October, and has launched oat-based dairy drinks to cater to local tastes. It even hopes to introduce Pepsi-branded smartphones. McDonald's, an American hamburger chain, wants 1,250 outlets in the mainland over the next five years on top of the 2,200 it operates already.
America's Walt Disney, an entertainment colossus, is set to open Shanghai Disneyland in June. The $5.5 billion theme park is its biggest investment outside Florida. Keen to experience such wondrous novelties as Peking-duck-topped, Mickey-Mouse shaped pizza, Chinese families are now eagerly snapping up entry tickets online. Starbucks, an American coffee chain, plans to add 500 outlets this year in China, including one at the entrance of the new Disney park. Howard Schultz, its boss, predicts it will be “Starbucks' highest-grossing retail store overnight”.
Firms such as these are betting on the continued rise of the affluent middle class. By 2020, the number of households earning above $24,000 per year is expected to double to 100m, making up 30% of all urban households. They are also betting on the frivolity of the free-spending young. Consumption is rising at 14% a year among under-35s, twice the level of frugal oldies. But above all, they are betting on the law of large numbers. A joint study, by the Boston Consulting Group, another consultancy, and AliResearch, the research arm of Alibaba, predicts that even if economic growth falls to only 5.5% per year (well below official claims of nearly 7% a year now), China's consumer economy will expand over the next five years by some $2.3 trillion. Despite the deficiencies in economic forecasts, that incremental gain would be bigger than the entire consumer economy in Britain or Germany today.