China’s Small Businesses Are Hit Hard as Economic Recovery Falters
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China’s Small Businesses Are Hit Hard as Economic Recovery Falters

Beijing pushes banks to extend loans to small businesses, with limited success

By CAO LI
Mon, Jun 19, 2023 8:31amGrey Clock 5 min

China’s small businesses are cutting staff, struggling to pay off debt and nervous about the future. Their plight paints a grim picture of the country’s flagging recovery.

The country’s small and medium-size enterprises are crucial to the economy; they employed around 233 million people by the end of 2018, which was the last time this data was made public. But official data, recent disclosures from lenders and interviews with small-business owners show that many of these companies are suffering.

“The biggest problem for small and micro enterprises now is survival,” said Ji Shaofeng, the founder of a micro loan trade association based in China’s eastern Jiangsu province.

The struggles of China’s small businesses make clear how far the country has to go before it fully recovers from a series of lockdowns, which were part of Beijing’s strict response to the coronavirus.

When the government finally brought an end to its strict zero-Covid policy late last year, many economists expected a strong recovery. It hasn’t arrived. Consumer spending, factory orders and exports are among many indicators showing signs that the recovery is losing steam.

A recent survey of manufacturing purchasing managers in China showed a second consecutive month of contraction for small companies. China’s small-enterprise purchasing managers index is now at 47.9; a reading below 50 shows business activity is slowing.

Scott Yang, a wine and tea seller in Wenzhou, a city in China’s wealthy Zhejiang province, said many local business owners he knows are laying off employees and trying to cut costs, in response to a drop in factory orders.

Small enterprises started to add jobs at the end of the first quarter, when there was still some optimism about a recovery. But a PMI subindex showed employment at small enterprises was 48.7 in May, meaning these companies are either cutting staff or not replacing those who leave.

Huang Yiwen, who sells furniture online in Foshan, in southern China’s Guangdong province, said his business has been hurt by the weak property market, since new-home buyers are a reliable source of demand for furniture makers. Annual home sales fell to a six-year low in 2022, after a slump in the property sector that also led to debt defaults by some of China’s largest developers.

“It’s so hard to sell,” said Huang, regarding furniture.

Less than 40% of small and medium-size enterprises are operating at full capacity, which means producing all of the goods they can, according to the latest survey conducted by the China Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, which sends questionnaires to 3,000 SMEs in the country every month.

Economists warn that the problems facing small businesses can’t be isolated from the wider economy. Because small businesses are such a major source of employment, particularly in large cities, their struggles reflect—and could worsen—wider economic strains.

“If SMEs do not recover, it will be difficult for urban areas to create enough employment and income, which will have a significant impact on low- and middle-income families,” said Dan Wang, chief economist of Hang Seng Bank (China).

Chinese government officials are becoming uneasy about the economy and are planning a series of moves to stimulate growth, The Wall Street Journal recently reported. That could include billions of dollars of infrastructure spending and a loosening of rules in the property sector.

So far, Beijing’s attempts to prop up small businesses have focused mainly on making it easier for them to get funding. That has had limited success.

Since early 2020, Chinese regulators have pushed banks and other financial institutions to extend loans to small businesses that were hurt by the pandemic. In some parts of the country, local divisions of China’s central bank have sought to help small businesses by establishing teams to answer funding-related questions, as well as visiting factories and farms to assess their needs. The government has provided other targeted-relief measures such as tax exemptions and temporary rent reductions.

The total outstanding balance of loans to small and micro enterprises has been climbing, reaching the equivalent of $9 trillion at the end of March, according to data from China’s banking regulator.

Many small businesses in China don’t want to secure new financing unless it helps them clear previous debts. Yang, the wine seller, said that while financing is relatively cheap and easy to get, most local businesses he knows are borrowing only to stay afloat and not to expand.

Lufax, a Chinese internet-lending platform that caters mostly to small-business owners, said last month that about 5.7% of the total loans it facilitated were more than 30 days past due at the end of March. Its loan-delinquency rates, which are higher for unsecured loans, have risen for six consecutive quarters.

MYbank, an internet lender that serves small businesses, said in its latest annual report that the balance of its loans that were more than 30 days past due more than doubled last year. The company, an affiliate of the Chinese fintech giant Ant Group, said the impact of the pandemic and weak consumption last year caused many small- and micro-business owners to face continuous pressure.

Many commercial banks have given borrowers more time to repay their loans, extending their forbearance for small businesses to this year. Small businesses whose loans were due in the fourth quarter of 2022 will have until the end of this month to repay, according to a notice from the central bank and a group of regulators.

Chinese banks have allowed some small businesses to roll over their loans, but if these small businesses are unable to repay in the future, they will eventually have to be recognized as bad loans, said Jay Guo, a former banker and current dean at the Ningbo China Institute for Supply Chain Innovation.

“It only makes sense to extend loans if the economy rebounds and SMEs are able to sell their goods,” said Guo.

Ji, of the micro loan trade association, said that while some sectors such as tourism and catering have rebounded in the past few months, small businesses in manufacturing, trade and other industries are still under pressure as demand remains well below where it used to be.

Small businesses are falling victim to a vicious cycle that is affecting the wider economy, said Xiangrong Yu, chief China economist at Citigroup. The poor performance of some private companies is leading to a loss of confidence, and that low confidence is making it hard for those companies to do better, he said.

“Lack of confidence is both a symptom of the problem and the root cause of the problem,” said Yu.



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The Embarrassment of Having to Explain Your ‘Monster’ Diamond Ring

Couples find that lab-grown diamonds make it cheaper to get engaged or upgrade to a bigger ring. But there are rocky moments.

By ALINA DIZIK
Mon, Dec 11, 2023 4 min

Wedding planner Sterling Boulet has some advice for brides-to-be regarding lab-grown diamonds, which cost a fraction of the natural ones.

“If you’re trying to get your man to propose, they’ll propose faster if you offer this as an option,” says Boulet, of Raleigh, N.C. Recently, she adds, a friend’s fiancé “thanked me the next three times I saw him” for telling him about the cheaper lab-made option.

Man-made diamonds are catching on, despite some lingering stigma. This year was the first time that sales of lab-made and natural mined loose diamonds, primarily used as center stones in engagement rings, were split evenly, according to data from Tenoris, a jewellery and diamond trend-analytics company.

The rise of lab-made stones, however, is bringing up quirks alongside the perks. Now that blingier engagement rings—above two or three carats—are more affordable, more people are dealing with the peculiarities of wearing rather large rocks.

An engagement ring made with a lab-grown diamond at Ada Diamonds in New York City. PHOTO: CAM POLLACK/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Esther Hare, a 5-foot-11-inch former triathlete, sought out a 4.5-carat lab-made oval-shaped diamond to fit her larger hands as a part of her vow renewal in Hawaii last year. It was a far cry from the half-carat ring her husband proposed with more than 25 years ago and the 1.5-carat upgrade they purchased 10 years ago. Hare, 50, who lives in San Jose, Calif., and works in high tech, chose a $40,000 lab-made diamond because “it’s nuts” to have to spend $100,000 on a natural stone. “It had to be big—that was my vision,” she says.

But the size of the ring has made it less practical at times. She doesn’t wear it for athletic training and swaps in her wedding band instead. And she is careful to leave it at home when traveling. “A lot of times I won’t take it on vacation because it’s just a monster,” she says.

The average retail price for a one-carat lab-made loose diamond decreased to $1,426 this year from $3,039 in 2020, according to the Tenoris data. Similar-sized loose natural diamonds cost $5,426 this year, compared with $4,943 in 2020.

Lab-made diamonds have essentially the same chemical makeup as natural ones, and look the same, unless viewed through sophisticated equipment that gauges the characteristics of emitted light.

At Ritani, an online jewellery retailer, lab-made diamond sales make up about 70% of the diamonds sold, up from roughly 30% two years ago, says Juliet Gomes, head of customer service at the company, based in White Plains, N.Y.

Ritani sometimes records videos of the lab-diamonds pinging when exposed to a “diamond tester,” a tool that judges authenticity, to show customers that the man-made rocks behave the same as natural ones. We definitely have some deep conversations with them,” Gomes says.

Not all gem dealers are rolling with these stones.

Philadelphia jeweller Steven Singer only stocks the natural stuff in his store and is planning a February campaign to give about 1,000 one-carat lab-made diamonds away free to prove they are “worthless.” Anyone can sign up online and get one in the mail; even shipping is free. “I’m not selling Frankensteins that were built in a lab,” Singer says.

Some brides are turned off by the larger bling now allowed by the lower prices.When her now-husband proposed with a two-carat lab-grown engagement ring, Tiffany Buchert, 40, was excited about the prospect of marriage—but not about the size of the diamond, which she says struck her as “costume jewellery-ish.”

“I said yes in the moment, of course, I didn’t want it to be weird,” says the physician assistant from West Chester, Pa.

But within weeks, she says, she fessed up, telling her fiancé: “I think I hate this ring.”

The couple returned it and then bought a one-carat natural diamond for more than double the price.

Couples find that lab-grown diamonds have made it more affordable to get engaged. PHOTO: CAM POLLACK/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

When Boulet, the wedding planner in Raleigh, got engaged herself, she was over the moon when her fiancé proposed with a 2.3 carat lab-made diamond ring. “It’s very shiny, we were almost worried it was too shiny and was going to look fake,” she says.

It doesn’t, which presents another issue—looking like someone who really shelled out for jewellery. Boulet will occasionally volunteer that her diamond ring came from a lab.

“I don’t want people to think I’m putting on airs, or trying to be flashier than I am,” she says.

For Daniel Teoh, a 36-year-old software engineer outside of Detroit, buying a cheaper lab-made diamond for his fiancée meant extra room in his $30,000 ring budget.

Instead of a bigger ring, he got her something they could both enjoy. During a walk while on an annual ski trip to South Lake Tahoe, Calif., Teoh popped the question and handed his now-wife a handmade wooden box that included a 2.5-carat lab-made diamond ring—and a car key.

She put on the ring, celebrated with both of their sisters and a friend, who was the unofficial photographer of the happy event, and then they drove back to the house. There, she saw a 1965 Mustang GT coupe in Wimbledon white with red stripes and a bow on top.

Looking back, Teoh says, it was still the diamond that made the big first impression.

“It wasn’t until like 15 minutes later she was like ‘so, what’s with this key?’” he adds.

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