July 23, 2015 / 9:00 PM / 2 years ago

China slowdown? Depends on where you look

Investors look at computer screens in front of an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai, China, July 14, 2015.Aly Song

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Many U.S. consumer companies are brushing aside worries that China's weakening economy and sputtering stock market will dramatically damage their bottom lines even with early trouble signs in recent earnings reports.

Most notably, companies dependent on Chinese infrastructure growth, such as United Technologies Corp (UTX.N) and Caterpillar Inc (CAT.N), are claiming soft second-quarter earnings and a downgraded outlook based on weakened Chinese demand.

Consumer companies like United Continental Holdings Inc (UAL.N), Apple Inc (AAPL.O) and General Motors Co (GM.N), on the other hand, continue to paint a rosy picture based on continued strong demand by the Chinese consumer.

The Chinese economy has faced difficulties this year as decelerating growth in factory output, retail sales and domestic investment has been compounded by a slowing property market.

China's economy is expected to expand 7 percent this year, with growth slowing to 6.7 percent in 2016, a Reuters poll of analysts showed on Thursday.

"We have been worried about it," Steve Weeple, head of global equities at global asset manager Standard Life Investments in Boston, told Reuters. "We would certainly not be surprised to see some of the big consumer packaged goods companies, some of the industrials, reporting that China activity is probably a little below headline growth rates."

Furthermore, a 30 percent early summer selloff in the Chinese stock market could hit companies more broadly in the third quarter.

Names that have a reliance on infrastructure growth in China have been hit the hardest so far this quarter. United Technologies fell 7 percent on Tuesday, its worst drop in nearly 4 years, after cutting its full-year profit outlook, in part due to slowness in its elevators business in China as the nation's housing market cools.

Caterpillar shares had their worst performance in six months on Thursday after the construction and mining equipment maker reported lower quarterly profit and sales, citing slower construction in China.

Even smaller names, generally thought to be more insulated to global economic pressures as a greater portion of their revenue is derived from within the U.S., have noted softness within China's infrastructure.

"We're seeing real industry pressure in construction, in agriculture, in truck and bus inside China – there’s been industry contraction in construction (business) year-on-year," Rich Lavin, CEO of Commercial Vehicle Group Inc (CVGI.O) which supplies cab-related products for trucks, bus, farming and other types of vehicles, told Reuters in mid-June before entering its quiet period ahead of earnings.

GM, UNITED, APPLE MORE UPBEAT

But consumer-facing companies are telling a brighter tale.

Harley-Davidson Inc (HOG.N) saw a 5 percent pop in its shares on Tuesday, its biggest percentage gain since October, after its quarterly results showed a 16.6 percent jump in Asia-Pacific sales, which the company attributed to strong demand for its street motorcycles in China and India.

"You have to look company by company and product line by product line because there are some things for which there is no substitute," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst, Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh. "It’s the cool factor for Harley Davidson."

United Continental, which flies more to China than any of its U.S. rivals, says the region remains a good investment. "The demand is still growing," said Chief Revenue Officer Jim Compton.

Despite flat June auto sales in China, General Motors Co (GM.N) also cited continued strength in China in its earnings report on Thursday, and said it expects to maintain strong profitability there. Shares of the automaker advanced 4 percent to $31.50.

The same brand name appeal mentioned by Forrest may be bolstering Apple's China sales. Though the company's shares tumbled nearly 7 percent after its forward-looking guidance missed estimates, it reported a 112 percent sales increase in China over last year and said it plans to open 40 stores in China in the next 12 months.

"China was simply spectacular for us," said Luca Maestri, Apple's chief financial officer. "We feel it is a long runway for us in China."

Additional reporting by Joseph White, Jeffrey Dastin, Julia Love and David Gaffen; Editing by Linda Stern and Alan Crosby

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