The CEO behind nearly 10,000 KFCs in China explains the country’s consumption slump: A 'psychological' consequence of COVID-zero

The hoped-for Chinese economic rebound is a good contender for this year’s biggest disappointment. After China’s abrupt reopening last December, analysts and economists expected a huge rebound as Chinese consumers rushed back to spend and shop. Yet the post-opening rally quickly fizzled out–and now China’s economy is, in some respects, doing worse than last year, when officials confined millions of people in their homes.

So why has China’s economic recovery proved so sluggish? People are still underestimating just how large an effect China’s COVID experience had on the ordinary consumer, Joey Wat, CEO of Yum China, suggested Tuesday at Fortune’s Global Forum in Abu Dhabi.

The pandemic had a large “psychological” effect on consumers, said Wat, whose firm manages outlets including KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell in China, licensing the names from the U.S.-based Yum Brands. The company’s presence in the world’s second-largest economy is massive: Yum China operates 14,100 stores in China, including 9,900 KFC outlets and 3,200 Pizza Huts. Wat, who has served as the company’s CEO since it was spun off from Yum Brands in 2016, noted that Beijing did not offer the stimulus money offered by Western governments: “We can understand why people became rather cautious and rational with their spending.”

The meaning of Nov. 14 to China

Wat cautioned that China’s consumers were still in a post-COVID recovery phase, even as the rest of the world has moved on. “For people outside China, the opening up happened much earlier. Nov. 14 [2022] means nothing to most people, it means the world to people in China: That’s the first day China opened up.”

In November 2022, Chinese officials announced an easing of COVID controls, including shortening quarantine for international arrivals and ending daily testing. It was one of the first easings of the country’s strict COVID-zero controls, which imposed daily testing regimes, snap lockdowns, and lengthy quarantines on international arrivals.

Beijing ended its COVID-zero controls just a few weeks later, following widespread protests against pandemic control measures across the country. 

Despite the end of China’s COVID policy, the country’s consumption has been slow to recover. Headwinds including China’s real-estate crisis are suppressing the willingness to spend on travel, luxuries and other big ticket items. 

And companies are feeling the pressure. E-commerce giants Alibaba and declined to give firm sales figures for this year’s Singles Day shopping festival, traditionally a major barometer for Chinese consumption. Western brands too, like Estee Lauder and LVMH, are also blaming falling China sales for their poor earnings. 

Not every company—domestic or foreign—is struggling. BYD, the EV maker backed by Warren Buffett, is reporting record profits even as competitors such as Tesla struggle to keep sales numbers up. Athleisure brand Lululemon also increased its profit guidance following a 61% jump in China sales last quarter.

$30 trillion of untapped capital

Panelists on Tuesday argued that China still presented opportunities for global companies. China’s population offers about $30 trillion of untapped capital for companies looking for funding, claimed Laura Cha, chairman of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, which operated the Chinese city’s stock exchange. “They are looking for a way to go out, to invest in good companies,” she said.

Yum China reported below-expectations earnings for the latest quarter. The company earned $244 million in net income, below the $278 million expected by analysts. Disappointed investors then drove Yum China’s stock—traded in both New York and Hong Kong—down over 15% the following day. Shares are now down over 20% for the year thus far.

At the time, CFO Andy Yeung shared that the company was observing “softening consumer demand,” and said the country’s post-pandemic recovery would be “wave-like” and “non-linear” in nature.

In conversation with Fortune, Wat dismissed investor jumpiness on Yum China’s financials. “Last quarter, our sales grew by 9% in reporting currency [U.S. dollars], but in reality, we grew our sales by 15% in renminbi,” she said. “People just look at the headlines without going into detail.”

The same may be happening with headlines about China, she suggested. She noted that if China’s economy continued to grow at 5%–an optimistic projection, but still far below the heady growth recorded a decade ago–the country would still be adding $800 billion to $900 billion to its GDP annually. 

“That’s two Vietnams a year,” she said. 

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