By Patrick McGroarty in Johannesburg, Drew Hinshaw in Accra, Ghana, and Rhiannon Hoyle in Sydney
Feb. 3, 2014 7:10 p.m. ET
Leafy dried tobacco, stacked in a Zimbabwe auction hall, offers a glimpse of how China’s resilient global demand has spared many suppliers—even as investors flee emerging markets on fears of the Asian giant’s ebbing appetite.
Last year, Zimbabwe auctioned off one-third of its tobacco crop to its biggest customer, China, bringing in about $700 million overall to the cash-starved southern African economy. This month, the government is opening its annual tobacco auctions earlier than usual, anticipating that an even larger crop and sustained Chinese demand will earn it as much as $1 billion, said Zimbabwe’s Tobacco Industry & Marketing Board.
“When times are great people smoke more. When times are difficult people smoke more,” said Adam Molai, executive chairman of Savanna Tobacco, a Zimbabwean cigarette maker. “There are a lot of people in China to smoke more.”
From southern Africa to southern Asia, investors have soured on many commodity-rich emerging markets boosted in the past by China’s ravenous appetite for what is grown from the soil or extracted from the mines. But so far, a slowing China hasn’t hurt its suppliers much.
That is because massive Chinese demand hasn’t significantly weakened and many emerging economies now have their own consumers to help pick up any slack. The global market jitters, economists and executives say, reflect less an actual falloff in China’s appetite and more a bet that China’s growth will continue to taper off.
“People are mistaking slowing headline growth with the real impact of GDP. It’s not game over,” said Charles Robertson, chief economist for investment bank Renaissance Capital. “The Chinese growth story is still decent even if the percentage number is slower.”
As investors have fled emerging markets around the world recently—also spurted on by the U.S. Federal Reserve’s diminished bond-buying program—they have punished some vital Chinese suppliers, such as Indonesia and South Africa. Their currencies, the rupiah and the rand, have lost a quarter of their value against the U.S. dollar in the past year.