Turbulent time for Swiss watchmakers in China

By Nathalie Olof-Ors ,AFP

ZURICH, Switzerland — Swiss watchmakers are facing turbulent times in one of their top markets, as the already shrinking luxury sales in mainland China are compounded by the recent devaluation of the yuan. Global financial markets are still reeling from the mainland Chinese central bank’s sudden devaluation of the yuan earlier this month, which allowed the currency to plunge nearly 5 percent against the American dollar in a matter of days.

In Switzerland, the move rattled the Alpine country’s luxury watchmakers, who have already seen their once booming sales in China take a hit as Beijing began to crack down on corruption in the country by banning extravagant gifts like prestigious watches to public officials. Even before the yuan move, Swiss watch exports to China had contracted nearly 40 percent in July. When the yuan devaluation was announced on Aug. 11, investors were clearly bracing for the worst, recalling the impact on watch sales when Switzerland’s central bank in January let the Swiss franc float and sent it soaring. Shares of Swiss luxury goods giant Richemont, which owns brands like Cartier, Piaget and IWC, immediately shed more than 4 percent of their value after the Chinese currency cut. The world’s biggest watch group Swatch, which carries brands like Tissot, Longines and Omega, saw its stock price plunge 3.9 percent. But so far there is no indication the yuan devaluation will cause the same level of havoc for the watch industry as the move by the Swiss central bank did earlier this year, industry insiders say. When it suddenly stopped artificially holding down the value of the Swiss franc, allowing the currency to soar 20 percent against the euro in a matter of hours, the impact on watch sales was felt immediately, Jean-Claude Biver, luxury giant LVMH’s watch guru, told AFP.

“But today, we are not feeling the same effects from China’s devaluation,” he said, explaining that the Swiss watch industry would be able to absorb any rising costs linked to the mainland Chinese central bank’s move.

And both analysts and the watchmakers themselves have warned against overreacting, insisting the yuan devaluation will not have a big impact on sales and could even improve them. Swatch for instance said it viewed the move as “positive” since it would likely stimulate consumption, and insisted there were no plans to hike the brand’s prices in China. While the yuan devaluation makes it more expensive to import luxury goods into China, it also pushes down costs onsite. For a company like Swatch, which employs around 2,600 people in China, mainly in its marketing, sales and client services divisions, that could mean big savings. Still, the impact of China’s devaluation is difficult to quantify, analysts say. “If the devaluation of the yuan is limited and takes place on a controlled basis, it would be a positive for the Swiss watch industry,” Kepler Cheuvreux analyst Jon Cox told AFP in an email. “It narrows the differential between Europe and China prices, meaning more watches would be bought in China and there would be less of a grey market,” he added. Stark currency differences since the Swiss franc took flight in January had pushed Chinese consumers to purchase more of the luxury watches they covet when traveling abroad.