Beer giants struggle in China market chill

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Competition is fierce in China’s beer industry as purveyors of alcoholic beverages battle for market share amid reverberations from acquisitions by the global giants.

Last week, China Resources Beer announced plans to acquire SABMiller’s 49 per cent stake in China Resources Snow Breweries, a joint venture with the English beverage giant since 1994 that has grown to become China’s biggest brewing company.

The move comes after Anheuser-Busch InBev, the world’s largest brewer, confirmed an agreement late last year to acquire rival SABMiller for a record US$121 billion. Together, the brewers account for a third of the beer sold worldwide and half the industry’s profits.

With the deal undergoing antitrust scrutiny in the United States and likely to be reviewed around the globe, ABI has promised to scale back its market share by making divestments. It has already announced the sale of SABMiller’s majority stake in MillerCoors.

That’s the likely reason for CR Snow’s low sale price of US$1.6 billion – a 58 per cent discount, according to Jefferies. Analysts say the sale will prevent one major player from gaining a new advantage over the rest of the pack.

“Previously, some investors speculated that if ABI-SABMiller kept the 49 per cent shareholding in CR Snow, ABI and CR Snow together would have close to 40 per cent market share and could lead the industry in margin increase,” said Jefferies equity analyst Kevin Chee.

The advantages of scale and the search for growth have fuelled steady consolidation in China’s beer industry, boosting the market share of the top five brewers from 47 per cent in 2005 to 71 per cent in 2014, according to Macquarie Research.

Beer remains the country’s number one alcoholic beverage. With a massive population drinking more than the global average per capita – though considerably less than the thirsty folks in Germany, the US and Japan – China accounts for some 24 per cent of global beer consumption.

That should mean good times for brewers. But beer consumption has been on a steady decline since 2014, resulting in a 5.1 per cent drop in production last year. Analysts have laid the blame on just about everything: slowing economic growth, fewer dry and sunny days, improving health awareness, and the rising popularity of wine and baijiu.

“The big players used to be able to leverage their scale to grow their revenue and profits rapidly,” said Daiwa analyst Anson Chan. “But now that consumption growth in key categories has slowed, and because consumer tastes in terms of products and purchase methods are changing, the Goliaths face an uphill struggle to realise the kind of revenue momentum they have seen in the past five years.”

While some factors are in brewers’ favour – like the cost of imported barley, which stands around 10 per cent cheaper than a year ago – those might not last, and meanwhile, the soft demand environment is obstructing growth in the beverage’s average selling price.

Macquarie analysts point out that CR Snow, among all major domestic brands, has the lowest pricing in each segment, giving it the most upside potential with prices tight but consumer demand shifting toward premium product lines.

With CR Beer poised for a post-acquisition earnings boost and also enjoying recent success in capturing market share – it now holds 24 per cent, according to Daiwa. Analysts tip it to sustain its sales performance despite the downturn.

The prognosis is far less positive for the industry No 2 , Tsingtao, whose recent sales volumes have underperformed the market as its market share has stagnated. Already priced at the higher end of the range, the famous Chinese brand has little room to move.

“We believe Tsingtao will remain a victim of market-share losses to international brands in the premium beer segment in China in 2016,” said Daiwa’s Chan, also noting that the company’s acquisition activity had “ground to a halt”.

“Tsingtao formed a joint venture with [Japanese brewer] Suntory in 2013 to expand in eastern China,” Chan observed. “However, Suntory sold its stake in the JV to Tsingtao [in a deal announced last October] after years of loss-making, leaving Tsingtao with the losses to deal with.”

With foreign brewers getting cold feet and imported beers still accounting for less than 2 per cent of beer consumption, it’s the enemy rising from within that should worry China’s brewers the most. Among alcoholic beverages, baijiu’s volume share rose from 12 to 19 per cent between 2008 and 2014, as beer’s slid from 84 to 75 per cent.