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Why It Really Is Different This Time

Chuck Saletta
June 14, 2008

America's economy is teetering on the bridge of a recession, yet the price of commodities -- oil in particular -- keeps climbing ever higher.

That would have seemed impossible just a few decades ago, when the United States dominated the global economy. In fact, so many other countries were so tethered to the American market that when America tripped, the rest of the world fell down.

In a world like that, if U.S. demand for a product dropped (as it has for oil recently), its price would plummet. Not this time. This time, as domestic demand weakens, China is continuing its thirst for the black gold, unabated.

China wants more of the stuff, in spite of America's slowdown -- and that should tell us something very important. China's economy isn't completely tied to America's anymore; part of what the country produces is going elsewhere -- or even staying at home.

Middle America, meet middle China
For evidence of why it's so different this time, you need look no further than the packed streets of Beijing, Shanghai, or Guangzhou. In what has been dubbed the largest urbanization in human history, millions of Chinese are flocking to major cities in pursuit of higher-paying jobs. Those jobs are giving formerly destitute peasants a taste of something they may well have never had before -- disposable income.

And that extra income brings additional spending on the small luxuries of life (which the Western world may take for granted). Or in other words: a real, domestic Chinese economy, rather than a Chinese economy completely dependent on exports to the United States and its established market of middle-class consumers.

I'd like to buy the world a Coke
China's story is being repeated -- albeit on a lesser scale -- elsewhere around the globe. As it turns out, these newly relatively affluent people worldwide are doing what Americans have done for years -- spending their own hard-earned cash. For instance, in its recent earnings report, Coca-Cola (NYSE: KO  ) had this to say about its international operations: "Double-digit unit case volume growth in key emerging markets, including China, India, Brazil, Turkey, Russia, Eastern Europe, and the Philippines continued to drive the results."

What you're seeing in Coke's earnings report is evidence of the early stages of the true globalization of consumer tastes, spending power, and brand heft. Coca-Cola is no longer just an iconic American beverage with "some" exposure in other markets -- it's a worldwide powerhouse.

The sign of things to come
In fact, according to Interbrand's annual listing of the world's most valuable brands (published in BusinessWeek), Coke was the world's most valuable brand in 2007 ... again. Nonetheless, it shares the limelight with top brands from all around the globe, and more global players emerge every year. That trend is likely to continue as more companies worldwide shift their focus from the American consumer to the consumer with the most spare euros, yen, or yuan to rub together.

After all, why should American consumers be the only ones able to enjoy top-quality Italian suits, German automobiles, Japanese electronics, or French wines? And why should overseas consumers limit themselves to American consumer goods? As the rest of the world becomes more prosperous, the brands other countries know and love will grow in prominence. Already, there's plenty of overseas representation on BusinessWeek's annual list of top global brands:



Home Country

Parent Company
Market Cap



United States

$129 billion

Mercedes-Benz (Daimler (NYSE:DAI))



$67 billion