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China Watch: Mainland Averts Hard Landing; Apple Introduces Credit Options

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Baidu and UBS also make the news.

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China bulls took comfort this week after new economic data showed that the second-largest economy in the world was on the rebound after a two-year slump, having averted a much-feared hard landing.

For the fourth quarter of 2012, China recorded year-to-year GDP growth of 7.9%, compared with a jump of 7.4% in the third quarter. The number was also higher than the consensus estimate of 7.8%.

With fourth-quarter figures now in, China's economy expanded 7.8% for the full year, which was strong, but significantly lower than the double-digit growth rates it had notched for much for the past 20 years. The mainland's economic slowdown could be attributed to weak demand for its exports thanks to a tepid US recovery and Europe's continued debt crisis, and well as state-imposed controls to curb surging inflation and a bubbling real estate market.

Economists expect China's economy to continue to growth at about 8% in the first half of 2013, before slowing to 7.3% later.

"Growth of 8% or so is about normal now for China," Mark Williams of Capital Economics told USA Today. "There's scope for a lot of people to be disappointed, because many still have an inflated sense of how fast China should be growing."

Here's this week's business news:
Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL): Apple has come up with a new plan to combat the legions of Chinese companies, such as ZTE (SHE:000063) and Lenovo (PINK:LNVGY), who have grabbed a large share of the smartphone pie with low-cost mobile devices: allow customers in China to pay for products costing from $48 to $4,800 on an installment plan. Customers who order iPhones or MacBook laptops online can pay for them over 3, 6, 12, 18, or 24 months using a China Merchants Bank (SEHK:3968) credit card, with only the 18- and 24-month plans incurring interest charges of 6.5% and 8.5% respectively.

With the cheapest iPhone 5 going for $850 in China, or about six weeks' wages for the average urban worker, Apple is hoping that a financing plan will entice a greater share of middle- and lower-income people to purchase the company's high-end products.
"[Apple] has likely approached maximum penetration in China's higher economic stratas, and now needs to be able to appeal to students, workers and rural residents to sustain robust growth," David Wolf, China managing director for market consultant Allison+Partners in Beijing, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Financing is traditionally the best route to make expensive luxury items affordable to those unable to save the cash for them, and if Apple pulls it off it will be a pioneer in consumer credit in China," Wolf continued.

It was also reported this week that China, besides becoming the world's top smartphone producer in 2012, also launched the most mobile applications on Apple platforms, with over 730,000 introduced on the China app store last year, compared with the 339,164 launched on the US app store.

Fiat (PINK:FIATY): The Italian automaker, which holds a 58.5% stake in Chrysler, has announced plans to produce at least 100,000 Jeeps in China starting 2014, in a bid to challenge other foreign car companies such as General Motors (NYSE:GM) and Volkswagen (PINK:VLKAY).

Fiat and Chrysler will partner with Guangzhou Automobile Group (PINK:GNZUF) to roll out Jeeps in China, with production slated to begin in 18 months.

"We expect production of around 100,000 Jeeps per year which is expandable to 200,000," said Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne, according to Reuters. Marchionne, however, did not offer a timetable of when production would double.

In 2012, Jeep, Chrysler and Fiat sold more than 60,000 vehicles in China, which was a mere pittance compared to the over 2.8 million units shifted by both GM and Volkswagen.

Guangzhou Automobile Group general manager and CEO Zeng Qinghong said that Jeep sales would improve once his company begins rolling them out.

"After localization (of production), the demand for Jeep in China will get even more," he told USA Today. "So we will work with Chrysler to make these products in China. We are very confident about sales growth."

Baidu (NASDAQ:BIDU): Is Chinese online search giant Baidu looking to invest in Sina's (NASDAQ:SINA) microblogging service, Weibo? Rumors began swirling about Baidu's interest in Weibo three weeks ago, with reports saying that having recently raised some $1.5 billion in two debt offerings, Baidu is eyeing possible acquisitions, with Weibo at the top of its list.

Baidu was not the only Chinese Internet firm that was keen to own a stake in Weibo, with Alibaba Group and Tencent (HKG:0700) reportedly also having expressed interest. Sina quickly denied the stories of any impending purchase, but rumors still persist.

This week, the South China Morning Post reports that Baidu would likely "tap the big Weibo user base [over 350 million registered users] as a new platform for its popular advertising services."

Other potential Baidu acquisition targets in China, according to Credit Suisse, are Kingsoft and UCweb.

UBS (NYSE:UBS): Swiss bank UBS launched its locally incorporated Chinese unit this week in Shanghai, which enables the firm to conduct yuan business in areas such as wealth management, Reuters reported.

"China represents one of the most important markets in the world for UBS. We are committed to expanding our presence here and broadening our products and services to meet the needs of clients," said UBS chairman Axel Weber in a statement.

"It is UBS's plan to be one of the leading wealth management providers in China and the subsidiary bank is critical to realize this goal," continued the statement.

Some 40 foreign banks, including JPMorgan (NYSE:JPM), Morgan Stanley (NYSE:MS), and HSBC (NYSE:HBC), already have China operations, with some increasing their investments in China to try to take advantage of the growing Chinese economy, even as they cut costs elsewhere.

Twitter: @sterlingwong
No positions in stocks mentioned.
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