So much for the theory that a pandemic that required couples to spend time together at home would trigger a baby boom. For China, the disappointment will be acute. Births fell 15 per cent last year, according to China’s ministry of public security. A government that once pursued a one-child only policy now says couples can have three each.
Baby-related stocks jumped on Tuesday on Chinese exchanges. But the rally will not last. The influence of governments and faith leaders on reproduction rates is low compared with economics.
Shares that rose by their 10 per cent daily limit on mainland exchanges included toy makers Goldlok Holdings and Shanghai Aiyingshi. Infant formula maker Beingmate was another. In Hong Kong, Aidigong Maternal & Child Health, which provides care to mothers and babies, rose 14 per cent.
Since Beijing implemented a two-child policy in 2016, the rate of decline in new births has accelerated. Last year, the average Chinese woman had 1.3 children, well below the 2.1 needed to maintain the current population. Share prices for baby- and maternity-related companies have followed the same downward trend.
The new policy is unlikely to halt structural shifts driving low numbers of births. Chinese families are following a pattern seen in many countries: an inverse correlation between wealth and birth rates. People earning decent wages save for retirement and invest more in fewer children. GDP per capita in China has grown tenfold in the past two decades. Expectations have risen along with the cost of living, from housing to healthcare.
Some 250m Chinese are aged over 60 and the numbers in this group are growing. The manufacturing workforce of about 110m has started to shrink. That is a problem for an economy still reliant upon growth from low-paid, labour-intensive manufacturing.
Beijing cannot reverse the decline in China’s working-age population simply by telling people they can have more children. Investors should forget about baby toys and infant formula. The opportunities will be in automating China’s factories and in healthcare for seniors.
The Lex team is interested in hearing more from readers. What is your analysis of Chinese demographics? Please tell us what you think in the comments section below.