2 American companies told us everything you need to know about China's economic divide

This week, earnings out of two American corporate giants told us everything we need to know about the future of the Chinese economy.

Namely: construction activity is on the decline and consumer spending is soaring.

On Thursday morning, industrial giant Caterpillar announced that it would lay off up to 10,000 employees amid a decline in its core businesses.

Caterpillar called current market conditions are displaying, “a convergence of challenging marketplace conditions in key regions and industry sectors — namely in mining and energy.” Following this announcement, shares of the company got crushed and the news was generally received as bad news for the global economy, and in particular, China.

Later on Thursday, however, Nike announced earnings that crushed expectations, with sales in China coming in particularly strong. In China, the company’s footwear sales rose 36% in its most recent quarter as futures orders were up 27% when excluding the impact of China’s currency devaluation in August.

Following this news, Nike shares rallied to an all-time high.

This chart of Caterpillar and Nike stock tells you everything you need to know about the direction China’s economy has gone in the last several years: spending up, building down.

Now, of course, this is the result that China’s government has been hoping to engineer.

But it hasn’t been a smooth road, and Nike is only one example of real consumer strength in China.

Earlier this summer, markets got spooked by suggestions that Apple’s much-ballyhooed entry into China’s market might not be going as well as planned. And this news in July seemed to plague markets all the way until the late-August market chaos that broke out, leading to, among other things, Apple CEO Tim Cook sending CNBC’s Jim Cramer an email to reassure investors about Apple’s sales in China.

Additionally, the broader commodity complex — which includes things like oil, copper, and iron ore — has seen a sharp decline in 2015, partly due to oversupply from the market (like in oil), but these moves have also been attributed to slowing demand from China.

And while there is considerable debate about just how much China’s economy is slowing, even the government’s own figures show that the economy is growing at its slowest pace in about 25 years.

But in a note to clients this week, Goldman Sachs’ energy analyst Jeff Currie said that China appeared to at least be on the mark in shifting its economic goals.

“While China is simply part of the global glut in commodity supply, from the demand side it tells a far more important story,” Currie wrote.

For years, China-watchers have emphasised the need for China to rotate its economy away from investment and towards consumption, with domestic demand eventually replacing manufacturing output as the driver of growth. However, it wasn’t until 2015 that this rotation has become reality.

Overall, however, China’s economy is showing signs of slowing, with manufacturing data this week indicating the sector has slowed to its worst level since March 2009, right at the depths of the financial crisis.

And this comes on a background of a summer that saw wild swings in the Chinese stock market take center stage in global markets, with the Federal Reserve noting in their latest policy statement that it is now “monitoring developments abroad,” something markets took to mean, basically, China.

Noted short-seller Jim Chanos, who has been among the more bearish commentators on China in the last couple years, said this week that really no matter what the statistics say about China’s economy, the problem is that the debt inside the Chinese system has simply grown to dangerous and unmanageable levels.

But of course, the Chinese government insists that its economy is growing at 7% a year, the slowest pace in 25 years but still among the fastest rates in the world today. In short, China’s multi-decade economic miracle is still, by the government’s numbers, still sort of hanging together.

And while scepticism about the veracity of these figures fuels most of the debate around whether China is successfully engineering the shift in its economy, one of America’s most popular brands would make it seem, at least in a way, like China is pulling this off.

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