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Why Burberry Group plc Is A Smarter Bet On The New China Than BHP Billiton plc

So Britain is intent on getting cosy with China, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying that the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping marks a “golden era” in the relationship between us and the world’s most populous nation.

Admittedly, the pay-off seems to be being measured only in economic terms. The Treasury, for example, hopes China will become the UK’s second largest trading partner within the next ten years.

That’s problematic for the many people – including me – who have qualms about China’s record on human rights.

But by the same token, virtually all of us already have a commercial relationship with China, in that most of the gadgets we buy and use are assembled in China anyway – even the shiniest ones such as the iPhone.

To that extent, our leaders are only furthering a relationship that we’ve already voted for with our wallets.

The new China

But even leaving aside these moral questions (and the geo-political ones, for that matter) China presents conundrums in investment terms, too.

We’ve just learned that China’s economic growth rate has slowed to 6.9% — sharply down from the double-digit rates we got used to in the Noughties.

That slowdown is worth noting, given the crucial boost China has hitherto given to global growth as the West has dragged its feet emerging from the financial crisis.

Commodity prices have been falling for several years, too.

Markets are trying to anticipate China’s shift from an export and infrastructure boom story into more mature consumption and service driven economy like our own, although it remains to be seen whether China’s leaders can pull off this off.

Very few countries have successfully made the leap.

China’s miner threat

Still, I think this hoped for transition gives us a pointer as to where we should invest if we want to profit from China’s future growth, and perhaps on any deeper friendship between our countries.

You see, while it’s true the China plays of yesteryear like BHP Billiton (LSE: BLT) and the other big FTSE 100 mining behemoths will continue to ship huge quantities of raw materials to China, it’s difficult to see them enjoying a second boom of the scale of the last one, given the changing direction of the Chinese economy.

BHP’s market value near-tripled in the five years to its peak in 2011 as China underwent an unprecedented spurt of urbanization, and China still makes up more than a third of BHP’s revenues.

But BHP’s share price has since crashed by nearly as much as it ran up in that last boom period, as production growth from new mines – BHP’s as much as its rivals – has caused supply to catch up and then overwhelm demand, sending commodity prices sinking.

How much?

Compare that picture with the outlook for luxury brand Burberry (LSE: BRBY).

China is a crucial market for the British retailer, and most other luxury firms. The Chinese consumer already accounts for 30% of the luxury goods market worldwide, with about 50% of their spending conducted in mainland China and the rest in Hong Kong and in tourist destinations around the globe, such as London, New York, and Paris.

China’s share of Burberry’s sales is not yet comparable to China’s share of say BHP Billiton’s revenues, even accounting for the goods it sells outside of the mainland, but it’s growing fast – and Burberry seems to have a much longer runway for growth, too as the shift in China’s economy towards personal consumption isn’t rosy for big bulk material producers, but it plays straight into the business plan at Burberry.

How big could that opportunity be? According to The Economist, the number of households in China earning more than $75,000 a year could grow from one million today to 74 million within 15 years.

If Burberry remains the brand of choice among aspiring Chinese – something that might be helped by the political overtures we’re seeing today – then that expansion will be brilliant for Burberry.

Handbag a growth story

Right now Burberry is actually seeing sales decline in China, as a Chinese officials crack down on bribery and gifting, and conspicuous consumption of luxury fare becomes, well, unfashionable.

But I see no reason for this to last. And as China’s middle class expands, Burberry’s addressable market should grow for years, in contrast to the executives at the big mining firms who’ll be lamenting their golden era of yesteryear.

That’s not to say the likes of BHP Billiton don’t reflect these diminished prospects in their valuations – I think BHP is probably a good purchase here, with a nice dividend yield, for a diversified portfolio.

But if I was asked to choose between BHP Billiton and Burberry as a way to play all those smiles and handshakes we’re seeing on the nightly news, I’d put my money on the handbag maker any day.

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Owain Bennallack owns shares in Burberry and BHP Billiton. The Motley Fool UK has recommended Burberry. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors.