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(Bloomberg) -- Swiss watch exports fell 9.9 percent in 2016, the biggest drop in seven years, as high-end timepieces went unsold on retailers’ shelves in Hong Kong, the industry’s largest market.
Exports declined to 19.4 billion francs ($19.4 billion) in December, the Federation of the Swiss Watch Industry said in a statement Thursday. The annual decline is the worst performance since exports fell 22 percent in 2009 in the wake of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers and the subprime mortgage crisis.
The boom years, when exports doubled during the early 2000s, are long gone. The industry is retrenching following the Chinese government’s four-year campaign against bribery, improper gift-giving and extravagance, and the Hong Kong market has been cut in half in the past four years. Richemont spent more than 200 million euros ($215 million) buying back unsold watches last year, and it’s cut about 200 jobs in watchmaking at Cartier, Vacheron Constantin and Piaget.
The watch federation said it expects exports to stabilize in 2017 as initial signs of a rebound emerge. Richemont, which makes watches under a dozen brands, has reported a return to growth in sales of watches at its own stores in the final three months of 2016.
China rebounded in the second half, with exports rising 9.1 percent, according to the trade group. The total number of watches exported in 2016 dropped to 25.4 million, also the lowest since 2009.
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