TOKYO (Bloomberg) -- After years of profiting from China's appetite for high-priced toys, makers of super-luxury cars are shifting their focus back to more traditional markets such as the U.S. and Japan.
"The U.S. is really getting back on track and getting more important for us," Lamborghini CEO Stephan Winkelmann said in an interview in Tokyo. In China, "there is a slowdown in high-end luxury," he said.
U.S. demand for Lamborghini's $400,000-plus Aventador flagship is growing at a pace reminiscent of the years before the 2008 global financial crisis, Winkelmann said. And as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe kick-starts the economy, Japan also stands out, he said.
Concerns over China, echoed by Fiat's Ferrari and BMW's Rolls-Royce since last year, show how the country is no longer the driver of growth it was three years ago when it pulled the world out of recession. A slowing economy and a government push against lavish spending have undermined sales of luxury goods ranging from supercars to Prada bags and Bordeaux wines.
"Luxury carmakers are suffering, and a lot of high-class restaurants that serve expensive dinners are suffering too," said Andreas Graef, a consultant at A.T. Kearney in Shanghai.
"Clearly China's millionaires and billionaires are more cautious of how they show off their wealth, from expensive watches to expensive liquors."
The U.S. is currently the strongest market globally, and Chinese demand for luxury cars is unlikely to ever experience the kind of expansion it saw over the past several years, Graef said. After dropping 29 percent in 2009 to 2,500 units, sales of vehicles costing more than 2 million yuan ($327,000) surged to a record 9,000 in 2011 before dropping back to 8,000 last year, according to A.T. Kearney.
"All luxury consumption has been squeezed," said Zhu Bin, senior analyst at researcher LMC Automotive in Shanghai. "Until 2015, the luxury-car segment won't recover to the levels we saw in 2012."
Chinese consumers were the world's biggest buyers of luxury goods in 2012, accounting for 27 percent of industry sales, according to a McKinsey & Co. report in December. But mainland luxury sales growth may slow to 12 percent annually in the three years to 2015 from an average of 27 percent between 2008 and 2012, according to the report.
Chinese gross domestic product is expected to expand 7.6 percent in 2013, the weakest pace in 14 years, according to estimates compiled by Bloomberg. That's taking a toll on the superrich, with the number of Chinese with a wealth of least $30 million shrinking 5.1 percent this year to 10,675, according to the Wealth-X and UBS World Ultra Wealth Report. Globally, the population of ultra-high-net-worth individuals rose 6.3 percent and their wealth expanded 7.7 percent to $27.8 trillion this year, according to the report.
Then there's the austerity drive being pushed by the Communist Party. Since last year, President Xi Jinping has limited official spending on high-end banquets and lavish gifts, resulting in a slide in demand for products such as liquor, hand-made tea and French wines. Xi has warned that disgust over graft and the enrichment of cadres and their families threatens the Party.
"In the past, there were many super tycoons who wanted to show off their wealth," said Yale Zhang, managing director of consultancy Autoforesight Shanghai Co. These days, such people "want to control their budget."
While it's typically the scions of such families who go after Lamborghinis or Ferraris, "their budget can be easily controlled by daddy," Zhang said.
Lamborghini isn't alone among ultra-luxury carmakers seeing a slowdown. Rolls-Royce CEO Torsten Mueller-Oetvoes said in April he's no longer seeing "explosive" growth in China, though he's still optimistic. The U.S. overtook China as the brand's biggest market last year, when the maker of the $380,000 Phantom sold a record 3,575 cars globally.
Ferrari, the most profitable unit at Fiat, says it expanded North America sales 9 percent and Japanese deliveries by 28 percent in the first half. In greater China, by contrast, the automaker sold some 350 cars in the period, 50 fewer than a year earlier.
With Europe still struggling, the U.S. has been a standout for Lamborghini. Deliveries there jumped 29 percent through August, outpacing the broader automotive market's 9.6 percent gain, according to researcher Autodata Corp.
In Japan, where investors are cheering Abe's push to bring the country out of more than two decades of economic malaise, automakers such as Toyota Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp. have seen their share price double in the past year. Customers wanting to buy the scissor-doored Aventador must wait 12 months, and Lamborghini's sales gained 14 percent through August, according to the Japan Automobile Importers Association.
"We are very happy with Japan," Winkelmann said.
"It's coming back big time."