深圳

New Year gambling hints at Chinese entrepreneurial vigour — The Financial Times

FT logo

 

FT beyondbrics

With about every major leading economic indicator in a tailspin, it’s easy, even obvious, to be bearish about China. But, one sign of economic activity could hardly seem more robust: the crowds and cash at gambling tables during this year’s Chinese New Year.

The two-week long lunar New Year celebration finally drew to a close on Monday with the Lantern Festival. Here in Shenzhen, China’s richest city per capita, no sooner do the shops all shut down for the long break than the gambling tables spill out onto the street, like the cork flying out of a bottle.

Gambling, especially in public places with large sums being wagered, is illegal everywhere in China. All the same, the New Year is ready-made for gamblers and street-corner croupiers to gather. For one thing, most police and urban street patrols are also away from their jobs with family.

Along with over-eating and giving cash-stuffed red envelopes, gambling is the other main popular indulgence during the New Year. Most of it happens behind closed doors with families gathered around the mahjong and card table. But parts of Shenzhen soon take on the appearance of an al fresco Macau (see photo).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year, from what I could see, the number of punters and sums being wagered was far higher than years past. This matters not only as a statement of consumer optimism here but also as affirmation of the love of risk-taking that helps make China such a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.

The two forces operating together – not only at street corner casinos — are perhaps the best reason to be optimistic that China’s economy may yet avoid a “hard landing” and continue to thrive.

In my neighborhood, the favorite game on the street is a form of craps where people bet on which of six auspicious animals and lucky symbols will turn up. Hundreds of renminbi change hands with each roll. No small bets allowed. The gambling goes on from morning until late at night.

It’s a game that requires no skill and one that also gives the house a huge advantage, since winning bets only make four times the sum wagered. This puts it in a somewhat similar league with punto banco baccarat, the casino game Chinese seem to like the most. It’s also game of pure chance, where the house has a built-in edge.

In China, gamblers’ capital flows to games with unfair odds, where dumb luck counts for more than smarts. In this there is cogent parallel with the investment culture in China. China is simply awash in risk-loving risk capital.

Street-side gambling is popular during the New Year break in part because the other more organised mainstream forms of taking a punt are shut down. Top of the list, of course, is the Chinese domestic stock market. It’s rightly called the world’s largest gambling den. Shares bob up and down in unison, prices decoupled from underlying economic factors, a company’s own prospects or comparable valuations elsewhere.

The simple reason is that almost all shares are owned by individual traders. Fed on rumors and goaded by state-owned brokerage houses, they seem to give no more thought to which shares to buy than my neighbors do before betting Rmb200 on which dice will land on the lucky crab.

The housing market, too, traces a similar erratic arc, driven far more by short-term speculation than the need to put a roof over one’s head. Billions pour in, bidding up local housing prices in many Chinese cities to a per-square-foot level higher than just about anywhere in the West except London, Paris, New York and San Francisco. Eventually prices do begin to moderate or even fall, as happened in most smaller cities this past twelve months.

The other big pool of risk capital in China goes into direct investment in entrepreneurial ventures of all sizes and calibers. Nowhere in the world is it easier to raise money to start or grow a business than China. In part, because Chinese have a marked preference for being their own boss, so the number of new companies started each year is high. The other big factor, call it the demand side, is that there is both a lot of money available and a great enthusiasm for investing in the new, the untried, the risky.

Before coming here, I used to work in the venture capital industry in California. VCs there are occasionally accused of turning a blind eye toward risk. Compared to venture investing in China, however, even the most starry-eyed venture investor in Silicon Valley looks like a Swiss money manager.

Just about any idea here seems to attract funding, a lot of it institutional. China now almost certainly has more venture firms than the rest of the world combined. No one can keep proper count. Along with all the big global names like Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins, there are thousands of other China-only venture firms operating, along with at least as many angel groups. In addition, just about every Chinese town, city and province, along with most listed companies, have their own venture funds.

I marvel at the ease with which early-stage businesses get funded, the valuations they command and the less than diligent due diligence that takes sometimes place before money moves. Of course, a few of these venture-backed companies hit the jackpot.

Alibaba or Tencent are two that come to mind. But, initial public offering (IPO) exits for Chinese startups remain rare, and so taken as a whole, venture investing returns in China have proved meager. But, activity never seems to wane. Fad follows fad. From group shopping, to what’s known in China as “O2O” (offline-to-online) thousands of companies get started, funded and then often within less than 18 months, go pffft.

With the New Year celebrations winding down, the outdoor gambling tables in my neighborhood are being put away for another year. Work schedules are returning to normal. For all the headwinds China’s economy now faces, Chinese household savings are still apparently growing faster than GDP. This means Chinese will likely go on year-after-year amassing more money to invest, to gamble or to speculate.

 

 byline

 

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2016/02/22/new-year-gambling-hints-at-chinese-entrepreneurial-vigour/

Download Financial Times article

 

 

China’s Economy: From Red Light to Highlights

Cinnabar Enamel snuff bottle from China First Capital blog post

After 30 years of economic progress unparalleled in human history, China can rewrite the rules on which leading economic indicators are most important to track.  I want to nominate a new one: the rate at which brothels are converted to beauty parlors.

At least in my Shenzhen neighborhood, this indicator is certainly at an all-time high. In the last four months, two rather seedy massage and KTV parlors have undergone very lavish renovation and reopened as large, expensive, multi-floored hair-dressing salons.

The clear implication: you can make more money in China these days selling perms and dye jobs than selling sex. This is an economic change in China of historic, if under-appreciated, importance.

Shenzhen has long had a reputation as one of the red light capitals of China. Some of the reasons: proximity to Hong Kong, a transient population made up largely of economic migrants, a local government with more of a laissez-faire attitude than elsewhere in China.

I can’t imagine anyone but the local police are keeping count, but I’d guess there must be thousands of places in the city offering sex for cash. These range from tiny storefronts with five to ten girls in folding chairs, to all manner of sauna, massage and KTV joints, most, but not all of which, augment their more legitimate offerings with the paid option to take one of the hostesses home with you, or do a little groping on the premises.

Or so I’m told. I know it may sound either prudish or disingenuous, but I’ve never been a customer of one of these places. I do, however, marvel at the variety and number of places selling sex here. The five-minute walk from my house to the local supermarket takes me past two big neon-lit places, called 会所, or “clubs” with touts out front and some heavily made-up ladies within. Down two smaller alleys are small storefront brothels.

In the building where I live, one of the fancier ones in my neighborhood, business cards are slipped under my door most every night offering “home delivery services”. They stress the a variety of women available, including  nurses, college students, migrants, mistresses, foreigners.

This is the part of Shenzhen’s sex trade I most deeply object to. The cards are put under every door. The photos on the card are of naked women.  My next-door neighbors include Chinese families with young kids. It’s unseemly, and I’ve complained numerous times to the doormen, but they claim not to know who is responsible for distributing the cards. My guess is they are paid to look the other way.

The economics of hair-dressing are certainly more favorable than the economics of prostitution. It’s not unusual for a woman to spend Rmb200-300 or more on a haircut and shampoo. Get your hair colored and the price can double. Though there are already dozens of hair salons in my neighborhood, they all seem to be jam-packed at all hours of the day. That never looks to be the case of the places selling sex. They always seem empty, over-staffed and under-patronized.

One thing hairdressers and brothels have in common,  the busiest time is 9pm-1am. Hairdressers, most of whom are men, earn a pretty good living, making around USD$1,000 a month. But, they work long hours, usually 12 hours a day. Most of the customers are women, but these places also cater to men. I pay Rmb 50 for a haircut and no shampoo. That’s a little less than the cost of a haircut at the joint I used to go to in LA’s Koreatown.

Every new beauty parlor that opens is confirmation of some larger economic trends in China.  Women have more disposable income, and more of an inclination to spend it on fashion, cosmetics, or a new hairstyle.  Prices are quickly reaching levels similar to those in the US. In Shenzhen, a young woman can now easily earn as much every month sitting at a desk in an office as sitting in a storefront brothel. That is probably a change from a few years ago.

China’s economy is changing quickly from export-dependence to a reliance on the domestic market, from dominance of manufacturing to the rise of the service sector. In my part of Shenzhen, what’s changing most quickly: who is serving what to whom for how much.



Navigating China’s Treacherous IPO Markets

Song plate from China First Capital blog post

How do you say “Scylla and Charybdis”  in Chinese? Thankfully, you don’t need to know the translation, or even reference from Homer’s The Odyssey, to understand the severe dilemma faced by China’s stock exchange regulator, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC)

Scylla and Charybdis were a pair of sea monsters guarding opposite sides of a narrow straight. Together, they posed an inescapable threat to sailors’ lives. By avoiding one, you sailed directly into the lair of the other. 

The CSRC has been trying to navigate between twin perils over the last months, since the October launch of ChiNext , the new Shenzhen stock exchange for smaller-cap private companies. They have tried to stamp out the trading volatility and big first day gains that characterized earlier IPOs in China. But, in doing so, they’ve created circumstances where the valuations of companies going public on the ChiNext have reached dangerous and unsustainably high levels. 

Monsters to the left, monsters to the right. The regulators at CSRC deserve combat pay. 

Based on most key measures, ChiNext has been a phenomenal success. So far, through the end of 2009, 36 companies have IPO’d on ChiNext, raising a total of over $2 billion from investors. That’s more than double the amount these 36 companies were originally seeking to raise from their IPOs. Therein lies the Scylla-Charybdis problem. 

Before ChiNext  opened, the CSRC was determined to avoid one common problem with Chinese IPOs on the main Shanghai and Shenzhen markets – that the price on the first day of trading typically rose very sharply, with lots of volatility. A sharp jump in the price on the first day is great for investors who were able to buy shares ahead of the IPO. In China, those lucky few investors are usually friends and business contacts of the underwriters, who were typically rewarded with first-day gains of over 20%. These investors could hold their shares for a matter of minutes or hours on the day of the IPO, then sell at a nice profit. 

But, while a first-day surge may be great for these favored investors, it’s bad news for the companies staging the IPOs. It means, quite simply, their shares were underpriced (often significantly so) at IPO. As a result, they raised less money than they could have. The money, instead, is wrongly diverted into the hands of the investors who bought the shares at artificially low prices. An IPO that has a 25% first-day gain is an IPO that failed to maximize the amount the company could raise from investors. 

Underwriters are at fault. When they set the price at IPO, they can start trading at a level that all but guarantees an immediate increase. This locks in profits for the people they choose to allocate shares to ahead of the start of trading. 

The CSRC, rightly,  decided to do something about this. They mandated that the opening price for companies listing on the CSRC should be set more by market demand, not the decision of an underwriter. The result is that the opening day prices on ChiNext have far more accurately reflected the price investors are willing to pay for the new offering.

Gains that used to go to first-day IPO investors are now harvested by the companies. They can raise far more money for the fixed number of shares offered at IPO. So far so good. The problem is: Chinese investors are bidding up the prices of many of these new offerings to levels that are approaching madness. 

The best example so far: when Guangzhou Improve Medical Instruments Co had its IPO last month, its shares traded at an opening price 108 times its 2008 earnings.  The most recent  group of companies to IPO on ChiNext had first-day valuations of over 80 times 2008 earnings. Because of the high valuations, these ChiNext-listed companies have raised more than twice the amount of money they planned from their IPO. 

On one hand, that’s great for the companies. But, the risk is that the companies will not use the extra money wisely (for example by speculating in China’s overheated property market), and so the high valuations they enjoy now will eventually plummet. Indeed, valuations at over 80x  are no more sustainable on the ChiNext now than they were on the Tokyo Stock Exchange a generation ago. 

Having steered ChiNext away from the danger of underpriced IPOs, the CSRC is now trying to cope with this new menace. They have limited tools at their disposal. They clearly don’t want to return pricing power to underwriters. But, neither do they want ChiNext to become a market with insane valuations and companies that are bloated with too much cash and too many temptations to misuse it.   

CSRC’s response: they just introduced new rules to limit the ways ChiNext companies can use the extra cash raised at IPO.  CSRC is also reportedly studying ways to lower IPO valuations on ChiNext. 

The new rules restrict the uses of the extra cash. Shareholder approval is required for any investment over Rmb 50 million, or more than 20% of the extra IPO proceeds on a single project. The CSRC also reiterated that ChiNext companies should use the additional proceeds from their IPOs to fund their main businesses and not for high-risk investments, such as securities, derivatives or venture capital.

The new rules are fine, as far as they go. But, they don’t go very far towards resolving the underlying cause of all these problems, of both underpriced and overpriced IPOs in China.

The problem is that CSRC itself limits the number of new IPOs, to try to maintain overall market stability. Broadly speaking, this restricted supply creates excessive demand for all Chinese IPOs. Regulatory interventions and tinkering with the rules won’t do much. There remains the fundamental imbalance between the number of domestic IPOs and investor interest in new offerings.

Faced with two bad options, Odysseus chose to take his chances with the sea monster Scylla, and survived, while losing quite a few of his crew. The alternative was worse, he figured, since Charybdis could sink the whole ship.

The CSRC may well make a similar decision and return some pricing power to underwriters, to bring down ChiNext’s valuations.  But, without an increased supply of IPOs in China,  the two large hazards will persist. CSRC’s navigation of China’s IPO market will certainly remain treacherous.  


China’s Party Apparatus

China First Capital blog post -- Qing dynasty peach bowl

Christmas has passed, but the reindeer antlers are still out in force. At my local supermarket in Shenzhen, the checkout team began sporting plastic antlers in late November. We’re a long way from the North Pole, and even farther, culturally, from the parts of the world where Christmas is traditionally celebrated. But, if there’s a party going on anywhere,  the Chinese want to be part of it. 

It’s not just the reindeer horns. A good 30% of all other shops’ sales force, as well as restaurant wait staff, are wearing those droopy red Santa caps. Most lobbies of the larger office buildings have Christmas trees, lit and ornamented. Mine also has a small crèche, that looks like a gingerbread house big enough to sleep three adults.  

Incongruous? Sure. But, one grows inured very quickly in China to things that don’t seem to make a lot of sense culturally. Red wine is increasingly the drink of choice among urban, upwardly-striving Chinese. Never mind that most of the wine is domestically produced, and has a thin, sour watered-down flavor a bit like salad dressing, and doesn’t compliment well the salty and spicy foods favored in much of China. 

Other examples: pajamas are occasionally used as outdoor-wear in China. The slowest-moving trucks on China’s expressways tend to putter along at one-third the speed limit in the left passing lane. Many ads for infant formula feature fat blond-haired babies. 

Christmas in China does not involve gift-giving, carol-singing, church-going. It’s a reason to decorate buildings, wear odd outfits, and send tens of millions (by my guesstimate) of SMS messages wishing other Chinese “圣诞快乐” ,literally “Happy Holy Birth”.  Santa Claus? His plastic likeness is plastered everywhere. In China, though, he is known as “圣诞老人“,or “Holy Birth Old Guy”. 

Not only is Christmas part of China’s holiday calendar now, so is Halloween in some of the bigger cities. But, it’s a Halloween celebrated only by adults wearing scary costumes to restaurants and bars that night. There’s no candy, no trick-or-treating. 

Much as China’s government still describes the economy as “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, there’s a lot of my daily life here that can be understood as “Western civilization with Chinese characteristics”. Much is broadly familiar, but most things have a strikingly and singularly Chinese flavor. 

Thursday night is New Year’s Eve. It’ll be my first in China. Logic tells me it should mainly pass unnoticed. Chinese New Year, which falls this year on Valentine’s Day, is the most important holiday of the year, and is so deeply engrained in the consciousness that when Chinese say “next year”, they usually mean some time after Chinese new year, which has no fixed date on the Gregorian calendar. It begins either in January or February, depending on cycles of the moon. The New Year holiday lasts seven days in China. 

So while there’s no cultural imperative to celebrate New Year’s Eve, I do expect restaurants, bars and shopping areas to be unusually raucous on Thursday night, much as they were on Christmas and Halloween. Like a college fraternity, China seems determined to seize any excuse to throw a party.