China-US relations

China’s Tax Revenues: An Embarrassment of Riches

You’ve got to love the timing. With U.S. mired in a debt and spending crisis, with tax revenues stagnant and its government about to run out of borrowed money to spend, the Chinese government just announced that its fiscal revenues during the first half of 2011 rose by 29.6% compared to a year earlier. One country is a fiscal train-wreck, the other a fiscal gusher.

China’s tax revenues are surging for a host of reasons that set it apart from the US – the economy is booming, and in particular, businesses are thriving. According to the Chinese Ministry of Finance, profit taxes are growing especially quickly. Income and corporate tax rates are stable, at rates far lower than the US. China levies a nationwide VAT, while most of the US charges sales tax. Consumer spending is growing by over 20% in China, while it’s basically flat in the US.

To all these must be added another crucial difference: China is modernizing so quickly, that every year money pours in from new sources. China doesn’t need to raise tax rates to increase tax revenue. It just allows its citizens to get on with their lives.

Take auto sales. A decade ago, China produced and sold about two million cars. This year, it will sell about 20 million. China passed the US two years ago to become the world’s largest auto market. Since then, sales have grown by a further 40%.

Along with creating some of the world’s worst traffic congestion, all these new car sales do wonders for the country’s fiscal situation.  Start with the fact that every car sold in China has not just a 17% VAT built into its price, but a host of other taxes and levies. A consumption tax adds as much as 40% more to the sticker price depending on the size of the engine. Customs duties are also levied on imports.

These all add up fast. The government’s tax take from the sale of a single Mercedes-Benz can easily top Rmb325,000 (US$50,000). Last year alone, sales of Mercedes-Benz in China doubled. This year, Mercedes will sell about 180,000 cars in China. Total tax take: about USD$1 billion. Keep in mind that Mercedes-Benz has less than 1% of the Chinese market. BWM, Porsche and Lexus are also doing great in China. While they are all doing well, the Chinese government does even better. The government earns far more on the sale of every luxury car than the manufacturers do.

The sales and consumption taxes are just the start. Most news cars in China are sold to new drivers. That means, every year, there’s a significant net increase in the consumption of gasoline. Each liter of gasoline also carries a variety of different taxes – VAT, consumption tax, resource tax. Plus, almost every gas station and refiner in China is owned by companies majority-owned by the Chinese government. So, profits at the pump flow back to the government.

At the moment, the gasoline price in China is about Rmb7.5 per liter,  or Rmb30 ($4.60) per gallon. Figure the Chinese government is making about Rmb10 ($1.50) per gallon sold in tax. Each new car sold this year will likely contribute an additional $500-$600 in fuel taxes, or about Rmb100 billion in total. Again, a big chunk of that will be a net increase in fiscal revenues, since there are so many new drivers each year.

Think the same for sales of new apartments, air-conditioners, iPads and iPhones, plane and high-speed train tickets. Each one has all sorts of taxes built into its sales price, and then an annuity of future tax revenues from energy taxes, fees and assessments.

In the US, taxes and spending are so high, people grow more and more reluctant to spend. Huge budget deficits today, as Milton Friedman long ago established,  creates the expectation of tax increases tomorrow. Americans adjust their spending accordingly. Not so in China. Chinese keep spending and the government reaps the bounty.

As flush as the Chinese fisc now is, tax revenues represent only one part of the government’s huge cash hoard. To begin with, there is the over $3 trillion in official foreign exchange reserves. This money contributes little to no benefit to the economy as a whole, except bottling up pressure on the Renminbi to appreciate against the dollar. It’s basically money buried in the backyard.

The government also owns significant – often controlling — shares the country’s biggest and most profitable companies, including SinoPec, China Mobile, China Telecom.

Net profits at the 120 biggest centrally-controlled Chinese SOEs rose by 14.6% year-on-year during the first half of 2011, reaching Rmb457.17 billion yuan ($71 billion) . These 120 SOEs are meant to pay taxes and levies of almost twice that, Rmb850 billion, up 26.4% from 2010. No one quite knows how much of that money actually reaches the Chinese Treasury. But, of course,  the money is there, should it be needed – in a way the US Social Security “Trust Fund” most assuredly is not.

China Goes Shopping: The Compelling Logic of Doing M&A Deals in the US

Selling a business in the US?  Chinese can pay top dollar.

We are entering a golden age of Chinese M&A deals in the US. There is certainly a sharp pick-up in activity going on – not so much of announced deals yet, though there have been several, but in more intensive discussions between potential Chinese acquirers and US companies. There is also a lot more shopping and tire-kicking by Chinese buyers. I certainly see it in our business. We’re engaged now in several M&A deals whose goal is sale of a US company to a Chinese buyer. I expect to see more.

The reasons for this upsurge are many – including the recent appreciation of the Renminbi against the dollar, the growing scale and managerial sophistication of Chinese companies (particularly private as opposed to state-owned ones), attractive prices for target US companies, the launch in 2009 by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange of the Chinextboard for fast-growing private companies.

The best reason for Chinese buyers to acquire US firms is one less-often mentioned – to profit from p/e arbitrage. The gap between stock market valuations in the US and China, on price-earnings basis, are wide. The average trailing p/e in the US now is 14. On China’s Chinext board, it’s 45. For fast-growth Chinese companies, the p/e multiples can exceed 70. This gives some Chinese acquirers leeway to pay a higher price for a US business.

In the best cases, a dollar of earnings may cost $10-$15 to acquire through purchase of a US business, but that dollar is immediately worth fifty dollars or more to the Chinese firm’s own valuation. As long as the gap remains so large, it makes enormous economic sense for Chinese acquirers to be out buying US businesses.

This is equally true for Chinese companies already quoted on the Chinese stock market as well as those with that ambition. Indeed, for reasons unique to China, the incentive is stronger for private companies to do this p/e arbitrage. In China, public companies generally are forbidden from doing secondary offerings, nor can they use their own shares to pay for an acquisition. When a Chinese public company consolidates a US acquisition’s profits, its overall market value will likely rise. But, it has no way to capitalize by selling additional shares and replenish the corporate treasury.

For a private company, the larger the profits at IPO, the higher the IPO proceeds. An extra $1 million in profits the year before an IPO can raise the market cap by $50mn – $70mn when the company goes public on Chinext. Private Chinese companies, unlike those already public in China,  can also use their shares to pay for acquisitions. The better private companies also often have a private equity investor involved. The PE firms can be an important source of cash to finance acquisitions, since it will juice their own returns. PE firms like making money from p/e arbitrage.

In M&A, the best pricing strategy is to swap some of my overvalued paper to buy all of someone else’s undervalued paper.  At the moment, some of the most overvalued paper belongs to Chinese companies on the path to IPO in China.

Most M&A deals end up benefitting the selling shareholders far more than the buyers. That’s because the buyers almost always fail to capture the hoped-for savings and efficiencies from combining two firms. Too often, such synergies turn out to be illusory.

For Chinese acquirers, p/e arbitrage greatly increases the likelihood of an M&A deal paying off – if not immediately, then when the combined company goes public.

If the target company in the US has reasonable rate of profit growth, the picture gets even rosier. The rules are, a private Chinese company will generally need to wait three years after an acquisition to go public in China. As long as the acquired business’s profits keep growing, the Chinese companies market value at IPO will as well. Chinese acquirers should do deals like that all day long.

But, as of now, they are not. One reason, of course, is that things can and often also go wrong in M&A deals. Any acquirer can easily stumble trying to manage a new business, and to maintain its rate of growth after acquisition. It’s tougher still when it’s cross-border and cross-cultural.

Another key reason: domestic M&A activity in China is still rather scant. There isn’t a lot of experience or expertise to tap, particularly for private companies. Knowing you want to buy and knowing how to do so are very different beasts. I’ve seen that in our work. Chinese companies immediately grasp the logic and pay-off from a US acquisition. They are far less sure how to proceed. They commonly will ask us, investment bankers to the seller, how to move ahead, how to work out a proper valuation.

The best deals, as well as the easiest, will be Chinese acquiring US companies with a large untapped market in China. Our clients belong in this camp, US companies that have differentiated technology and products with the potential to expand very rapidly across China.

In one case, our client already has revenues and high profit margins in China, but lacks the local management and know-how to fulfill the demand in China.  The senior management are all based in the US, and the company sends trained US workers over to China, putting them up in hotels for months at a time, rather than using Chinese locals. Simply by localizing the staff and taking over sales operation now outsourced to a Chinese “agent”, the US company could more than double net profits in China.

The US management estimates their potential market in China to be at least ten times larger than their current level of revenues, and annual profits could grow more. But, to achieve that, the current  owners have concluded their business needs Chinese ownership.

If all goes right, the returns on this deal for a Chinese acquirer could set records in M&A. Both p/e arbitrage and high organic profit growth will see to that. Our client could be worth over $2 billion in a domestic IPO in China in four years’ time, assuming moderate profit targets are hit and IPO valuations remain where they are now on China’s Chinext exchange.

Another client is US market leader in a valuable media services niche, with A-List customers, high growth and profits this year above $5mn. After testing the M&A waters in the US, the company is now convinced it will attract a higher price in China. The company currently has no operations now in China, but the market for their product is as large – if not larger – than in the US. Again, it needs a Chinese owner to unlock the market. We think this company will likely prove attractive to quoted Chinese technology companies, and fetch a higher price than it will from US buyers.

The same is true for many other US companies seeking an exit. US businesses will often command a higher price in China, because of the valuation differentials and high-growth potential of China’s domestic market.

China business has prospered over the last 20 years by selling things US consumers want to buy. In the future,  it will prosper also by buying businesses the US wants to sell.

 


 

Is US Right to Fear China’s Industrial Policy?

Yixing teapot 4

A particularly – and atypically alarmist article ran recently in the Wall St. Journal titled “U.S. Firms, China in Tech War” . You can read it here ( WSJ Article) and decide for yourself. The thrust is that Chinese national policy has shifted in recent years, making it more difficult for Western government companies to win government contracts and protect their most valuable intellectual property. According to the Journal, it’s part of a new “Chinese industrial policy” to transform China into a hothouse of homegrown leading edge technologies, with companies able to challenge American supremacy.

It makes good copy. According to the article, the issues are of such portent that President Obama discussed them directly with China’s leader, Hu Jintao, during the latter’s visit to the US last month. The article cites a fretful report from the US Chamber of Commerce in China, titled “China’s Drive for ‘Indigenous Innovation’: A Web of Industrial Policies”.  The report claims China is building an “intricate web of new rules considered by many international technology companies to be a blueprint for technology theft on a scale the world has never seen before.”

To me, it seems that the Journal may be guilty of mistaking cause for effect. Is China pursuing a nationalist domestic procurement policy? Most likely, just as the US and virtually every other developed country does. Will this make it harder for non-Chinese companies to sell gear to China’s government agencies?  Quite probably. Are Chinese rules crafted in such a way to make it obligatory for Western companies to transfer their technology to Chinese partners? Seems to be the case.

But, will any of this actually achieve the stated goal? Here, I’m a lot less agitated than the Americans quoted in the Journal article. The reason is also found in the same article, which makes a passing reference to similar rules in place in Japan, Korea, Germany and elsewhere. Fat lot of good they’ve done those countries.  Their aggressive “buy local” rules, and other protectionist measures to “nurture” domestic innovation have done little to nothing to achieve their stated aim. In fact, the opposite is the case. If you want to draw up a list of the countries that have lost significant ground to the US in new technologies over the last twenty years, you can start with those that pursued similar regimes to China.

Twenty years ago, France, Germany and Japan all had large, well-known computer companies. Today, Bull, Nixdorf and NEC are either bankrupt or laughing stocks. Their governments’ passionate embrace turned out to be a kiss of death.

The same is true in the industries that the US government has chosen to support and nourish with subsidies and protection. Think about the billions wasted (or as our current US administration tabs it “invested” ) on “alternative energy” and “clean transport” in the US.

Industrial policy, in almost all cases, has a track record untainted by success. There are a lot of good reasons for this, but the most fundamental of all is that government officials, however well-schooled and well-meaning, have no competence to choose winning technologies, and certainly do so with far diminished effectiveness than an open, vibrant market of billions of customers.

Governments all love command and control. The problem is they can only do one of the two. Commanding your citizens to produce advanced products, and lavishing subsidies and protection on those who pay attention to you, is not the same as controlling which technologies will prove most useful, as well as most time- and money-saving.

Yes, this system can produce bullet trains in Japan and China, and maglev trains in Germany. Problem is, no one else wants to buy them, and your citizens are mainly too busy and happy futzing around on Facebook or Google to much care about any of this.

If China does favor domestic technology companies, the risk is these companies produce just enough innovation to please their government customers. But,  like Bull, Nixdorf and NEC, they will produce nothing that anyone else with free choice will care to buy.

Sure, I’d like US companies to have a better crack at the Chinese market. But, then again, I’d like some of my Chinese clients to have a better crack also at the Japanese, Korean and European markets they are often shut out of. Governments by their nature, sadly, are usually protectionist and nationalist. China is no different. The US has often tried to keep these malign instincts at bay. But, my homeland has all kinds of “buy American” favoritism in place for government contracts.

Innovation is important. But, often enough, it’s good marketing, pricing and efficient global distribution that wins customers, and generates the profits to reinvest in more new ideas and products. I don’t know of a single great technology company that relies on its national government as a main customer. Those that do so, like SAIC in the US or EADS in Europe, often end up falling behind the technology curve.

US companies have every right to complain about unfair procurement policies in China. There’s no solid ground, however, for believing that these same policies will result in China producing world-beating technology companies in the future. One of the surest way to find the failed technology companies of the future is to search for those whose main customers are their own nation’s bureaucrats.


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In Full Agreement

pyramid

I commend unreservedly the following article from today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page. It discusses US reverse mergers and OTCBB IPOs for Chinese companies, identifying reasons these deals happen and the harm that’s often done.


What’s Behind China’s Reverse IPOs?


A dysfunctional financial system pushes companies toward awkward deals in America.
By JOSEPH STERNBERG

As if China Inc. didn’t already have enough problems in America—think safety scares, currency wars, investment protectionism and Sen. Chuck Schumer—now comes the Securities and Exchange Commission. Regulators are investigating allegations of accounting irregularities at several Chinese companies whose shares are traded in America thanks to so-called reverse mergers. Regulators, and not a few reporters, worry that American investors may have been victims of frauds perpetrated by shady foreign firms.

Allow us to posit a different view: Despite the inevitable bad apples, many of the firms involved in this type of deal are as much sinned against as sinning.

In a reverse merger, the company doing the deal injects itself into a dormant shell company, of which the injected company’s management then takes control. In the China context, the deal often works like this: China Widget transfers all its assets into California Tallow Candle Inc., a dormant company with a vestigial penny-stock listing left over from when it was a real firm. China Widget’s management simultaneously takes over CTC, which is now in the business of making widgets in China. And thanks to that listing, China Widget also is now listed in America.

It’s an odd deal. The goal of a traditional IPO is to extract cash from the global capital market. A reverse merger, in contrast, requires the Chinese company to expend capital to execute what is effectively a purchase of the shell company. The company then hopes it can turn to the market for cash at some point in the future via secondary offerings.

Despite its evident economic inefficiencies, the technique has grown popular in recent years. Hundreds of Chinese companies are now listed in the U.S. via this arrangement, with a combined market capitalization of tens of billions of dollars. Some of those may be flim-flammers looking to make a deceitful buck. But by all accounts, many more are legitimate companies. Why do they do it?

One relatively easy explanation is that the Chinese companies have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous foreign banks and lawyers. In China’s still-new economy with immature domestic financial markets, it’s entirely plausible that a large class of first-generation entrepreneurs are relatively naïve about the art of capital-raising but see a listing—any listing—as a point of pride and a useful marketing tool. There may be an element of truth here, judging by the reports from some law firms that they now receive calls from Chinese companies desperate to extract themselves from reverse mergers. (The news for them is rarely good.)

More interesting, however, is the systemic backdrop against which reverse mergers play out. Chinese entrepreneurs face enormous hurdles securing capital. A string of record-breaking IPOs for the likes of Agricultural Bank of China, plus hundred-million-dollar deals for companies like Internet search giant Baidu, show that Beijing has figured out how to use stock markets at home and abroad to get capital to large state-owned or well-connected private-sector firms. The black market can deliver capital to the smallest businesses, albeit at exorbitant interest rates of as much as 200% on an annual basis.

The weakness is with mid-sized private-sector companies. Bank lending is out of reach since loan officers favor large, state-owned enterprises. IPOs involve a three-year application process with an uncertain outcome since regulators carefully control the supply of new shares to ensure a buoyant market. Private equity is gaining in popularity but is still relatively new, and the uncertain IPO process deters some investors who would prefer greater clarity about their exit strategy. In this climate, it’s not necessarily a surprise that some impatient Chinese entrepreneurs view the reverse merger, for all its pitfalls, as a viable shortcut.

So although the SEC investigation is likely to attract ample attention to the U.S. investor- protection aspect of this story, that is the least consequential angle. Rules (even bad ones) are rules. But these shares are generally held by sophisticated hedge-fund managers and penny-stock day traders who ought to know that what they do is a form of glorified gambling.

Rather, consider the striking reality that some 30-odd years after starting its transformation to a form of capitalism, China still has not figured out one of capitalism’s most important features: the allocation of capital from those who have it to those who need it. As corporate savings pile up at inefficient state-owned enterprises, potentially successful private companies find themselves with few outlets to finance expansion. If Beijing can’t solve that problem quickly, a controversy over some penny stocks will be the least of anyone’s problems.

Mr. Sternberg is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.

The New York Times on China – Often Wrong, Seldom in Doubt

crops111

The impetus for writing the last blog post was reading this in a New York Times article on China:  “Most people in China can only dream of being able to afford an expensive phone. But millions of Chinese are developing a taste for luxury goods, and Apple products have joined Louis Vuitton bags as totems of wealth.”

The comment was vintage NYT reportage: managing to be both condescending and ill-informed. The reality is otherwise: personal wealth in China is widespread and growing quickly. While not yet at levels seen in Taiwan or Hong Kong, more people in China can afford “an expensive phone” than in the US. The New York Times, however, prefers more often to characterize China today much as it has for the last 30 years – as a largely poor country, with a few selfish and wealthy autocrats lording over a teeming mass of mistreated peasants subsisting on starvation wages.

Back when I was a reporter, I once heard someone describe another journalist as,  “Often wrong, but never in doubt”. The same, writ large, can be said of The New York Times Its primary activity is one of substantiation, not investigation. It seeks out, or partly imagines, stories that will support its rather simple, binary world view: Democrats good, conservatives bad; UN good, US military action bad; tolerance for its favored groups and causes, good; tolerance for the groups and causes it loathes, bad.

I don’t get my business news from The New York Times, a habit I first cultivated over 20 years ago when I went to work at Forbes. The times I do read business stories in the NYT they seem to be written by reporters with a disdain and distrust for business. I’ve met a few NYT business reporters over the years. If I had to sum up their basic belief system, it would be “property is theft”.

As far as China goes, the NYT’s reporting mainly has two dominant flavors: “we don’t like it”, or “we don’t understand it”. Human rights, pollution, Tibet and defective manufactured products figure prominently. China’s remarkable positive transformation, and the huge increases in personal, political and economic freedom, all get short shrift inside the pages of the NYT.

Of course, there are many and better sources of information about China. The Wall Street Journal, for example, is consistently good. The NYT’s circulation is shrinking year-by-year, as is its influence. But, for a certain group of Americans, particularly on the left and in the more elite precincts of academia and the media, the NYT remains the primary source of information about the world.  So, its reporting about China has outsized consequences,  helping to shape (or deform) elite opinion in the US.

It will come as news to many of the NYT’s readers that China is on the whole a stable and contented nation. This is, arguably, the most important story of my lifetime, China’s return, after at least a 500-yeaar hiatus, to a place of central importance in the world, as a confident and prosperous nation. The New York Times too often seems the last to know.


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Local Governments Are Key to Growth Across China

fahua censer from China First Capital blog post

Two factors are paramount in explaining the phenomenal economic success of China over the last thirty years: smart government policies and the abundant ingenuity, hard work, talent and entrepreneurial drive of the Chinese people.

A day doesn’t go by without me seeing at first hand that entrepreneurial genius at work in China. The inner workings of government, however, are generally invisible to me as an outsider.

During a recent trip to Shandong, however, I had the privilege of seeing part of China’s government up close, doing what it often does best – constructing and carrying out policies that allow businesses to thrive in China.

In all countries, governments makes the rules and sets the conditions under which business succeed and fail. China is no different. One obvious difference: China’s government clearly must be doing a lot right for the country to deliver the greatest sustained period of economic growth ever recorded.  How was this achieved? The simple answer is that China’s government began 30 years ago to scrap a rigid socialist system for a free market economy.

“Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is the official phrase. It’s no set doctrine, but mainly a pragmatic pursuit of policies to foster global competitiveness, employment and rising living standards in China. China government invites its citizens to evaluate it on this basis, using statistics, to judge how well it manages the economy.

Most would agree, including me,  the government is doing an outstanding job. How it does so,  however, is very much of a mystery.

Over the course of four days, I met with the mayors and Communist Party Secretaries of three of Shandong’s larger and more prosperous cities: Weifang, Laiwu and Linyi. These were working meetings, not diplomatic meet-and-greets. I was the only non-Chinese in these meetings. I was traveling at the invitation of the chairman of one of our clients. This client already has extensive and highly-successful operations in Shandong, with revenues there in the last two years of over Rmb 1 billion.

“We are here to serve you”. This is the statement I heard repeated in each city by the Party Secretary and the Mayor.  This is neither an idle boast nor an empty promise. In every instance where I’ve been in meetings with senior figures in the Chinese government, I’ve been deeply impressed by their competence, directness and sense of purpose in offering to do whatever it takes to help improve the conditions for investment and so raise local living standards.

The meetings with Shandong political leadership had an overlapping two-way purpose: to facilitate my client’s expansion plans in Shandong, and to allow the Party Secretary and Mayor of each city to lay out in plain language the economic development agenda for the next few years. They did this confidently, effectively, forcefully.

I’ve never before heard political leaders speak with such a single-minded focus, as well as evident sincerity,  on their priorities to improve the life, work and leisure of their citizens. There was no self-aggrandizement, no insincere black-slapping, no empty platitudes, indeed nothing that could be construed as expressions of naked self-interest, or the exclusive interest of the party they represent.

There is a good reason for this: political careers in China are made and lost in part on how well the local economy performs, as measured by objective statistics. The metrics include not just local gdp growth, but also the growth in living and recreation space per person, the completion of large local infrastructure projects on time and on budget, urban beautification programs like planting trees and cleaning up local waterways.

Political success in China must be tangible, measureable. And the improvements must come quickly enough – generally within 2-3 years – to boost an official’s chance to continue to climb the rungs.

Arguably, most political careers, including in the US, are determined by how well political leaders deliver for their citizens.  The clear difference in China, from what I can see,  is that it’s a much more data-driven process, more like how management are rewarded or penalized inside a big company. As Peter Drucker, perhaps the wisest thinker about management famously said, “You can only manage what you can measure.”

China is often run by the Communist Party  like one large centralized corporation. The command-and-control methods of management appear similar. While a vastly oversimplifies things, the meetings I attended with political leaders in Shandong were very familiar in many respects to business meetings I’ve attended. The local leaders articulated the goal, which in each case is to keep local gdp growing at well above China’s national average. All three cities are now doing so.

The infrastructure would need to be continuously upgraded to achieve this. As each city gets richer, of course, it gets correspondingly harder to generate such large annual leaps in output. So, projects grow in scale to the truly monumental. In Weifang, for example, the Party Secretary outlines plans to build a new greenfield port and industrial center outside the city that would one day house over one million people in spacious new apartment buildings.

In each city, the planning goals were uniformly ambitious. The political leaders left no doubt that private business should and must play a big part in the process.  They pledged not just help removing any administrative obstacles, but also to make land available at concessionary prices for private sector projects that would create large number of jobs.

The three cities I visited – Weifang, Laiwu and Linyi – are all thriving, not just economically, but also in these more human terms. The cities are for the most part clean, pretty, with newly-built urban infrastructure of roads, housing, parks.

Many outside China have likely never heard of these places. But, Linyi and Weifang, with populations of 11 million and 8 million respectively,  are both larger than any city in the US and Europe.

Laiwu, is smaller, with a population of just over 1 million. However, it does like to do things in a big way. At lunch with the Party Secretary and Mayor, I sat at the largest round dining table I’ve ever seen. Sixteen of us ate at a table that was over four meters in diameter – so large that each person was served lunch individually, one small helping at a time, by a large team of waiters. 

Corruption and political chicanery exist in China, of course, as they do in US, Europe, Japan and everywhere else political officials with control over valuable resources interact with businessmen. But, in my experience during my three days meeting officials in Shandong, the local government is far more intent on lending a helping hand, rather than looking for back-handers.

China’s one-party political system is not to the taste of many Americans or Europeans.  But, if judged by standards of effectiveness, rather than electoral accountability, local governments in China routinely outperform their counterparts in the US.  For all the pretentions to public service, accountability and incorruptibility, US politics, especially at the local level, is infested by influence-peddling and political bribery in form of campaign contributions.

As I saw living for many years in Los Angeles, the second biggest city in the US, local officials act mainly in ways that favor a select few, and deliver only scant benefits to the society as a whole. LA is now teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, with degraded infrastructure, failing schools, punishingly high taxes. LA, like China, is also run as a one-party system, with a Democratic machine that pushed through election rules that make it all but impossible for the opposition Republic Party to gain control, no matter how badly the Democratic Party politicians mess up.

Given a choice, I’d take Shandong’s local bosses anytime. They are held to a higher, more transparent standard. Over the course of a four-to-five year term in office, they will often preside over real material improvements in citizens’ lives that few American politicians will deliver over the course of a career.


Bad Policy, Bad Advice and Bad Reporting from the US on Dollar-Renminbi Exchange Rate

Yaozhou bowl in China First Capital blog post
I don’t know the direction of the dollar-renmibi exchange rate. But, I do know most of the American press, led by the
New York Times and Washington Post, got snowed by the announcement last weekend that China would introduce new “flexibility” in its exchange rate.

The immediate media reaction – and that of the Obama administration – was one of hosannas and smug approval. The tone of most coverage was along the lines, “the Chinese have finally seen the error in their mercantilist ways and will now allow their currency to appreciate strongly against the dollar, leading to a new golden age of manufacturing employment in the US.”

A week has gone by and the renminbi has appreciated by exactly 0.5%.  So, a $100 item made in China that previously cost Rmb682 will now cost an importer Rmb685, or $100.50. Factory managers in the US may be waiting for awhile yet before the flood of orders arrives from China.  The President’s union buddies will also not soon see much of an uptick in their membership rolls.

For those without short-term memory impairment, this is, of course, the second time in two months that US press and the Obama administration loudly predicted the imminent upward revaluation of the renminbi. In April, a flurry of reporting, loudest and strongest from the New York Times,  announced the Chinese government was at last ready to accede to US demands and let the renminbi rise.

That time, the press articles were timed to coincide with a visit by the US Secretary of Treasury, Timothy Geithner, to Beijing. He was there, if the Administration and its media allies were to be believed, to talk tough and get the Chinese to fall in line with American wishes. Discernible results? Zero.

This time around, the reporting coincides with the G-20 Summit meeting in Toronto, where we are told, President Obama will use his intelligence and oratorical brilliance to persuade Chinese leader Hu Jintao to do his part for the sagging US economy. Likely results? We’ll see, but the signs are that China will continue to make policy decisions with its own interests to the fore.

There is much both wrong and economically illiterate about all this US pressure to revalue the renminbi. Start with the fact the Chinese currency is not significantly undervalued. Yes, it is tied to the dollar. So are many other currencies with which the US trades, including Mexico, Taiwan, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, Saudi Arabia. The renminbi’s formal peg with the dollar ended in July 2005. It is true that the renminbi, if it were fully convertible and freely floating, would likely appreciate against the dollar. But, by enough to really make an impact on US manufacturing employment? Hardly.

The biggest benefit to China of letting the renminbi rise against the dollar would be to lower the renminbi cost of China’s huge imports of oil, iron ore and other core dollar-denominated raw materials. Weighing against this would be falling margins at many of China’s exporters, which would ultimately have an impact on manufacturing employment.

Creating and maintaining jobs is a paramount concern for a country whose labor force grows by millions every year, and where there is no “social safety net” as in the US.  Fact: every year, six million more Chinese join the migrant labor force, according to recent report by China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission.

It’s a mistake shared by many Americans that at the current exchange rate, China is some kind of low-cost paradise for people with dollars. I live here. Prices here are not low. In fact, most things in China, with exception of fresh vegetables and public transportation, are either on par with US prices or higher.

Most fruit is generally more expensive here, even at the proletarian outdoor market where I do a lot of my shopping. Same goes for beef, chicken and most everything else you fill up a supermarket cart with. Gas, automobiles, computers, TVs, brand-name products are all higher in China than in the US.

I’m writing this in my local Starbucks in Shenzhen. And while this is hardly a perfect bellwether, the cheapest cup of regular brewed coffee here costs Rmb 15, or $2.20. A cappuccino? Rmb 25, or $3.65.  The place is jammed, as it always is, from noon to midnight. Not a seat in the house. Starbucks has over 350 stores in China and growing fast.

Not that long ago, the renminbi was pegged at 8.2 to the dollar. Has this 17% appreciation done anything to impact the decline of manufacturing employment in the US, a decline that began over 30 years ago? No. Will another 17% appreciation of the dollar reverse this trend? I very much doubt it.  Instead, what will likely happen is prices for many products in the US will rise sharply, since so much of what America likes buying is made here.  This will lead to higher unemployment, lower growth and hit hardest the poorer Americans President Obama claims to champion.

Make no mistake: if Chinese prices rise, this will not create huge new opportunities either for US manufacturers to reconquer the domestic market or allow lower wage countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria, India, the Dominican Republic or Peru to increase dramatically their exports to the US. Those countries can’t now, nor will they ever in my view, manufacture products to match the quality at the same price of those made in China, even if the cost of Chinese made products rises 15%-20% or more.

True, an economics professor’s models would argue otherwise, and President Obama is surrounded by economics professors. The models are plain wrong. Some textile imports from places other than China will rise. Not much else.

So, the real world result of the “strong renminbi” policy: greater economic hardship in the US.  But, won’t ordinary Chinese benefit from lower import prices? Perhaps a little, but not in any way that will create the desired outcome of much higher manufacturing employment and exports in the US. Maybe the Washington state apples and cherries in my supermarket will become a little cheaper, and become only twice as expensive as they are in the US. Again, not overly likely.

China’s current currency policy has its benefits and drawbacks. The benefit is mainly greater predictability for exporters, which has been somewhat helpful during the economic crisis of the last two years in China’s largest export markets of the US and Europe. Even with the stable exchange rate, a lot of exporters in China went bankrupt over this period, because of a collapse in orders from the US and Europe.

The biggest drawback of current exchange rate policy: $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves accumulated to soak up all the dollars still pouring into the country. This money is not being put to any direct productive use to improve China’s economy. A higher renminbi will not alter that calculus much, if at all.

I’m troubled in many ways by the direction of American international financial policy. The Obama Administration finds it far easier to scapegoat China’s exchange rate than put their focus on the deepest source of American economic malaise: runaway spending and budget deficits in Washington, with the inevitability of large tax increases to follow.

It’s not likely to happen, but here’s what I’d most like to see is the next time the US media starts braying for a higher renminbi. Chinese newspapers respond with articles, quoting unnamed Chinese government officials,  pleading with the Obama Administration to cut spending, deficits and taxes, and so put more money in the pockets of American consumers. They will certainly choose to spend some of this cash on Chinese-made products and so help boost employment, wages and living standards across China.

As panaceas go, this one would be a lot more effective and all-around helpful than anything the American government and its media allies are peddling.

The Closing of the American Mind: Seeing China As It Was, Not As It Is

China First Capital blog post -- Qing Dynasty dragon plate

I recently returned from a two-week stay in the US. I was very busy seeing friends and business colleagues, which means I was also very busy answering questions about China. 

China occupies a very special place in the minds of many Americans, including many who’ve never been. The level of curiosity in America about China is enormous. This contrasts notably with the indifference with which many Americans view the world abroad. For example, during the 14 years I spent in London, I never found my American friends to be very interested in what life was like in England. Not so China. 

But, this intense curiosity is not matched by a deep knowledge among Americans about the current situation in China. In fact, even among the most well-read and worldly-wise of my friends, the level of ignorance about today’s China is high. That’s largely because the American media, for the most part, does an execrable job covering China. The result is that most Americans have an excessive focus on what’s perceived to be “human rights problems” in China, and a vast under-appreciation of the monumental, positive changes that China is now undergoing. 

My local shoe repair guy in Shenzhen has a more nuanced understanding of the US than most educated Americans have about China. Every time I get my shoes polished, I end up discussing the genesis of the American credit crisis and the challenges President Obama faces in trying to change America’s health care system. In the US, the main topics of discussion about China reflect an exaggerated negative view of what’s going on. Nine times out of ten, people want to comment on pollution and product quality, as if China was one large Satanic mill turning out killer toys. 

Of course, the speed and scope of all the positive changes in China are so awesome it’s difficult for anyone, including Chinese, to fully appreciate just how far the country has come in a short time. But, in my experience, the American misapprehensions about China have a stale, time-worn quality about them, as if America’s view of China stop evolving about five years ago. 

A friend of mine, for example, writes about Chinese-American relations for a leading US publication. He talked about the issues he’s most busy writing about and what is of greatest concern to the Americans now guiding policy toward China. North Korea and Iran figured prominently in the discussion, and he relayed the US strategy to win China’s backing for the American position.

There was lots of talk of high-level diplomatic meetings and various quids-pro-quo. While all this is no doubt important to the safety of the world,  I couldn’t help feeling that it also demonstrated a lot of wishful thinking on America’s part, that China would still be, as it often once was,  highly responsive to America’s strategic needs. 

The US has long commanded significant leverage over China. But, that leverage is lessening by the day. One reason, of course, is China’s own rising economic and military power. But, less noticed and perhaps even more important is that China is less and less reliant on access to the US market to sustain its own economy.

China’s economy is increasingly driven by its own domestic market, rather than exports. This is why China could absorb without much dislocation the sharp fall in exports to the US over the last year. Exports will continue to play a larger role in China’s economy than in America’s. But, its economy is changing, and growing far more balanced. 

China will more and more resemble the US — a large, continent-sized economy that grows by meeting the needs of its own citizens, and providing a stable environment for business to invest. This change has many more years to run. The simple formula: China can listen less to what the US wants because it needs less of what the US has to offer in return. 

This, too, is a change that seems to have escaped the notice of most Americans, including those in a policy-making position. China isn’t simply being difficult or stubborn by failing to tow a US line. It’s also less concerned about calibrating its own policies to expand the markets for its exports to the US. The last time the US was in recession, China’s economy was also badly bruised. Not so this time. OEM exporters have suffered, but not the businesses that focus on selling to Chinese consumers. They’ve played a key role in keeping China’s economy healthy, while the US has faltered. 

Americans need to see China for what it is, not what it was. It’s a better, richer, cleaner, freer place than they think. Americans may just learn to like what they see..

 

China and the USA – same bed, same dream

The world’s largest and soon-to-be second largest economies, the US and China, don’t seem at first glance to have very much in common. The USA is a new country with an old political system. It’s a little appreciated fact that the US political system, coupling a federal democracy with capitalism, is now arguably the world’s oldest, since it’s been going for 232 years without major changes. China, by contrast, is a very old country – indeed the oldest of all nation-states – but with very new, fast-evolving political and economic systems.

And yet, there are some powerful similarities, ones that appeal directly to me as a builder and financier of private companies. In terms of raw entrepreneurial talent and ambition, China and the US are all but identical. Now, granted, American and Chinese entrepreneurship can often take very different forms — the US is a mature economy that grows at a solid but hardly spectacular pace. Technology plays a key part in many of the best new entrepreneurial ideas. Think of Google or Facebook. China is booming, and every year, millions of move from subsistence farming to relative abundance, from have-nots to consumers.  Opportunities abound, in the most basic industries like agriculture and mining, all the way to biotech and semiconductors.

Even so, the entrepreneurial foundation of both China and the US is plainly, and remarkably, visible. A reverence for hard work, vigorous personal ambition, a keen eye for spotting opportunity, these are qualities shared by the people of both countries. It’s why I am so optimistic about the prospects of both countries. And also why I think that China and the US are the two best markets for private equity and venture investment. Entrepreneurship, more than capital, is what drives the process of private equity finance.

Dig still deeper, and you find other important commonalities. In both China and the US, the government does not, thankfully, cripple what my favorite economist, Gary Becker of University of Chicago, calls “the dynamic energies of the competitive private sector”. My hope and belief are that this will continue to be the case for many years to come, and that China and the US will continue to offer great opportunities for building great private companies like those we work with at China First Capital.

There’s always a conflict, in every large economy, between those who want to regulate and tax the private sector, and those who want to maximize the room for businesses to operate free of burdensome regulations and high taxation. Seen in the broadest terms, the US and China are together following one path, and Europe and Japan are following another. China and the US are still open to high-levels of commercial competition with limited government intrusion. This makes both countries more friendly toward the new ideas of entrepreneurs. Europe and Japan, by contrast, are more regulated, more taxed, more anti-competitive, and so less hospitable to the entrepreneurship that drives China and the US.

Entrepreneurs create wealth. Governments don’t. It’s a fundamental reality best understood and practiced in the US and China – and best understood, as well, by those whose capital is placed at risk in private equity deals. Capital goes to where the risk-adjusted returns are greatest. Today, that’s China and the US.

 It will be true tomorrow as well.