Chinese History

Why Has China’s GDP So Outpaced IRR?

It’s the paradox at the core of China investing: why has such a phenomenal economy proved such a disappointing investment destination for so many global institutional investors, PE firms and Fortune 500s.

Financial theory provides a conceptual explanation. Investment returns are not absolutely correlated to GDP growth. China will likely go down in history as the best proof of this theorem. China as certainly delivered exceptional GDP growth. In per capita PPP terms, China is 43 times larger than in 1981, when I first set foot in China as a grad student. No other country has ever grown so fast, for so long and lifted so many people out of poverty and into the consumer middle class.

Commensurate investment returns, however, have been far harder to lock in. Harvard Business School’s global alumni organization invited me to give an hour-long talk on this topic this week. It required a quick gallop through some recent and not always happy history to arrive at the key question — does the future hold m0re promise for global institutional investors looking to deploy capital in China.

 For more detailed look at some reasons for the big disconnect between China’s national GPD growth and investment IRR, and some suggestions how to improve matters, please have a look by clicking here at the HBS talk slide deck.

Publicly-quoted shares in Chinese companies have failed by far and away to keep pace with the growth in overall national income. In the alternative investment arena, global PE and VC firms enjoyed some huge early success in late 1990s and first part of the 2000s. Since then, the situation has worsened, as measured in cash returns paid out to Limited Partners. One major reason — the explosion within China of Renminbi investment funds, now numbering at least 1,000. They’ve bid up valuations, gotten first access to better opportunities, and left the major global PE and VC firms often sitting on the sidelines. With tens of billions in dry powder, these global firms look more and more like deposed financial royalty — rich, nostalgic, melancholy and idle.

China this year will add approximately $1 trillion of new gdp this year – that’s not a lot less than the entire gdp of Russia. Indeed, China gdp growth in 2017 is larger than the entire gdp of all but 15 countries. Who is making all this money? Are all the spoils reserved for local investors and entrepreneurs? Can global investors find a way at last to get a bigger piece of all this new wealth?

Overall, I’m moderately sanguine that lessons have been learned, especially about the large risks of following the Renminbi fund herd into what are meant to be sure-thing “Pre-Ipo” minority deals. Active investment strategies have generally done better. With China’s economy well along in its high-speed transition away from smokestack industries and OEM exports to one powered by consumer spending, there are new, larger and ripe opportunities for global investors. In virtually all major, growing categories of consumer spending, Western brands are doing well, and will likely do better, as Chinese consumers preferences move upmarket to embrace high-quality, well-established global household brand names.

Harvard, its alumni and benefactors have a two hundred year history of investing and operating in China. So, there’s some deep institutional memory and fascination, not least with the risks and moral quandaries that come with the territory. The Cabot family, at one time among America’s richest, provided huge grants to Harvard funded in part by profits made opium running into China.

Harvard Management Company, the university’s $35 billion endowment, was an early and enthusiastic LP investor in China as well as large investor in Chinese quoted companies including Sinopec. Their enthusiasm seems to be waning. Harvard Management is apparently considering selling off many of its LP positions, including those in PE and VC funds investing in China.

This looks to be an acknowledgment that the GP/LP model of China investing has not regularly delivered the kind of risk-adjusted cash-on-cash returns sophisticated, diversified institutional investors demand. While China’s economy is doing great, it’s never been harder to achieve a successful private equity or venture capital investment exit. True, the number of Chinese IPOs has ratcheted up this year, but there are still thousands of unexited deals, especially inside upstart Renminbi funds.

While decent returns on committed capital have been scarce, the Chinese government continues to pour billions of Renminbi into establishing new funds in China. There’s hardly a government department, at local, provincial or national level that isn’t now in the fund creation business. Diversification isn’t a priority. Instead, two investment themes all but monopolize the Chinese government’s time and money — one is to stimulate startups and high-tech industry (with a special focus on voguish sectors like Big Data, robotics, artificial intelligence, biotech) the other is to support the country’s major geostrategic initiative, the One Belt One Road policy.

One would need to be visionary, reckless or brave to add one’s own money to this cash tsunami. Never before has so much government money poured into private equity and venture capital, mainly not in search of returns, but to further policy and employment aims. It’s a first in financial history. The distortions are profound. Valuations and deal activity are high, while returns in the aggregate from China investing will likely plummet, from already rather low levels.

Where should a disciplined investor seek opportunity in China? First, as always, one should follow the money — not all the government capital, but the even larger pools of cash being spent by Chinese consumers.

In China, every major consumer market is in play, and growing fast. This plays to the strengths of foreign capital and foreign operating companies. There are almost unlimited opportunities to bring new and better consumer products and services to China. Let the Chinese government focus on investing in China’s future. High-tech companies in China, ones with globally competitive technology, market share and margins are still extraordinarily rare, as are cash gains from investing here.

Meantime, as I reminded the HBS alumni, plenty of foreign companies and investors are doing well today in China’s consumer market. Not just the well-known ones like Apple and Starbucks. Smaller ventures helping Chinese spend money while traveling globally, or obtain better-quality health care and education options, are building defendable, high-margin niches in China. One company started by an HBS alumnus, a native New Yorker like me, is among the leading non-bank small lending companies in China. It provides small loans to small-scale entrepreneurs, mainly in the consumer market. Few in China know much about Zhongan Credit, and fewer still that it’s started and run by a Caucasian American HBS grad. But, it’s among the most impressive success stories of foreign investment in China.

Of course, such success investing in China is far from guaranteed. Consumer markets in China are tricky, fast-changing, and sometimes skewed to disadvantage foreign investors. For over two hundred years, most foreign investors have seen their fond dreams of a big China payday crash on the rocks of Chinese reality.

The rewards from China’s 35 years of remarkable economic growth has mainly — and rightly — gone to the hard-working people of China. But, there’s reason to believe that in the future, more of the new wealth created each year in China will be captured by smart, pragmatic investors from HBS and elsewhere.

 

As published by China Money Network

As published by SuperReturn

YouTube video of the full lecture to Harvard Business School alumni organization

 

 

 

China’s Millions of Alzheimer’s Patients Cannot Wait Any Longer for Specialised Care — South China Morning Post

No health care problem looms larger in China than Alzheimer’s disease. It is the fastest-growing major disease on the mainland, with at least 9.5 million ­sufferers and perhaps as many undiagnosed cases. Almost a million Chinese are diagnosed every year with Alzheimer’s, with the number of new cases expected to rise sharply by around 2030.

Of the major diseases in China, Alzheimer’s also has the greatest mismatch between the number of patients and amount of specialised care available. The US has about half the number of Alzheimer’s patients, and 73,000 beds in specialist treatment centres. China has fewer than 200 beds. Alzheimer’s care is a US$250 billion industry in the US. In China, it has barely even begun.

By 2050, the number of Alzheimer’s patients in China is expected to reach 45 million, about half the number worldwide

The reason for this mismatch is clear. China’s health care system is already under strain to improve the quality of care overall, especially for diseases like cancer and hepatitis. Alzheimer’s is not a top priority, either for government policy or health care companies and investors.

But, over the coming decades, no disease will possibly impact more lives in China or possibly cost the country more to treat. By 2050, the number of Alzheimer’s patients in China is expected to reach 45 million, about half the number worldwide.

The total cost of treating all of them is impossible to estimate. Alzheimer’s is already the most expensive disease to treat in the US. With the number of cases there expected to double in the next 20 years, US government spending on Alzheimer’s care is on course to become the single most expensive part of the national budget, topping even military spending.

China is likely to take a different path, with more spending done by patients and their families, rather than through national health ­insurance. But the near-total lack of ­Alzheimer’s treatment centres, and trained nurses and doctors, is one of the most significant market failures in China’s health care industry.

 While the government, SOEs and private sector have been making significant investments in old age care, most of it has gone towards flats in retirement communities, for older people fundamentally still healthy and active. There has been little investment in elderly care. The urgent need is to provide specialist centres for people with Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases that afflict the elderly, like Parkinson’s, arthritis, and post-stroke conditions.
In China, Alzheimer’s is still often seen not as a disease but as an inevitable and natural part of ageing

In China, Alzheimer’s is still often seen not as a disease but as an inevitable and natural part of ageing, a sad side effect of enjoying a long life. The national broadcaster, CCTV, has of late been airing public service advertisements to raise awareness about Alzheimer’s as a disease. This is the same education process the US and Europe began over 40 years ago.

Alzheimer’s, like diabetes, obesity or colorectal cancer, is a disease of economic success. As a country becomes richer and health care standards improve, people live longer. Nowhere has this transformation happened more quickly than in China, meaning an explosive growth in the number of Alzheimer’s cases as has never been seen before.

The average life expectancy in China has ­increased more in the past 30 years than in the previous 3,000. China’s life expectancy is still growing faster than that of developed countries.

The facts: Alzheimer’s is an incurable disease that afflicts a large number of older people, but not the majority. About 3 per cent of people aged 65 to 74, and 17 per cent of those between 75 and 85, will develop the disease. Those over 85 have a 30 per cent chance of getting it. It is a mystery why some old people get Alzheimer’s and most do not.

One interesting correlation: people with higher education levels are less likely to get the disease. The more you use your brain in complex ways, the more you may inoculate yourself against Alzheimer’s.

Rural people are more susceptible than city-dwellers. With a larger percentage of Chinese living in rural areas, the percentage of over-80s with the disease may end up higher than in the US, Europe or other more urbanised Asian societies of Japan, Korea, Taiwan or Singapore. Women are more likely to get Alzheimer’s, as they live longer on average.

Despite billions of dollars spent on scientific and pharmaceutical research in the West, there are no drug or surgical treatments for Alzheimer’s. Brain chemistry and biology make developing a drug for Alzheimer’s difficult.

Brain chemistry and biology make developing a drug for Alzheimer’s difficult

Despite this, there have been remarkable successes in Europe and the US, especially in the past 10 years, at care facilities managed by specially trained nurses and doctors. They work together to slow the progress of the disease in patients, through physical therapy, psychological counselling, special equipment to improve memory and mobility, one-on-one assistance, and a safe living environment designed for the care of people gradually losing their ability to think, speak and function.

The result: Alzheimer’s patients in Europe and the US now live twice as long after diagnosis than 30 years ago, an average of eight to 10 years.

Dozens of US and European-listed companies are focused on research and specialist Alzheimer’s care in nursing homes and clinics. China has none.

Traditionally in China, more money has been spent on children’s education than on medical care for older people. But, as Chinese live longer, the way money is spent across three generations is likely to change. The grandchildren of people in their 80s will have usually already been through college and are working. That leaves more money, both in the hands of older people and their children, to provide more high-quality care for those at the end of their lives.

Alzheimer’s care will also ­become a huge source of new employment in China

How should China build its Alzheimer’s treatment infrastructure and bring it quickly up to global standards? The biggest need will be providing care to those with average family income and savings levels.

If there’s one advantage to getting a late start, it’s that China can learn from the mistakes of, and adopt the best ideas developed in, the US, Europe and Asia. Japan, for example, is not only building specialist nursing homes for Alzheimer’s patients in the final years of their lives, but also community centres for those still living at home or with relatives.

Home nursing care is expanding in the West, ­improving and lengthening the lives of Alzheimer’s patients. Home nursing is still at a very early stage in China, but it is the fastest growing industry and largest source of new jobs in the US.

From little spending now on specialised Alzheimer’s care, China will certainly grow into the world’s largest market for it. Alzheimer’s care will also ­become a huge source of new employment in China.

It’s hard to think of a business opportunity in China with better long-term investment fundamentals than specialised Alzheimer’s care. But the greatest return on investment would be in limiting the suffering of Alzheimer’s patients and their families.

Peter Fuhrman is CEO and Dr Wang Yansong, is COO, respectively, of China First Capital. This article is adapted from a version originally published in The Week In China

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2098539/chinas-millions-alzheimers-patients-cannot-wait-any-longer

 

Alzheimer’s Could Be China’s Biggest Health Problem — The Week in China Magazine

Alzheimer’s is the fastest-growing, major fatal disease in China. Today there are at least 9.5mn diagnosed sufferers in China with perhaps as many cases undiagnosed. Almost one million Chinese are diagnosed every year with Alzheimer’s, with the number of new cases each year expected to accelerate sharply beginning around 2030.

It is also the major disease in China with the greatest mismatch between the number of patients and the amount of specialized care available. The US has about half the number of Alzheimer’s patients as China, and 73,000 beds in specialist Alzheimer’s treatment centers. China today has fewer than 200 beds. Alz care is a thriving $250bn industry in the US. In China, it’s barely even begun.

The reason for this mismatch is clear. China’s healthcare system is already under strain to reform and improve the quality of care overall, especially for acute and infectious diseases like cancer, hepatitis and serious asthma. Alzheimer’s is not now a top priority either for government policy or for healthcare companies and investors. But, over the coming decades, no disease will likely impact more lives in China or likely cost China more to treat. By 2050, it is projected the number of Alzheimer’s patients in China will exceed 45 million, about half of all those worldwide with the disease.

The total cost of treating all those people is impossible to estimate. Alzheimer’s is already the most expensive disease to treat in the US. The US government pays for more than half, through national health insurance paid through taxes on companies and individuals. With the number of Alzheimer’s cases in the US expected to double in the next 20 years, US government spending on Alzheimer’s care is on course to become the single-most expensive part of the US budget, larger even than military spending.

China will almost certainly take a different path than the US, with more spending done by patients and their families, rather than through national health insurance. On average, Chinese Alzheimer’s patients will also be cared for longer by relatives, rather than placed in specialized nursing homes.

But, the almost total lack of Alzheimer’s treatment centers, and trained nurses and doctors, is one of the most significant market failures in China’s healthcare industry. While the government, SOEs and private sector have been making significant investments in old age care (what the Chinese refer to as “yanglao”), most of this money has gone towards building and selling apartments in retirement communities, places for older people who are fundamentally still healthy and active. There has been little investment in the area of elderly care with most urgent need now and in the future– providing specialist centers for people with Alzheimer’s and other chronic diseases that afflict old people like Parkinson’s, serious arthritis, recovery from stroke.

In China, Alzheimer’s is still often seen not as a disease but as inevitable and natural outcome of aging, a sad side-effect of the fortunate fact of being long-lived. China’s national broadcaster, CCTV has lately been broadcasting public service ads to raise awareness that Alzheimer’s is a disease. This is the same education process the US and Europe began over 40 years ago.  There were few cases anywhere in the world then. Europe and the US, the private and public sector, began spending heavily to train doctors and nurses, build out its care infrastructure to meet the projected surge in patients.

Alzheimer’s, like diabetes, obesity, colorectal cancer, is a disease of economic success. As a country becomes richer and healthcare standards improve, people live longer. Nowhere has this transformation happened more quickly than in China, meaning nowhere else has ever seen as explosive growth in the number of Alzheimer’s cases. The average life expectancy in China has increased more in the last 30 years than it did in the previous 3,000.  China’s life expectancy is still growing faster than in developed countries. Chinese in Hong Kong recently passed Japan to become the world’s longest-living population.

The facts: Alzheimer’s is an incurable disease that afflicts a large number of older people, but not the majority. 3 percent of people age 65-74, 17% of people between 75 and 85 will develop the disease. For those over 85%, there is a 30% chance of having it.  It is a mystery why some old people get the disease and most others do not. One interesting correlation: people with higher education levels are less likely to get the disease. The more you use your brain in complex ways, the more you may inoculate yourself against Alzheimer’s.

Rural people are more susceptible than city-dwellers. Because China still has a larger percentage of its population living in rural areas,this suggests that the percentage of the +80 year-old population with Alzheimer’s in China may end up higher than in US, Europe or other Asian more urbanized societies including Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore.

Women are far more likely to get Alzheimers than men. The reason is women on average live longer.

Despite billions of dollars in scientific and pharmaceutical research in the West, there are no drug or surgical treatments for Alzheimer’s. A drug cure for AD, widely predicted in the West 20 years ago, now seems very unlikely.  Brain chemistry and biology make developing a drug for Alzheimer’s difficult. Since 2002, 244 drugs for Alzheimer’s were tested in clinical trials in the US and Europe. Only one received US FDA approval. It has very limited and short-term impact.

Although there are no drugs to cure Alzheimer’s, there have been remarkable successes in Europe and the US, especially in the last ten years, at Alzheimer’s care facilities managed by specially-trained nurses and doctors. They work together to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s patients, through physical therapy, psychological counseling, special equipment to improve memory and mobility, lots of one-on-one assistance, and a safe living environment designed for care of people gradually losing their ability to think, speak and function. The result: Alzheimer’s patients in the US and Europe now live twice as long after diagnosis as they did 30 years ago, an average of 8-10 years after diagnosis.

The longer Alzheimer’s patients live, the more likely it is they will spend the final years in specialized care facilities. In this final stage, Alzheimer’s patients are often unable to talk, feed or bathe themselves, can remember almost nothing. The body’s immune system gradually stops working. As the brain is overcome by the disease and begins to decompose, even automatic body functions like breathing, digestion and swallowing are disrupted.

In the US and Europe, the average annual cost of caring for an Alzheimer’s patient is about $60,000, with the highest amount coming in the last two years of life. There are dozens of US and European listed companies focused on doing research and providing specialist Alzheimer’s care in nursing homes and clinics. In China, there are none.

Traditionally in China, more money has been spent on young children’s education than on medical care for older people. But, as Chinese live longer the way money is spent across three generations will likely change. The grandchildren of people in their 80s will usually already be through college and working. That leaves more money, both in the hands of older people and their children, to provide more high-quality care for people at the end of their lives.

A French listed company, Orpea, is moving fastest to build a big business in AD care in China. Last year they opened China’s most advanced Alzheimer’s clinic in in Nanjing. Orpea are among the world leaders in Alzheimer’s care. It is their first nursing home in China and they are planning now to expand quickly across the country. They have 775 nursing homes and clinics in Europe. Last year’s total revenues were €2.8 billion.

In Nanjing, Orpea built a 5-star facility, as deluxe as one would find anywhere in the world, with marble floors, an elegant dining room, a huge indoor pool and water therapy center.  In total, it has 140 beds, including 22 in the Alzheimer’s clinic. None of the real estate is for sale. It is a service business, offering specialized care and housing to elderly including even the most challenging patients, those with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease 。

Most of those living in the Nanjing facility are paying about Rmb20,000 a month. Though expensive, that’s still half the price per year of a shared room in a 3-star nursing home in the US. The level of care is as high as any specialized Alzheimer’s care center in the US or Europe. In almost all cases, the children of the patients are paying.

Regardless of culture, Alzheimer’s tends to effect people the same way. Nothing can restore patients’ memory, or stop the progress of a disease that is, in all cases, 100% fatal. The goal of treatment is to slow the disease progression by treating early related health problems and the decline in motor skills.

Most important is keeping patients physically and intellectually active. Orpea is using a new form of treatment known as “psychomotricity”, which rebuilds connections between a patient’s motor and cognitive skills. Successful treatment not only lengthens the lives of people with Alzheimer’s, it makes these patients more content, more social, more self-sufficient than if they were being treated by relatives at home.

Orpea is also quickly learning new things about Alzheimer’s and how to care for patients in China. Among late-stage Alzheimer’s patients, those who have lost the ability to speak, to recognize people or their surroundings, one of the last skills they hold onto and enjoy is the ability to stuff meat dumplings.  There’s a special kitchen and dining room just for Alzheimer’s patients. The Nanjing center has both a KTV and a “memory room” with objects from the 1950s-60s. As Alzheimer’s progresses, patients can’t recall recent events, but often recover older memories for their youth, including old songs.

Orpea plans to open at least two new nursing homes in Beijing this year and add other facilities soon in Shanghai. For now, they still have China’s Alzheimer’s care market, especially at the high-end, largely to themselves. But, they welcome competitors. “The need is so great, and the impact on patients’ lives so positive that we hope China will quickly develop a large, capable group of companies to care for people here,” explains Orpea’s China CEO, Nathaniel Farouz.

How should China build its Alzheimer’s treatment infrastructure and bring it quickly up to global standards?  The biggest need will be providing care to Chinese with average family income and savings levels.

One likely path will be for Chinese companies to acquire or partner with specialist nursing home companies in the US and Europe. There were rumors recently that one large Chinese investment group, CMIG, was seeking to buy Orpea. Orpea, though, denies any deal is being actively discussed.

If there’s one advantage to getting a late start, it’s that China can learn from the mistakes and adopt the best ideas developed in the US, Europe and Asia. Japan, for example, is not only  building specialist nursing homes for Alzheimer’s patients in the final years of their lives, but also community centers for those still living at home or with relatives. Family members can drop off parents with Alzheimer’s to give caregivers a few hours to rest or run errands – or even for a few nights so they can take a quick vacation.

Home nursing care is also expanding quickly in the West. This too seems to be improving and lengthening the lives of Alzheimer’s patients. Home nursing is still at a very early stage in China, but it is the fastest growing industry and largest source of new jobs in the US.

The main beneficiaries of professional Alzheimer’s care are the patients, whose lives and health are improved. But, there are also economic benefits for the society as a whole. Alzheimer’s care potentially can offer millions of new, long-term and well-paying jobs in China, for people at all educational levels.

From little spending now on specialized Alzheimer’s care, China will certainly grow into the world’s largest market for Alzheimer’s care. Government, at national, provincial and local level, should play a key policy-making, regulatory and coordinating role. Not only should they set standards and provide more transparent rules on which aspects of AD care will be reimbursed, governments can also do a great deal to foster the growth in urban China of high-quality private-sector nursing homes for chronically-ill old people. As the UN World Health Organization recommended in a recent report, “Central or local governments could adopt preferential tax policies or offer other financial incentives”  for Alzheimer’s care services and education.”

In rural China, the government’s role will be even more important. The number of Alzheimer’s cases among China’s rural population likely will be proportionately higher and financial resources of families and local governments more limited.

It’s hard to think of a business opportunity in China with better long-term investment fundamentals than specialized Alzheimer’s care. But, the industry should not be measured or motivated by profits. Its success and greatest return on investment will be in limiting the suffering, pain, helplessness and sadness of Alzheimer’s patients and their families.

What Alibaba Can Teach G20 Leaders — China Daily OpEd Commentary

China Daily

Rural Taobao

It’s been 740 years since Hangzhou could rightly claim to be the most important city on earth. Back then, it was the capital of the world’s wealthiest and most developed nation, China during the Southern Song Dynasty. This week Hangzhou will briefly again be the center of the world’s attention and admiration, as the leaders of twenty of the world’s most developed countries arrive in the city to participate in the two-day G20 Summit.

The world’s spotlight will fall both on Hangzhou’s most famous historical landmark, West Lake, as well as its most famous local company, Alibaba, which also happens to be the world’s largest e-commerce company. Alibaba’s founder and chairman Jack Ma, is a Hangzhou native. He has spoken often of his pride that the G20 will be held in his hometown, boasting “Hangzhou has become the driving force of China’s new economy.” He suggests G20 visitors might want to rise one morning at 5am to walk about West Lake, to see Hangzhou scenery ancient and modern.

Alibaba has changed Hangzhou and changed China. But, to really grasp the full and positive extent of that change, world leaders would need to venture out from Hangzhou and visit some of China’s smallest, poorest and most remote rural villages. Here Alibaba’s impact is perhaps the most transformational. That’s because Alibaba has made a special effort to bring the benefits and convenience of online shopping to China’s rural families, the 45% of China’s population that still live on the land.

Since Alibaba listed its shares on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014, the company announced plans to spend RMB 10 billion on rural e-commerce infrastructure, to make it possible for people in over 100,000 Chinese rural villages for the first time to buy and sell on Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this effort. E-commerce now offers the fastest and most durable way to improve living standards among China’s traditional peasants. By getting online they can shop more widely and buy more cheaply a vast range of products never before available in village China. In addition, also for the first time, they can sell directly their farm products, both fresh and packaged, to tens of millions of customers living in cities across China.

I’m one of those urban dwellers in China who now does some of his food shopping from tiny rural family businesses on Taobao. In the last week I bought dried chili peppers from Sichuan, apple vinegar from Shanxi, goji berries from Qinghai and dried sweet potato chips from Shandong. Everything I buy from rural folks is great. But, for me and probably many others, the real enjoyment comes from knowing that, thanks to Alibaba, my money can go directly to the people working hard to build a better life for themselves and their families in rural China. This, in turn, helps narrow the income gap between rural and urban.

Unlike the two big US e-commerce companies, Amazon and eBay, Alibaba takes no commission on purchases made on Taobao. This is what economists call “frictionless trade”, where buyers and sellers can transact without any middlemen taking a cut. It’s a dream of farmers worldwide, to sell products directly to customers and so earn more for their hard work.

Online shopping in rural China is now growing far faster than in cities. And yet what’s most exciting, we’re still in the early days. In the future, farmers should be able to save significant money and improve harvests by buying seeds, fertilizer and tools on Taobao and other specialized online sales platforms.

To get there, Alibaba is paying for tens of thousands of “Village Taobao” centers across China. Here, farmers can get free help to buy and sell online. Nowhere else on the planet is e-commerce being as successfully introduced into the lives of small village farmers. The world should take note, and China should take pride.

This year marks the first time China has hosted a G20 summit. Looking at the agenda, the twenty world leaders will hold detailed discussion on trade, fostering innovation and eradicating poverty. Meantime, Alibaba is busy putting such talk into action. Its efforts to spread e-commerce in China’s countryside provide concrete proof of how tech innovation can be both inclusive and helpful to all of society.

By Peter Fuhrman

The author is chairman and CEO of China First Capital.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-09/06/content_26709314.htm

How China can reclaim its lost cultural heritage — South China Morning Post commentary

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I had the kind of childhood I wish more Chinese children could have. I grew up surrounded by exquisite artworks from China’s long and dazzling history. I can still remember as a child holding a Qing dynasty jade vase in my small hands. Cool to the touch even on a hot summer day, the vase was deeply incised with lotus blossoms.

My early encounters with Chinese antiques took place not in China but in my grandfather’s house in New York City. He was a successful businessman and developed a passion for Qing and Ming dynasty jade. I inherited his fondness for Chinese culture and art. In my office today in Shenzhen, eight jade pieces from my grandfather’s collection are displayed.

Chinese antiques – jade carvings, imperial porcelains, paintings, Buddhist sculptures – are all deeply familiar to me. I have lived around them my whole life. This, sadly, is an experience too few Chinese in the People’s Republic will share. It’s not only that private collections are rare. While China has been on a museum-building spree this past decade, only a few of the country’s 3,500 museums have strong and extensive collections. Beijing’s Forbidden City Palace Museum does have some outstanding works of art. Most, though, are newly-built Xanadus with a limited display of works that would never make it into the collection of a minor provincial museum in Europe.

Chinese children grow up with too few opportunities to see up close the beautiful objects made by their ancestors. This should change

This is not only a problem but an unnecessary blemish, especially now that China has the money and global clout to do something about this. Chinese children grow up with too few opportunities to see up close, especially in smaller and less-crowded settings than the Forbidden City, the beautiful objects made by their ancestors. This should change.

In the recent past, the Chinese government has made promises to bring more artistic masterworks back to the country where they were made. But this has mainly involved an occasional effort to halt auction houses from selling objects looted in 1860 from the Summer Palace in Beijing. The result is any object that can be traced back to the Summer Palace is now bought and sold privately, not at auction.

China should continue to try to right this historic wrong. But, in the meantime, something else can be done. China’s government should be out in the international auction market buying Chinese art treasures on behalf of the nation and then distribute these works among museums across the country. The goal: in coming years, every child in China will have frequent opportunities, as I had, to admire, study and be inspired by Chinese art.

The range of Chinese artistic genius is probably more vast than any other civilisation, from Zhou dynasty bronzes cast 3,000 years ago, to Qin, Han and Tang terracotta objects, to fine Song ceramics along with Ming and Qing imperial porcelains, austere huanghuali furniture, florid cloisonné, Buddhist sculptures from the Sui dynasty, Song and Ming paintings, jade objects from Neolithic times all the way through to the 20th century.

Tragically, many of the valuable works of art that remained in China after 1949 were burned or smashed to pieces during the Cultural Revolution, an even more thoroughgoing artistic annihilation than we’ve witnessed recently from Islamic State and the Taliban. As a result, most of the world’s most valuable Chinese art is now outside the People’s Republic, in museums and private collections. It’s said that there are over 17 million Chinese antiques in the US and Europe alone. It’s time more of them made their way back to China and into public collections. Restitution, either voluntary or through international law, is not really an option. Few works other than those from the Summer Palace have a clear provenance showing they were illegally looted.

My humble proposal: the Chinese government could start and manage a national heritage fund to purchase for the nation items of cultural and artistic importance. It would accept cash donations from philanthropic Chinese at home and abroad. At the same time, I’d suggest that every state-owned enterprise voluntarily pay an annual dividend of 0.5 per cent of its profits every year into this national heritage fund. Last year, that tiny dividend would have brought in close to US$2 billion. Chinese private sector companies should be encouraged to match or exceed this pledge. I’m confident many would.

Every year, about US$7 billion worth of Chinese antiques are sold at auction houses in mainland China, Hong Kong, London and New York. Virtually every object sold at the six major Christie’s and Sotheby’s China antiques auctions each year is better than what’s on view now in most Chinese museums.

A Chinese national heritage fund would be a big departure for the government. At the moment, about the closest thing it has is a national lottery. The money is meant to go to support sports and the underprivileged, but where it goes is often hard to trace. A report last year by the National Audit Office suggested that billions of renminbi were misappropriated and bribery rampant.

An art fund, especially if it raised money from public donations, would need to be transparently and professionally managed. Corruption is only one problem. The fund would also need to buy without igniting a big run-up in prices. The Getty Collection in Los Angeles faced a similar problem. It set out to acquire valuable art, and has had more than enough money to do so. It goes to great lengths to buy in ways that don’t cause a huge spike that would price everyone else out of the market.

Wealthy Chinese are now active buyers of Chinese antiques at global auctions. Their impact is already felt worldwide. But Chinese plutocrats in general don’t donate to Chinese museums. They keep everything under their own lock and key. Trust of civic institutions doesn’t run deep. Indeed, when I mention to Chinese friends I intend to leave my grandfather’s collection to a museum in China, they often shake their heads disapprovingly. Art objects have been stolen from the Forbidden City. A Guangzhou museum curator was caught selling genuine objects for millions of dollars and replacing them with fakes.

Building museums has proved easier in China than populating them with museum-quality treasures. The sad result is it’s easier for school kids in Kansas City to see Song dynasty celadons than at the art museum in Hangzhou (杭州), the major city closest to where these luminous ceramics were made 800 years ago.

In the last five-year plan, it was stated that Chinese culture is the “spirit and soul of the nation” and a powerful force for the country’s development. It is a noble sentiment. Art is certainly among the most profound expressions of China’s soul and genius. It needs to become more of a living and familiar part in every Chinese child’s life.

Peter Fuhrman is chairman and CEO of China First Capital

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1999199/how-china-can-reclaim-its-lost-cultural-heritage

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Reworking a formula for economic success — China Daily Commentary

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Reworking a formula for economic success

By PETER FUHRMAN (China Daily) Updated: 2016-04-08

Reworking a formula for economic success
An assembly line of a Daimler AG venture in Minhou, Fujian province.

My on-the-ground experience in China stretches back to the beginnings of the reform era in 1981. Yet I cannot recall a time when so much pessimism, especially in English-language media, has surrounded the Chinese economy. Yes, it is a time of large, perhaps unprecedented transition and challenge.

But the negative outlook is overdone, and starts from a false premise. China does not need to search for a new economic model to generate further prosperity. Instead, what is happening now is a return to a simple formula that has previously worked extraordinarily well: applying pressure on China’s State-owned enterprises to improve their efficiency and profitability, while also doing more to tap China’s most abundant and valuable “natural resource”-the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people, the talent to start a company, provide new jobs and build a successful new business.

These two together provided the impetus for the economic growth since the 1990s. In the 1990s, SOEs accounted for perhaps as much as 90 percent of China’s total economic output. Today, the SOEs’ share has fallen to below 40 percent by most counts. Once the main engine of growth, SOEs are now more like an anchor. Profits across the SOEs have been sinking, while their debt has risen sharply.

Arresting that slide of SOEs is now vital. SOE reform has long been on the agenda of the Chinese government. But such a reform has become more urgent than ever, as well as more difficult. There are fewer SOEs today than in 1991 when serious SOE reform was first undertaken. Among those that remain, many are now extremely big and rank among the biggest companies in the world. The restructuring of any such large company is always difficult.

China, however, has taken some key first steps in that direction. The Chinese government has divided SOEs into those that will operate entirely based on market principles and those that perform a social function. It is downsizing the coal and steel industries, two of the largest red-ink sectors. Senior managers of some large SOEs have been dismissed or are under investigation for corruption, and experiments linking SOEs’ salaries more directly with profitability are underway.

Less noticed, but in my opinion, as important is a strong push now at some SOEs and SOE-affiliated companies to become not better but among the best in the world at what they do. Tsinghua Unigroup in semiconductors, China National Nuclear Corporation and China General Nuclear Power in building and operating nuclear power plants, and CITIC Group in eldercare are seeking global glory. They are trying to sprint while most other SOEs are limping.

Luckily for China, the overall situation in the entrepreneurial sector is far rosier. All it needs is a more level playing field. Important steps to further free up the private sector are now underway-taxes are being cut, banks pushed to lend more, and markets long closed to protect SOE monopolies are being pried open. Healthcare is a good example in this regard.

All these moves are part of what the government calls its new “supply side” policy. The aim is to demolish barriers to competition and efficiency. Chinese entrepreneurs have shown time and again they have world-class aptitude to spot and seize opportunities. They are leading the charge now into China’s underdeveloped service sector. This, more than manufacturing or exports, is where new jobs, profits and growth will come from.

Opportunities also await smart entrepreneurs in less efficient industries like agriculture, in getting food products to market quickly, cheaply and safely. In cities, traditional retail has been hit hard by online shopping. Struggling shopping malls are becoming giant laboratories where entrepreneurs are incubating new ideas on how Chinese consumers will shop, play, eat and be entertained.

China’s economy is now 30 times larger than what it was in 1991, and far more complex. The private sector 25 years ago was then truly in its infancy. But, there is still huge scope today for China to gain from its original policy prescription: prodding SOEs to get in line for reform while letting entrepreneurs meet the needs of Chinese consumers.

The author is chairman and CEO of China First Capital.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-04/08/content_24364851.htm

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

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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.

 

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

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At the hub of China’s “One Belt, One Road” – a visit to Manzhouli, the frozen city where China, Russia and Mongolian converge

Manzhouli

Where did you spend Christmas? Mine was spent in temperatures reaching 38-below zero on the frozen lakes and grasslands of Northeastern China. I was there to give a speech on Christmas Day at a conference in Manzhouli on Russian, Chinese and Mongolian economic integration.

Manzhouli is a Chinese city but with a unique pedigree and location. First settled around 1900 by the Russians building the Trans-Manchurian spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was then conquered by the Japanese before China took control after World War Two. It sits at the single point on the map where the borders of China, Russia and Mongolia all converge. Manzhouli’s train and road border crossing between Russia and China is the busiest inland port in China, with most of China’s $50 billion in annual exports to Russia passing through here.

China, Russia and Mongolia are now partners in China’s ambitious new strategic trade initiative known as “One Belt, One Road“, or OBOR, as well as the Chinese-sponsored Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The conference was meant to encourage closer trade ties among the three. OBOR is designed in part to redirect China’s investment focus away from more developed countries, especially those participating in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.

China’s exclusion from TPP is perhaps the biggest single economic policy setback for China in the last decade. The TPP countries include most of China’s key trading partners. If enacted, TPP will cause trade and investment flows to shift away from China especially towards Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines. The three are all parties to the TPP agreement, and so will benefit from preferential tariffs. All have aspirations to take market share away from China as a global manufacturing center. TPP will grant them a significant long-term cost and market-access advantages.

OBOR is a consolation prize of China’s own construction. The countries inside the OBOR plan look more like a cast of economic misfits, not dynamic free traders like the TPP nations and China itself. I don’t believe anyone in Beijing policy-making circles believes that increased trading with OBOR nations Pakistan, Myanmar and the Central Asian -stans is a credible substitute. China’s best option is to find a way to persuade TPP countries to allow it to enter the group. There’s not even a remote sign of this happening. China was excluded from TPP by design.

China does not live in a particularly desirable or affluent neighborhood. It shares land borders with fourteen countries. Of these, Russia is by far and away the richest of these countries. Mongolia, with its three million inhabitants most of whom still live in yurts as nomadic herdsmen, ranks third. This gives some sense of how poor many of the places that are now the focus of China’s OBOR are.

Another key component of OBOR, but one often overlooked, is to open up new markets to the most troubled part of China’s industrial economy, the manufacturers of basic products like steel, aluminum, basic machinery and chemicals, turbines, cars, trucks, trains. They all are suffering from acute overcapacity with vanishing profit margins up and down the supply chain.

The Chinese leadership recently announced that dealing with overcapacity in China will be one of its major economic policy priorities for 2016. The problems are most severe among state-owned industrial conglomerates. The Chinese government is their controlling shareholder. Two obvious solutions — shrinking capacity and cutting employment — are, for the time being at least, politically off limits. OBOR is meant to be a lifeline.

China itself cannot absorb this excess domestic capacity. Demand for basic industrial products is already evaporating, never to return, China is already well along in the transition to a service economy. China will pay or lend tens of billions of dollars to poorer OBOR countries to finance their imports of Chinese capital goods. The trade won’t likely be very profitable but it will keep jobs and revenues from deteriorating even more sharply.

You may download the seven-page English-language talking points, map and charts from my speech by clicking here.

At night, there was a banquet for political leaders from the three countries. Afterward, a beauty contest was staged, featuring Chinese, Russian and Mongolian contestants in bikinis and evening gowns. You can see photos here, including ones of me with the Chinese winner and the nine Mongolian contestants. An ice fishing expedition was also organized.

If OBOR does achieve its goal by drawing Russia and Mongolia into a closer economic relationship with China, Manzhouli stands to benefit more than anywhere else in China. As if in readiness, Manzhouli storefronts are in Chinese and Cyrillic, the new airport terminal is in the Russian style, and the main park in the city lorded over by a 10-story Matryoshka doll.

For now, though, no one is seeing much sign of OBOR stimulating greater trade. The main focus for investment in Manzhouli is in tourism facilities to attract Chinese summer vacationers to the surrounding grasslands, China’s finest. This time of year, the cement tourist yurts are empty and the long-haired riding ponies are left to graze and amble in the arctic wind and snow.

 

 

 

 

China SOEs, the meaning of their existence — Week In China Magazine

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His was a deceptively simple question. “What exactly is the purpose of a Chinese SOE?”

I had just finished speaking to the Asian management committee of one of the larger and more successful Fortune 500 companies operating in China. They have for years done profitable business with large SOEs in China. That business has begun to evaporate. Having just heard me summarize the deteriorating situation at many SOEs, and the decision last month by the Chinese government to quietly shelve plans for a root-and-branch restructuring, one senior executive wanted to know what Chinese SOEs are now in business to do. Make money? Provide and protect jobs? Project national power?

I reminded him Chairman Mao was a keen student and devoted follower of Lenin. He fully embraced the Leninist concept of the state and party controlling the “commanding heights” of the economy. China’s SOEs are still very much in that business: owning most, sometimes all, of China’s large-scale assets in petroleum, gas, electricity generation and distribution, coal, banking and finance, transport, steel, aluminum and a wide range industrial chemicals.

The executive then reminded me that Mao had been gone a long time and anyway hadn’t Deng Xiaoping begun 35 years ago dismantling state power to create the conditions where today’s vibrant Chinese private sector could emerge. The private sector is the source of all net new job creation in China and contribute far more to GDP than the SOE segment. The country’s best companies are private sector firms, not SOEs. What, he insisted, were SOEs in business to do?

It was obvious he wasn’t going to accept an answer based on Leninist political economic theory. “Why don’t they just privatize the state-owned sector?”, he pushed back. That, I told him, was out of the question, at least for now. “Why?” he wanted to know.

Looking for an opening to collect my thoughts, I steered him toward the coffee machine.

Above all” I started in again, “an SOE is an instrument to achieve Chinese government and party policy goals. This is as true today as it was at their origin. Sometimes those policies, at least originally, were quite high-minded, even socialistic, like providing sufficient energy at an affordable price to everyone in the country.

Energy is today plentiful in China, but cheap it’s not. Subsidies have been eliminated and prices hiked to levels generally well above those in the US. The money paid to the petroleum and power monopolies are a transfer of private wealth to state-owned coffers, in other words, a mechanism for hidden tax collection.

 

Download complete article here.

http://www.weekinchina.com/2015/12/fit-for-purpose-2/

 

One of China’s Best State Enterprises Shows Need for Reform — Financial Times

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Financial Times article Peter Fuhrman

China’s ruling State Council last month released a much-anticipated plan meant to kick the country’s huge state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector into shape. No small amount of kicking is required. Not all but many of China’s 155,000 SOEs are inefficient and often loss-making. Where SOEs do make money, it’s usually because of markets and lending rules rigged by the government in their favor.

Finding a truly good SOE, one that can take on and outcompete private sector rivals in a fair fight is hard. Gong He Chun is one. Customers throng daily to buy its high-quality products, often forming long queues. The employees, unlike at so many SOEs in China, are helpful and enthusiastic and take evident pride in what they are doing. Though local private sector competitors number in their hundreds, Gong He Chun has them all beat.

Gong He Chun is a small restaurant chain, with just four shops in the ancient and Grand Canal city of Yangzhou, about 300km up the Yangtze river from Shanghai. It specializes in preparing and serving meticulously-prepared versions of dishes that have for over 1,000 years made Yangzhou synonymous with fine eating in China.

It’s a rather long and mouth-watering list, including crab and pork-stuffed xiaolongbao dumplings (below centre), potstickers (below right), steamed shrimp dumplings, shredded tofu and of course Yangzhou’s most famous culinary export, Yangzhou fried rice.

Gong Hechun

Gong He Chun was founded in 1933 as a private concern, but was then, like almost all other private businesses, expropriated in 1949. It’s been an SOE ever since, its shares owned by the Yangzhou government branch of SASAC, the government agency now responsible for holding shares and guiding the management of all SOEs. Gong He Chun somehow held on through the long dark years during Mao Zedong’s rule when most restaurants in China were shuttered, and investment in the SOE sector was directed toward Stalinist heavy industry – steel mills, coal mines, power plants, railroad rolling stock and the like.

Yangzhou, Yangzhou cuisine and places like Gong He Chun represented just about everything that Chairman Mao Zedong most detested. Since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the town has had a reputation for its mercantile traditions, beautiful women and traditional culture. To eradicate such bourgeois roots, Mao and his planners crammed the city in the 1950s and 1960s with ugly sooty chemical factories and smelters.

I remember first visiting Yangzhou in 1981 and being shocked by the sight of once-splendid Ming Dynasty temples and courtyard homes converted to makeshift factories and communal dwellings. In those days, finding anything to eat, even at the few hotels where foreigners were allowed to stay, was no simple matter. All food, including dumplings, was available only with ration coupons.

Things have improved over the last twenty-five years. One not-unimportant reason for this is that Jiang Zemin, who ran China from 1989-2002 is a native son of Yangzhou while his successor, Hu Jintao, was raised in the next door town of Taizhou. Jiang still visits Yangzhou at least once a year, usually during Qingming Festival when filial Chinese return to their home to sweep the graves of their ancestors. Yangzhou this year is celebrating with pomp the 2,500th anniversary of its founding.

Gong He Chun (see photo) still hews closely to the recipes and cooking methods perfected in the 1930s by the founder Wang Xuecheng. This means cutting thin soup noodles by hand, preparing the dumplin skins in such a way as to create tiny pores and air pockets that allow flavor to seep in.

Ever wonder exactly how a properly prepared potsticker should look?

At Gong He Chun, as all its many cooks are taught, they must fulfill Wang’s precise prescription: the overall outward appearance of a sparrow’s head, with its slender sides resembling a lotus leaf and its bottom fried to the color of a gold coin. If only the management and workers at China’s huge substandard SOE oil refineries took as much care, China’s polluted skies would surely improve.

While the quality of what comes out of the kitchen is world class, there are places where the dead hand of state ownership can be detected. The toilets are primitive, plastic plates and bowls are old and chipped, and the overall décor looks like a 1950s US high school lunchroom.

Though its brand-name and reputation are known nationally, Gong He Chun has no apparent intention to expand outside Yangzhou. The three-tiered system of SOE management in China, with ownership spread among national, provincial and local branches of SASAC, makes it both rare and difficult for any local SOE like Gong He Chun to expand outside its home base.

Meantime, a Taiwan company, Din Tai Fung, has taken Yangzhou cuisine, especially the crab xiaolongbao, and built a high-end chain of global renown, with Michelin-starred restaurants across East and Southeast Asia as well as the US, Australia and Dubai. Its China outlets sell dumplings at three times the price of Gong He Chun.

I’m lucky to know the China chairman of Din Tai Fung, and have spent time with him inside Din Tai Fung restaurants. Every detail is sweated over by the chairman, from the starched white tablecloths to the polish on the bamboo steamers to the precise number of times a xiaolongbao dumpling should be pinched closed. Gong He Chun’s state owners are utterly devoid of the drive, vision and hunger for profits and expansion that only a private proprietor can bring.

A newly-announced government policy on SOE restructuring has already come in for criticism in China. Xi Jinping and his State Council – once keen to expose SOEs to more market rigor and competition – have opted for a more “softly-softly” approach, with no specific targets for improving the woeful performance of many SOEs. One reason is that a fair chunk of China’s SOE system is in chaos, thanks to a more high-priority policy of the Xi government. Every week brings new reports about bosses and senior management at China’s largest SOEs being investigated or arrested for corruption.

If there was ever an economic rationale for a small chain of traditional dumpling shops to be owned by the state, no one seems able to recall it. What profit Gong He Chun makes is not being reinvested in this rare SOE jewel, but is used instead to prop up SOE losers in Yangzhou. As China’s new SOE reform policy now begins its tentative roll-out, it looks certain Gong He Chun will for years to come remain a rare bright spot in a blighted SOE landscape.

Peter Fuhrman is Chairman & CEO China First Capital. He has no business relationship with Gong He Chun.

 

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2015/10/05/one-of-chinas-best-state-enterprises-shows-need-for-reform/

Download Financial Times article

 

China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape — China First Capital new research report published

China First Capital research report

 

Slowing growth and a gyrating stock market are the two most obvious sources of turbulence in China at the midway point of 2015. Less noticed, perhaps, but certainly no less important for China’s long-term development are deeper trends radically reshaping the overall business environment. Among these are a steady erosion in margins and competitiveness in many, if not most, of China’s industrial and service economy. There are few sectors and few companies that are enjoying growth and profit expansion to match last year and the years before.

China’s consumer market, while healthy overall, is also becoming a more difficult place for businesses to earn decent returns. Relentless competition is one part. As problematic are rising costs and inefficient poorly-evolved management systems.  From a producer economy dominated by large SOEs, China is shifting fast to one where consumers enjoy vastly more choice, more pricing leverage and more opportunities to buy better and buy cheaper. Online shopping is one helpful factor, since it allows Chinese to escape from the poor service and high prices that characterize so much of the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail sector. It’s hard to find anything positive to say about either the current state or future prospects for China’s “offline economy”.

Meanwhile, more Chinese are taking their spending money elsewhere, traveling and buying abroad in record numbers. They have the money to buy premium products, both at home and abroad. But, too much of what’s made and sold within China, belongs to an earlier age. Too many domestic Chinese companies are left manufacturing products no longer quite meet current demands. Adapting and changing is difficult because so many companies gorged themselves previously on bank loans. Declining margins mean that debt service every year swallows up more and more available cash flow. When the economy was still purring along, it was easier for companies and their banks to pretend debt levels were manageable. In 2015, across much of the industrial economy, the strained position of many corporate borrowers has become brutally obvious.

These are a few of the broad themes discussed in our latest research report, “China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape”. To download a copy click here.

Inside, you will not find much discussion of GDP growth or the stock market. Instead, we try here to illuminate some less-seen, but relevant, aspects of China’s changing business and investment environment.

For those interested in the stock market’s current woes, I can recommend this article (click here) published in The New York Times, with a good summary of how and why the Chinese stock market arrived at its current difficult state. I’m quoted about the preference among many of China’s better, bigger and more dynamic private sector companies to IPO outside China.

In our new report, I can point to a few articles that may be of special interest, for the signals they provide about future opportunities for growth and profit in China:

  1. China’s most successful cross-border M&A ever, General Mills of the USA acquisition and development of dumpling brand Wanchai Ferry (湾仔码头), using a strategy also favored by Nestle in China
  2. China’s new rules and rationale for domestic M&A – “buy first and pay later”
  3. China’s most successful, if little known, recent start-up, mobile phone brand OnePlus – in its first full year of operations, 2015 worldwide revenues should reach $1 billion, while redefining positively the way Chinese brand manufacturers are viewed in the US and Europe
  4. Shale gas – by shutting out most private sector investment, will China fail to create conditions to exploit the vast reserves, larger than America’s, buried under its soil?
  5. Nanjing – left behind during the early years of Chinese economic reform and development, it is emerging as a core of China’s “inland economy”, linking prosperous Jiangsu and Shanghai with less developed heavily-populated Hubei, Anhui, Sichuan

We’re at a fascinating moment in China’s story of 35 years of rapid and remarkable economic transformation. The report’s conclusion: for businesses and investors both global and China-based, it will take ever more insight, guts and focus to outsmart the competition and succeed.

 

China First Capital Interview: Cashing in and cashing out — China Law & Practice

 

China Law & Practice

Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China First Capital, explains how the country’s private equity market has struggled with profit returns and the importance of diversified exit strategies. He also predicts the rise of new funds to execute high-yield deals

Date: 05 May 2015

What is China First Capital?

China First Capital is an investment bank and advisory firm with a focus on Greater China. Our business is helping larger Chinese companies, along with a select group of Fortune 500 companies, sustain and enlarge market leadership in the country, by raising capital and advising on strategic M&A. Like our clients, we operate in an opportunity-rich environment. Though realistic about the many challenges China faces as its economy and society evolve, we are as a firm fully convinced there is no better market than China to build businesses of enduring value. China still has so much going for it, with so much more growth and positive change ahead. As someone who first came to China in 1981 as a graduate student, my optimism is perhaps understandable. The positive changes this country has undergone during those years have surpassed by orders of magnitude anything I might have imagined possible.

After a rather long career in the US and Europe, including a stint as CEO of a California venture capital company as well as a venture-backed enterprise software company, I came back to China in 2008 and established China First Capital with a headquarters in Shenzhen, a place I like to think of as the California of China. It has the same mainly immigrant population and, like the Silicon Valley, is home to many leading private sector high-tech companies.

What is happening in China’s private equity (PE) market?

Back in 2008, China’s financial markets, the domestic PE industry, were far less developed. It was, we now can see, a honeymoon period. Hundreds of new PE firms were formed, while the big global players like Blackstone, Carlyle, TPG and KKR all built big new operations in China and raised tons of new money to invest there. From a standing start a decade ago, China PE grew into a colossus, the second-largest PE market in the world. But, it also, almost as quickly, became one of the more troubled. The plans to make quick money investing in Chinese companies right ahead of their planned IPO worked brilliantly for a brief time, then fell apart, as first the US, then Hong Kong and finally China’s own domestic stock exchanges shut the doors to Chinese companies. Things have since improved. IPOs for Chinese companies are back in all three markets. But PE firms are still sitting on thousands of unexited investments. The inevitable result, PE in China has had a disappointing record in the category that ultimately matters most: returning profits to limited partners (LPs).

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The ‘children’ of Deng Xiaoping — Toronto Globe and Mail

Globe and Mail

The ‘children’ of Deng Xiaoping

From left: Yang Hongchang, Hung Huang, Zhuo Wei, Grace Huang, Wu Hai, He Yongzhi.

The other Chinese revolution: Meet the people who took Deng’s economic great leap forward

 

Deng Xiaoping was no Winston Churchill. He possessed a thick southern accent most people found nearly impenetrable, and was anything but garrulous. In fact, little of what he said was memorable or even original. His most-cited aphorism – “To get rich is glorious” – did not actually spill from his mouth; historians suspect its provenance can be traced to the West.

But in deed more than word, Mr. Deng was the linchpin in redirecting China’s economy away from the backward, centrally planned beast it had become under Mao Zedong. He set it on a path that would see decades of unrelenting growth and the creation of credulity-defying prosperity.

What he wanted to do, he said in 1978, was to “light a spark” for change:

Deng Xiaoping

If we can’t grow faster than the capitalist countries, then we can’t show the superiority of our system.

– Deng, 1978

And on many indicators, grow they did – more than the U.S

 

Globemail

He succeeded in spurring growth, and wildly so, marshalling the power of the world’s most populous nation. Now, 110 years after his birth – an occasion that its leadership has sought to celebrate with lengthy TV biopics and other remembrances – China is filled with millionaires.

But has the sudden influx of wealth made it happy?

Where chasing profit was once grounds for harsh re-education, the country’s heroes and superstars – Jack Ma and an entire generation of tuhao, or nouveau riche – are now, in ways both spiritual and economic, the children of Deng.

President Xi Jinping has consciously sought to present himself as the current generation’s version of Deng. But for many of Deng’s figurative progeny, wealth and happiness haven’t always come together. In a recent survey published in the People’s Tribune magazine, worries about a moral vacuum, personal selfishness and anxiety over individual and professional status were high on the list of top concerns about the country today. The poll reflected a pervasive cultural disquiet that has reached even into the ranks of those most richly rewarded by the Deng-led opening up.

“On the social level, money became the only currency in terms of personal relationships, and that’s a really sad reality,” says Yang Lan, one of the country’s top television hosts.

She points to “the lack of a value system” that she sees when she hears young girls “discussing how they would love to be a mistress so they can live a wealthy life before they are too old. And you see girls discussing these things very openly.” China, she says, needs “a new social contract.”

There is little doubt that those who no longer need to worry about making money are more free to criticize others, raising the spectre of hypocrisy. But pained reflection has been among the less-anticipated products of the wealth China has amassed. The comforts of financial security have provided a new space to rethink the path the country has taken and ways it has fallen short.

And as China’s economy slows to a pace not seen in decades, it also faces a moment to consider the sweep of its modern history – decades marked by the vicious turbulence of the Mao years, followed by the full-throttle race away from it inspired by Mr. Deng.

From 1978, the first year of the Deng-led reforms, China has been so thoroughly reshaped that even numbers struggle to do it justice. Gross domestic product has expanded 156-fold, the value of imports and exports is 727 times higher, and savings are up by a factor of 2,131.

The growth has been driven by an extraordinary – and massive – cohort of people who have turned personal quests for profit into a national obsession. “China has, in absolute numbers as well as percentage of populace, the most successful entrepreneurs anywhere in the world,” says Peter Fuhrman, chairman and founder of China First Capital, a specialist investment bank based in Shenzhen.

But even those who most warmly embraced the Deng mandate are now pausing for a second look at a country whose vast financial progress has become marred by other problems.

 

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Why and how Beijing became one of the world’s more unmanageable major cities

Beijing Bactrian camel

What if most of what we think about government spending was wrong? What if government money causes, rather than cures,  pollution, unaffordable and substandard housing, impossible traffic, more expensive and less available healthcare? Sounds impossible, right? Not if you live in or have traveled to Beijing lately. The city’s now infamous urban problems are at least in part the result of a deluge of government spending since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. Direct central government funding doubled to over Rmb 14 trillion ($2.2 trillion) over this period while local governments borrowed an additional Rmb 13 trillion ($2.1 trillion) to finance their spending.

The government money, of course, wasn’t meant to turn Beijing into an urban sprawl with a population larger than every state in the US except California. In fact, most of the government stimulus was targeted for big projects outside the capital. But, in China, the nature of things is that much of government spending travels on a round-trip ticket. It is dispensed in Beijing and then a big part of it eventually returns home. And no, this isn’t all in kickbacks. A large part is from the build out of a huge new infrastructure in Beijing to support, steer and encourage the distribution of more government cash.

In the last five years, it seems like everyone rushed to open or expand offices in Beijing:  companies of all sizes from all part of China and the world; governments from the smallest local hamlet 3,000 kilometers away to provinces with populations larger than every country in Western Europe also staffed up. Result: commercial and residential real estate prices skyrocketed to the point now where they are among the highest anywhere in the world.

More people begets more cars, more cars begets more traffic, more traffic begets restrictions on the days-per-week any car can be on the road, which in turn begets Beijingers buying an extra car to get around the prohibition. End result: pollution that is now substantially caused by auto emissions, not as in the old days by nearby-factories burning coal. Many polluting factories have been shut down, which added to the available land for development into commercial and residential property in and around Beijing, particularly in areas you need a car to get to.

Here are the two charts, showing residential real estate prices and cars registered in Beijing from 2008 through last year. The numbers are likely underestimates. But, they show the trend.

data

 

The torrent of government cash had all kinds of spillover effects that have altered Beijing permanently. More restaurants, higher prices, more wining and dining, leading to prohibitions last year, as part of the big anti-corruption crusade, on government officials accepting invitations to party outside the office. This then drives the behavior underground, so high-end restaurants empty out, while more expensive and exclusive “members only” clubs flourish.

Beijing has morphed into the financial capital of China. That’s attracted a large group of players to move from Shanghai and Hong Kong to get a piece. PE funds, private bankers, lawyers, consultants, so-called “guanxi merchants” who arrange access to government officials. Among my circle of friends in PE industry, I can count 15 who have moved to Beijing in recent years, to get closer to the action, and only one who left, who finally couldn’t take the crowds, pollution, high cost.

Beijing’s precise population is unknown. The official number is 21.1 million. Some in government say 25 million. Others claim the real number is closer to 30 million, when you count more recent migrants living rough, plus the huge throngs in Beijing for shorter periods, either for work or pleasure.

Since 2008, far more of China’s total economic activity is decided by government bureaucrats in Beijing. Overall government spending has more than doubled. Result, more people need to travel to Beijing more often.

Look at passenger numbers at Beijing’s Capital Airport. Between 2008 and 2013, this already crowded-facility saw passenger numbers increase by a remarkable 50%. It is, as of March this year, now the busiest airport in the world, eclipsing Atlanta’s Hartsfield. Capital Airport is now breaking under the load, and so Beijing is about to embark on building an even larger new airport in the southern part of the city. This mammoth $11 billion project by itself could support a lot of Beijing’s gdp growth in the coming few years. But, it will be just the cherry on top.

Beijing has the best hospitals in China, so people come from all over the country to try to get admitted for medical treatment. This has led to price increases and longer waiting times. Equally, those with a serious grievance about their local government, or who feel maltreated, will often gather up their documents go to Beijing to try to get redress. This trek to Beijing has been around since the days of the Emperors. As China’s government grows in power and economic clout and ordinary Chinese have the money to fight back, those seeking to petition central government’s help increase.

To serve all the new arrivals and visitors, Beijing continues to expand its Metro system. The average daily ridership is now 10 million, about triple London’s, and also triple the amount five years ago in Beijing.  Waits at rush hour to get into some stations can be horrific, so the government recently proposed to raise fares. Beijing currently has the cheapest public transportation of any big city in China.  While some may leave Beijing, the likely result of higher Metro fares will be more people trying to buy a car.

How bad is traffic in Beijing. Horror stories abound. A more reasonable evaluation: the manager of a big telecommunications company I know told me recently if he doesn’t leave his house by 7am, it will take 90 minutes to drive 10 km from his house to his office. That’s about speed of sedan chairs used to carry emperor and his cohorts within the Forbidden City.

To be sure, Beijing is not Dhaka. Since 2008, many aspects of the city’s infrastructure have been upgraded. It is a thoroughly modern city, with scarcely a trace of either poverty or blight. When I first visited the city in 1981, Bactrian camels were still occasionally seen on the streets hauling cargo.

For first time since 1949, the leader of the country, Xi Jinping,  is Beijing born and bred. Since he was a boy, Beijing’s population has about quadrupled, while China overall has almost exactly doubled.  Will he try to shift gears, slow or even reverse the growth in the city’s population? It won’t be easy. Government stimulus spending, once turned on is notoriously hard to scale back in any serious way. Do so and overall GDP growth will likely suffer.

In its 3,000 years as China’s major urban outpost on the country’s northern perimeter,  Beijing has experienced countless invasions, barbarian pillages, conquests, uprisings. But, nothing in history has altered Beijing as quickly, deeply, and perhaps permanently as five years of bounce-back and kickback from trillions in government pump-priming.