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Turbulence and Paralysis: the Year Ahead in US-China Relations — Financial Times

December 13th, 2016 No comments

 

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A month before his official inauguration, Donald Trump is already tossing diplomatic grenades in China’s direction. It is a sign of things to come. 2017 is shaping up to be a highly eventful, taut and precarious year for China-US relations. This is partly due to a simple scheduling coincidence.

2017 will be the first time ever when both the US and the PRC in the same year will usher in new governments. The US will kick things off on January 20th by swearing in Donald Trump as President. China, meanwhile, will undertake its own large political upheaval, its five-yearly change in political leadership, culminating in the 19th Communist Party Congress sometime late in the year. Virtually the entire government hierarchy, from local mayors on up, will be changed in a monumental job-swapping exercise orchestrated by Xi Jinping, China’s president.

The US under Mr Trump, with a Republican Congress at his back, seems intent to challenge China more assertively in trade, investment and as a currency manipulator while intensifying the military rivalry. China’s leadership, meantime, will become deeply absorbed in its own highly secretive, inward-looking and internecine political maneuvering. While Mr Xi tries to further consolidate his power, Mr Trump will likely be asserting his, leading to a globally ambitious US and an introspective China. This would represent something of a role reversal from recent precedent.

With the chess pieces all in motion, businesses should be plotting their moves in China with caution. The proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is dead, leaving China’s still-evolving “One Belt,One Road” initiative as the main impetus for new trade flows in Asia. Donald Trump says he will push for what he claims to be more “more fair” bilateral trade deals. China, with its $365bn trade surplus with the US and high barriers to much inward investment, is clearly in his sights.

How will China react? The only certainty is that as the year progresses, China’s government apparatus will slow, and with it decision-making at policy-making bodies and many State-owned enterprises (SoEs). All will wait to hear what new tunes to march to, once the new ruling Politburo is revealed to the public in the fourth quarter.

Chinese officials at all levels are already jockeying for promotion. That means falling into line with Mr Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. The Party Secretary in Jiangsu province, one of China’s wealthiest, got an early head start. He instituted his own form of localized prohibition, ordering that government officials could no longer drink alcohol at any time, in any kind of setting, anywhere in Jiangsu.

The booze embargo did include one loophole. If senior foreign guests are present, alcohol can flow as before, like an undammed torrent.

As the Party Congress approaches, it will be even harder to get a deal with a Chinese SoE lined up and closed within any kind of reasonable time frame. Even after the Party Congress ends, it will likely take more months for any real deal momentum to return. Investment banking bonuses along with billings at global law, accounting and consulting firms are all likely to take a hit.

One other certainty: the renminbi will come under increasing pressure as the US ratchets up its moves to apply tariffs to Chinese exports and China’s own economy remains, relatively speaking, in the doldrums. How much pressure, though, is another question.

Anyone making predictions about the speed and degree of the renminbi’s decline is playing with a loaded weapon. A year ago some of the world’s biggest and loudest hedge fund bosses, including Kyle Bass, David Tepper and Bill Ackman, were proclaiming the imminent collapse of the renminbi. The renminbi, despite slipping by about 6 per cent during 2016, has yet to behave as the money guys predicted.

The Chinese government uses non-market mechanisms to slow the renminbi’s decline. A recent example: its abrupt move in November to tightly control outbound investment and M&A. But shoring up the currency will undercut one of China’s larger economic imperatives, the need to upgrade the country’s industrial and technological base. That will require a prodigious volume of dollars to acquire US and European technology companies such as recent Chinese deals to acquire German robot-maker Kuka and US semiconductor company Omnivision.

Chinese investors and acquirers not only face tighter controls on the outflow of US dollars. The US is also becoming more antagonistic toward Chinese acquisitions in the US and globally. Deals of any significant size need to pass a national security review overseen by a shadowy interagency body known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS.

CFIUS works in secret. In recent months, it has blocked Chinese investment in everything from a San Diego hotel, to Dutch LED light bulbs as well as US and European companies more explicitly involved in high-tech industry including semiconductor design and manufacturing. The strong likelihood is CFIUS will become even more restrictive once Mr Trump takes over.

Unlike most areas of bilateral tension between the US and China, this is one area where the Chinese have no room to retaliate in kind. China already has a blanket prohibition on investment by US, indeed all foreign companies, into multiple sectors of the Chinese economy, from tech industries like the internet and e-commerce all the way to innocuous ones like movies, cigarettes and steel smelting. So, for now, China quietly seethes as the US intensifies moves to prevent China investment deals from being concluded.

China will probably need to regroup and start playing the long game. That means investing more in earlier stage tech companies, especially in the Silicon Valley, and hoping some then strike it big. These venture capital investments generally fall outside the tightening CFIUS net. China wants to spend big and spend fast, but will find it often impossible to do so.

Even as political and military tensions rise between the US and China in 2017, one ironic certainty will be that a record number of Chinese are likely to go to the US as tourists, home buyers or students and spend ever more there. China’s ardour for all things American – its clean air, high-tech, good universities, relatively cheap housing, and retail therapy – is all but unbounded.

If informal online surveys are to be believed, ordinary Chinese seem to like and admire Mr Trump, especially for his business acumen. Mr Xi, understandably, may view the new US President in a harsher light. Xi faces cascading complexities as well as factional opposition within China. He could most use a US leader cast in the previous mold, committed to constructive cooperation with China. Instead, he’s likely to contend with an unpredictable, disapproving and distrustful adversary.

 

https://www.ft.com/content/b1801637-4219-3222-9f45-658740aa1187

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John Pomfret’s Majestic New Survey of China-US Relations, “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom”

December 7th, 2016 No comments

 

John Pomfret

Congratulations to John Pomfret on the publication of his for-the-ages comprehensive summary of the history of China-US relations, “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom”.

I’m proud to call John my oldest and closest friend. We share a near-40 year history and fascination with China. But, his wisdom far surpasses mine. I’m awed by his achievement and now by the unanimity of praise for the book in the major English-speaking media.

Here are reviews and article about the book from the FT, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Economist:

Financial Times

New York Times

Wall Street Journal

Economist

 

China’s depressed northeast is down but not out – if officials can fix its ailing state-owned firms — South China Morning Post

December 1st, 2016 No comments

I’m delighted to share the OpEd essay written by my China First Capital colleague Dr. Yansong Wang and published in today’s South China Morning Post. Her piece is titled “China’s depressed northeast is down but not out – if officials can fix its ailing state-owned firms”. It offers up her analysis on the disappointing economic conditions and vast untapped potential in her home region, China’s Northeast, formerly known as Manchuria, and in Chinese as 中国东北. I agree with her policy prescriptions as well as prudent optimism the region can be transformed just as America’s Rust Belt.

Her final paragraph notes a paradox familiar to me as well. In Shenzhen, we’re lucky enough to know two of China’s most consistently successful listed company chairmen, Mr. Gao Yunfeng , the founding entrepreneur of Han’s Laser Group  (大族激光集团), the world’s largest laser machine tool company, and Mr. Xing Jie, of a highly innovative and successful publicly-traded SOE, Tagen Group (天健集团).

Both, like Yansong, come from Jilin Province and all three have found success far from where they were raised, in Shenzhen. Yansong puts across her final point with conviction: “We need to create the conditions where the younger versions of these two successful entrepreneurs choose to stay in the northeast and build an economic future there that we can all take pride in.”

 

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Dongbei Yansong Wang

Over the course of my 35 years, China’s northeast has gone from being the country’s economic powerhouse to its most systematically troubled large region. Much of the region’s enormous state-owned industrial complex is in difficulty, while gross domestic product growth continues to lag. The deepest and most poignant signs of the economic malaise are a falling population and the fact that the northeast’s birth rate is now one-third below the national average.

The concern about how to revive the economy animates not only the highest levels of the central government, but also many people who recall the key role the region has played leading China’s modernisation. The concern is warranted. It now needs to be matched by some fresh thinking and new policy initiatives. I’d like to see the northeast become a laboratory for bold ideas about how to restructure state-owned enterprises in China.

I care deeply about what happens in the northeast. Though I now live and work in Shenzhen, I was born and raised in Jilin (吉林) province. My parents and 95-year-old grandmother still live there. I owe a lot of my life’s achievements up to now – undergraduate study at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei (合肥), followed by a PhD in physics from Princeton, to my current role in an international investment bank – to the mind-expanding public education I received growing up in the northeast.

The climate and its mainly landlocked geography are a challenge. But there is no reason the northeast should be a victim of its geography. The part of the US with the most similar conditions, the states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, has successfully moved away from a focus on heavy industry to being a world leader in all kinds of advanced manufacturing and food processing. Great companies, including 3M, Cargill and Amway, all hail from this part of the US.

Could my home region produce its own world-conquering companies? I believe so.

Step one is to reorient investment capital away from the tired and often loss-making state-owned enterprises towards newer, nimbler private-sector firms. At present, too much investment goes to one of the most unproductive uses of all: new loans to companies that can’t repay their existing ones. This kind of rollover lending generally does not produce one new job or one new increment of GDP.

The central government is stepping up, announcing in August plans for 127 major projects, at a cost of 1.6 trillion yuan (HK$1.8 trillion). The problem isn’t so much that the northeast has too much heavy industry; it’s more that it has too much of the wrong kind. Basic steel is in vast oversupply. But the northeast could shine in developing speciality steel for advanced applications in China. One example that strikes me every time I ride on China’s high-speed rail network: too much of the special steel used on tracks is imported from Japan and Europe. We can make that.

How do we go from being a tired rust belt to a rejuvenated region pulsing with opportunity? The central and provincial governments should encourage more experimentation to push forward the scope and pace of state-owned enterprise reform. A starting point: banks could shoulder more of the cost of restructuring state firms. That will allow for new forms of mixed ownership, asset sales, and bigger and more effective debt-for-equity swaps.

I would also like to see the northeast become the first place where service industries, now mainly restricted to state firms – including banking and insurance – are opened up to private competitors.

There is no shortage in the northeast of the most important facilitator of economic development: a well-educated population. For now, sadly, too many of the entrepreneurially inclined leave the region. Indeed, two of the most visionary listed company chairmen I know are, like me, Jilin natives now living in Shenzhen, Gao Yunfeng of Han’s Laser and Xin Jie of Tagen Group. We need to create the conditions where the younger versions of these two successful entrepreneurs choose to stay in the northeast and build an economic future there that we can all take pride in.

Dr Yansong Wang is chief operating officer at China First Capital

 

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2050099/chinas-depressed-northeast-down-not-out-if-officials-can-fix

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