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Alzheimer’s: China’s Looming Health Challenges — The Diplomat

October 2nd, 2017 No comments

 

 

 

 

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Peter Fuhrman Chairman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of China First Capital, Ltd.is the 109th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

With 9.5 million diagnosed Alzheimer’s sufferers in China, why is Alzheimer’s the country’s biggest future health problem?

I would broaden it to say that the treatment of chronic diseases, with Alzheimer’s at the forefront, is the largest future challenge to China’s national healthcare system. From a country that in living memory only offered a very rudimentary system of barefoot doctors, who were often nothing more than well-meaning but untrained quacks, China in 20 short years has expanded genuine healthcare coverage to all corners of the country, providing acute care and medications to the vast majority of its citizens. That’s an enormous achievement; one that’s done more good for more people than probably any other government initiative anywhere at any time. Chronic diseases, on the other hand, were never a focus, indeed never much of a problem. But, Chinese life expectancy has lengthened dramatically, thanks in part of the improvement in the delivery of acute health services. Chinese are now living as long as people in Europe and the United States. The result: China is already feeling the strain of millions of older ill folks with no real treatment options in place. The demographic die is already cast. Within 25 years, China will become a more geriatric society, where at least 25 percent of the population is over 65. Chronic disease will become commonplace, more prevalent than in any other country.

What cultural challenges hinder or help Chinese society in managing Alzheimer’s?    

The generation of people now growing old in China had limited expectations, as they mainly grew up in dire poverty. As they aged, they accepted more stoically that society couldn’t provide much assistance except for immediate medical emergencies. Their children and grandchildren, however, are constituted differently. They often have education and expectations similar to people in the West, including that there should be quality treatment options in China for every medical issue, as there are in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. They increasingly want better treatment for their sick parents, and will certainly expect even more for themselves when they grow older and are diagnosed with chronic diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s, or need extended care and rehabilitation after a stroke or heart attack, both quite common in China. There is still so little care available in China to fulfill this growing need.

What can China learn from the United States and Europe?

Probably the key lesson is to not to expect, as too many in the U.S. and Europe did, a big breakthrough in Alzheimer’s care, the development of drugs to arrest the progress or undo the damage of the disease. The sad reality is despite huge sums spent on research, we’re as far away from such a medical miracle as we were 20 years and at least $20 billion ago. Instead, China needs to foster the development of thousands of quality treatment centers for Alzheimer’s patients, to care for them according to the best global standards, to lengthen and enrich their lives. This requires along with lots of new buildings a huge number of trained doctors, geriatricians, specialist nurses, and aides.

Describe differences between Chinese rural and urban treatment of Alzheimer’s.

Quality healthcare in China is still available mainly in large national hospitals located in major cities. Though the number of rural Chinese with Alzheimer’s is large and growing fast, there is virtually no professional care available for them locally. The government is seeking to change this, not only for chronic diseases, to raise the standards of healthcare in small cities and rural townships, to relieve the huge disproportionate burden on the big urban hospitals.

Identify opportunities for the international healthcare industry in addressing China’s looming Alzheimer’s challenge?  

Over the next 40 years in China, there is no single area offering better investment fundamentals than chronic care, including the care of Alzheimer’s. Sober forecasts are, by 2045, there will be over 40 million Chinese with Alzheimer’s, four times the number presently. By then, it’s likely half the total number of Alzheimer’s cases worldwide will be here in China. As of today, there are fewer than 500 beds in China for patients needing specialist Alzheimer’s treatment. A French company, Orpea, has a first mover advantage, having already opened a world-class facility in Nanjing. In financial terms, quality Alzheimer’s and chronic care provides very solid returns. As or more important, though, is that the benefits will be captured also by Chinese society as a whole. This will certainly be one of those areas where investors will do quite well by doing good, by contributing to a China where the diseases of old age will be competently managed and families kept happy and intact for longer.

 

As published by The Diplomat

 

 

 

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

June 16th, 2017 No comments

 

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

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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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The Big Sort — The Economist

November 11th, 2016 No comments

 

Economist

economist-china-first-capital

“THE vultures all start circling, they’re whispering, ‘You’re out of time’…but I still rise!” Those lyrics, from a song by Katy Perry, an American pop star, sounded often at Hillary Clinton’s campaign rallies but will shortly ring out over a less serious event: a late-night party in Shenzhen to kick off “Singles’ Day”, an online shopping extravaganza that takes place in China on November 11th every year.

The event was not dreamt up by Alibaba, but the e-commerce giant dominates it. Shoppers spent $14.3bn through its portals during last year’s event. That figure, a rise of 60% on a year earlier, was over double the sales racked up on America’s two main retail dates, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, put together. Chinese consumers are still confident, so sales on this Singles’ Day should again break records.

It points to an intriguing question: how will all of those purchases get to consumers? Around 540m delivery orders were generated during the 24-hour spree last year. That is nearly ten times the average daily volume, but even a slow shopping day in China generates an enormous number. By the reckoning of the State Post Bureau, 21bn parcels were delivered during the first three quarters of this year.

The country’s express-delivery sector, accordingly, is doing well. In spite of a cooling economy, revenues rose by 43% year on year in the first eight months of 2016, to 234bn yuan ($36bn). And although the state’s grip on China’s economy is tightening, the private sector’s share of this market is actually growing. The state-run postal carrier once had a monopoly on all post and parcels. Now far more parcels are delivered than letters, and the share of the market that is commanded by the country’s private express-delivery firms far exceeds that of Express Mail Service, the state-owned courier.

China’s very biggest couriers have been rushing to go public on the back of the strong growth. Most of them started life as scrappy startups, and are privately held. But because of regulatory delays, which mean a big backlog of initial public offerings, many companies have resorted to other means. Last month, two of them, YTO Express and STO Express, used “reverse mergers”, in which a private company goes public by combining with a listed shell company, to list on local exchanges. In what looks to be the largest public flotation in America so far this year, another, ZTO Express, raised $1.4bn in New York on October 27th. Yet another, SF Express, China’s biggest courier, recently won approval to use a reverse merger too.

But investors could be in for a rocky ride. Shares in ZTO, for example, have plunged sharply since its flotation. That is because the breakneck growth of courier companies masks structural problems. For now, the industry is highly fragmented, with some 8,000 domestic competitors, and it is inefficient.

One reason is that regulation, inspired by a sort of regional protectionism, obliges delivery firms to maintain multiple local licences and offices. Cargoes are unpacked and repacked numerous times as they cross the country to satisfy local regulations. Firms therefore find it hard to build up national networks with scale and pricing power. All the competition has led to prices falling by over a third since 2011. The average freight rate for two-day ground delivery between distant cities in America is roughly $15 per kg, whereas in China it is a measly 60 cents, according to research by Peter Fuhrman of China First Capital, an advisory firm.

A handful of the biggest companies now aim to modernise the industry. Some are spending on advanced technology: SF Express’s new package-handling hub in Shanghai is thought to have greatly increased efficiency by replacing labour with expensive European sorting equipment. A semi-automated warehouse in nearby Suzhou run by Alog, a smaller courier in which Alibaba has a stake, seems behind by comparison but in fact Alog is a partner in Alibaba’s logistics coalition, which is known as Cainiao. The e-commerce firm has helped member companies to co-ordinate routes and to improve efficiency through big data.

Other investments are also under way. Yu Weijiao, the chairman of YTO, recalls visiting FedEx, a giant American courier, in Memphis at its so-called “aerotropolis” (an urban centre around an airport) in 2007. He was awed by the firm’s embrace of advanced technology. He returned to China and sought advice from IBM on how his company could follow suit. YTO is using the proceeds of its recent reverse merger to expand its fleet of aircraft, buy automatic parcel-sorting kit and introduce heavy-logistics capabilities for packages over 50kg.

There is as yet little sign that China’s regions will begin allowing packages to move freely, so regulation will remain a brake on the industry. More ominously, labour costs are rising. There are fewer migrant labourers today who are willing to work for a pittance delivering parcels. This week China Daily, a state-owned newspaper, reported that ahead of Singles’ Day, courier firms were offering salaries on the level of university graduates.

http://www.economist.com/news/business/21710004-chinas-express-delivery-sector-needs-consolidation-and-modernisation-big-sort

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What Alibaba Can Teach G20 Leaders — China Daily OpEd Commentary

September 6th, 2016 No comments

 

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

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Can China Succeed Where the Japanese Failed Investing in US Real Estate?

July 13th, 2016 1 comment

China map

Chinese money is cascading like a waterfall into the US real estate market. Chinese institutional money, individual money, state-owned companies and private sector ones, Chinese billionaires to ordinary middle-class wage-earners, everyone wants in on the action. This year, the amount of Chinese money invested in US real estate assets is almost certain to break new records, surpassing last year’s total of over $40 billion, and continue to provide upward momentum to prices in the markets where Chinese most like to buy, the golden trio of major cities New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus residential housing on both coasts.

To many, it summons up memories of an earlier period 25 years ago when it was Japanese money that flooded in, lifting prices spectacularly. For the Japanese, as we know, it all ended rather catastrophically, with huge losses from midtown Manhattan to the Monterrey Peninsula.

There is no other more important new force in US real estate than Chinese investors. Will they make the same mistakes, suffer the same losses and then retreat as the Japanese did? Certainly a lot of US real estate pros think so. There is some evidence to suggest things are moving in a similar direction.

But, there are also this year more signs Chinese are starting to adapt far more quickly to the dynamics of the US market and adjusting their strategies. They also are trying now to dissect why things went so wrong for the Japanese, to learn the lessons rather than repeat them.

This week, one of China’s leading business magazines, Caijing Magazine, published a detailed article on Chinese real estate investing in the US. I wrote it together with China First Capital’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang. It looks at how Chinese are now assessing US real estate investing.  What kinds of investment approaches are they considering or discarding?

Here is an English version I adapted from the Chinese. It is also published this week in a widely-read US commercial real estate news website, Bisnow. The original Chinese version, as published in Caijing, can be read by clicking here.

 

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headSome of the biggest investors in America’s biggest industry are certain history is repeating itself. The Americans believe that Chinese real estate investors will invest as recklessly and lose as much money as quickly in the US as Japanese real estate investors did 25 years ago. The Japanese lost – and Americans made — over ten billion dollars first selling US buildings to the Japanese at inflated prices, then buying them back at large discounts after the Japanese investors failed to earn the profits they expected.

Chinese investors are now pouring into the US to buy real estate just as the Japanese did between 1988-1993. To American eyes, it all looks very familiar. Like the Japanese, the Chinese almost overnight became one of the largest foreign buyers of US real estate. Also like the Japanese, the Chinese are mainly still targeting the same small group of assets — big, well-known office buildings and plots of land in just three cities: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Pushed up by all the Chinese money, the price of Manhattan office buildings is now at a record high, above $1,400 square foot, or the equivalent of Rmb 100,000 per square meter.

The term “China price” has taken on a new meaning in the US. It used to mean that goods could be manufactured in China at least 33% cheaper. Now it means that US real estate can be sold to Chinese buyers for at least 33% more. Convincing US sellers to agree a fair price, rather than a Chinese price, takes up more time than anything else we do when representing Chinese institutional buyers in US real estate transactions.

While there are similarities between Chinese real estate investors today and Japanese investors 25 years ago, we also see some large differences. American investors should not start counting their money before its made. Based on our experience, we see Chinese investors are becoming more disciplined, more aware of the risks, more professional in evaluating US real estate.  There is still room to improve. The key to avoiding potential disaster: Chinese investors must learn the lessons of why the Japanese failed, and how to do things differently.

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Twenty-five years ago, many economists in the US believed the booming Japanese investment in US real estate was proof that Japan’s economy would soon overtake America’s as the world’s largest. Instead, we now know that Japanese buying of US property was one of the final triggers of Japanese economic collapse. The stock market, property prices both fell by over 70%. GDP shrunk, wages fell. Japanese banks, then the world’s largest, basically were brought close to bankruptcy by $700 billion in losses. To try to keep the economy from sinking even further, the Japanese government borrowed and spent at a level no other government ever has. Japan is now the most indebted country in the developed world, with total debt approaching 2.5X its gdp. There are some parallels with China’s macroeconomic condition today — banks filled with bad loans, GDP growth falling, domestic property prices at astronomical levels.

Just how much money are Chinese investors spending to buy US property? Precise data can be difficult to obtain. Many Chinese investors are buying US assets without using official channels in China to exchange Renminbi for dollars. But, the Asia Society in the US just completed the first comprehensive study of total Chinese real estate investment in the US. They estimate between 2010-2015 Chinese investors spent at least $135 billion on US property. Other experts calculate total Chinese purchases of US commercial real estate last year rose fourfold. Chinese last year became the largest buyers of office buildings in Manhattan, the world’s largest commercial real estate market.

This year is likely to see the largest amount ever in Chinese investment in the US. While most Chinese purchases aren’t disclosed, large Chinese state-owned investors, including China Life and China Investment Corporation have announced they made large purchases this year in Manhattan. While the Chinese government has recently tried to restrict flow of money leaving China, a lot of Chinese money is still reaching the US. One reason: many Chinese investors, both institutional and individual, expect the Renminbi to decline further against the dollar. Buying US property is way to profit from the Renminbi’s fall.  Other large foreign buyers of US real estate — European insurance companies, Middle East sovereign wealth funds — cannot keep up with the pace of Chinese spending.

With all this Chinese money targeting the US, many US real estate companies are in fever mode, trying to attract Chinese buyers. The large real estate brokers are hiring Chinese and preparing Chinese-language deal sheets. Some larger deals are now first being shown to Chinese investors. The reason: like the Japanese 25 years ago, Chinese investors have gained a reputation for being willing to pay prices at least 25% higher than other foreign investors and 40% above domestic US investors.

Twenty-five years ago, anyone with a building to sell at a full price flew to Japan in search of a buyer. Today, something similar is occurring. Major US real estate groups are now frequent visitors to China. Their first stop is usually the downtown Beijing headquarters of Anbang Insurance.

Eighteen months ago, just about no one in US knew Anbang’s name. Now they are among US commercial real estate owner’s ideal potential customer. The reason: last year, Anbang Insurance paid $2bn for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The seller was Blackstone, the world’s largest and most successful real estate investor. No one is better at timing when to buy and sell. A frequently-followed investment rule in the US Chinese investors would be wise to keep in mind:  don’t be the buyer when Blackstone is the seller.

Based on the price Anbang paid and Waldorf’s current profits, Anbang’s cap rate is probably under 2.5%. US investors generally require a cap rate of at least double that. Anbang hopes eventually to make money by converting some of the Waldorf Astoria to residential. It agreed to pay $149mn to the hotel’s union workers to get their approval to the conversion plan.

Earlier this year, Blackstone sold a group of sixteen other US hotels to Anbang for $6.5bn. Blackstone had bought the hotels three months earlier for $6bn. “Ka-Ching”.

Anbang’s chairman Wu Xiaogang now calls Blackstone chairman Steve Schwarzman his “good friend”.

 

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Another Chinese insurance company, Sunshine, paid an even higher price per room for its US hotel assets than Anbang. Sunshine paid Barry Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group $2 million per room for the Baccarat Hotel. It is still most ever paid for a hotel. In order to make a return above 4% a year, the hotel will need to charge the highest price per room, on average, of just about any hotel in the US.

Another famous New York hotel, the Plaza, is also now for sale. The Plaza’s Indian owners, who bought the hotel four years ago, are now facing bankruptcy. They are aggressively seeking a Chinese buyer. We’ve seen the confidential financials. Our view: only a madman should consider buying at the $700mn price the Indians are asking for.

The common view in the US now — the Chinese are, like the Japanese before, buying at the top of the cycle. Prices have reached a point where some deals no longer make fundamental economic sense. At current prices, many buildings being marketed to Chinese have negative leverage. It was similar in the late 1980s. Japanese paid so much to buy there was never any real possibility to make money except if prices continue to rise strongly. Few US investors expect them to. That’s why so many are convinced it’s a good time to sell to Chinese buyers.

No deal better symbolized the mistakes Japanese real estate investors made than the purchase in 1989 of New York’s Rockefeller Center, a group of 12 commercial buildings in the center of Manhattan. Since the time it was built by John Rockefeller in 1930, it’s been among the most famous high-end real estate projects in the world. In 1989, Mitsubishi Estate, the real estate arms of Mitsubishi Group, bought the majority of Rockefeller Center from the Rockefeller family for $1.4 billion. At the time, the Rockefeller family needed cash and they went looking for it in Japan. Mitsubishi made a preemptive bid. They bought quickly, then invested another $500mn to upgrade the building. The Japanese analysis at the time: prime Manhattan real estate on Fifth Avenue was a scarce asset that would only ever increase in value.

Mitsubishi had no real experience managing large commercial real estate projects in Manhattan. They forecasted large increases in rent income that never occurred. The idea to bring in a lot of Japanese tenants also failed. Rockefeller Center began losing money, a little at first. By 1995, with over $600 million in overdue payments to its lenders, Rockefeller Center filed for bankruptcy. Mitsubishi lost almost all its investment, and also ended up paying a big tax penalty to the US government.

A group of smart US investors took over. Today Rockefeller Center, if it were for sale, would be worth at least $8 billion.

It was a similar story with most Japanese real estate investments in the US. They paid too much, borrowed too much, made unrealistically optimistic financial projections, acted as passive landlords and focused on too narrow a group of targets in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

According to Asia Society figures, over 70% of Chinese commercial real estate purchases have been in those same three cities. If you add in Silicon Valley and Orange County, the areas next to Los Angeles and San Francisco, then over 85% of Chinese investment in US real estate is going into these areas of the US. Prices in all these locations are now at highest level of all time. They are also the places where it’s hardest to get permission to build something new or change the use of the building you own.

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It’s easy enough to understand why almost all Chinese money is invested in these three places. They have the largest number of Chinese immigrants, the most flights to China, the deepest business ties to PRC companies. They are also great places for Chinese to visit or live.

But, all this doesn’t prove these are best places to invest profitably, especially for less-experienced Chinese investors. In fact, the Japanese relied on a similar local logic to justify their failed investment strategy. These are also the places with the largest number of Japanese-Americans. A quick look through financial history confirms that no two places in the world have made more money from foolish foreign investors than New York and California.

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Many of the largest US real estate groups are selling properties in New York and California to reinvest in other parts of the country where the financial returns and overall economy are better. Most of the gdp and job growth in the US comes from states in the South, especially Texas, Arizona and Florida.

Chinese investors should consider following the US smart money and shift some of their focus to these faster-growing markets. Another good strategy — partner with an experienced US real estate investor. The Japanese never did this and paid a very high price trying to learn how to buy, rent and manage profitably real estate in the US. In their most recent deals in Manhattan, both Fosun and China Life have chosen well-known US partners.

Another important difference: Japanese real estate investment in the US was almost entirely done by that country’s banks, insurance companies and developers.  With Chinese, the biggest amount of money is from individuals buying residential property. According to the Asia Society report, last year, Chinese spent $28.6bn buying homes in the US. That’s more than double the amount Chinese institutional investors spent buying commercial property. Residential prices, in most parts of the US, have still not returned to their levels before the financial crash of 2008.

Another big pool of Chinese money, almost $10bn last year, went into buying US real estate through the US government-administered EB-5 program. In the last two years, 90% of the EB-5 green cards went to Chinese citizens.

The original intention of the EB-5 program was to increase investment and jobs in small companies in America’s poorest urban and rural districts. Instead, some major US real estate developers, working with their lawyers, created loopholes that let them use the EB-5 program as a cheap way to raise capital to finance big money-making projects in rich major cities, mainly New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  Congress is now deciding if it should reform or kill the EB-5 program.

Chinese are by far the largest source of EB5- cash. Even so, Chinese should probably be happy to see the EB-5 program either changed or eliminated. There’s also been a lot of criticism about the unethical way some EB5 agents operate within China. They are paid big fees by US developers to find Chinese investors and persuade them to become EB-5 investors. Many of these agents never properly inform Chinese investors that once they get a Green Card, they have to pay full US taxes, even if they continue to live in China. The concept of worldwide taxation is an alien one for most Chinese.

Taxes play a huge role in deciding who will and will not make money investing in US real estate. All foreign investors, including Chinese, start at a disadvantage. They aren’t treated equally. They need to pay complicated withholding tax called FIRPTA whenever they sell property, either commercial or residential. To make sure the tax is paid, the US rules require the buyer to pay only 85% of the agreed price to a foreign seller, and pay the rest directly to the IRS.  The foreign seller only gets this 15% if they can convince the IRS they’ve paid all taxes owed.

Many larger real estate investors in the US use a REIT structure to buy and manage property. It can reduce taxes substantially. Up to now, few Chinese investors have set up their own REITs in the US. They should.

Another key difference between Japanese and Chinese investors: it is very unlikely that Chinese will ever, as the Japanese did between 1995-2000, sell off most of what they own in the US. The Chinese investors we work with have a long-term view of real estate investing in the US. They say they are prepared stay calm and steadfast, even if prices either flatten out or start to fall.

This long-term view actually gives Chinese investors a competitive advantage in the US. If the US real estate industry has a weakness, it is that too few owners like to buy and hold an asset for 10 years or longer.  Many, like Blackstone and GGP, are listed companies and so need to keep up a quick pace of buying and selling to keep investors happy. As a result, there are some long-term opportunities available to smart Chinese investors that could provide steady returns even if there is no big increase in overall real estate prices.

Two examples: The US, like China, is becoming a country with a large percentage of people 65 years and older. As the country ages, American biotech and pharmaceutical companies, the world’s largest, are spending more each year to develop drugs to treat chronic diseases old people suffer from, like dementia and Parkinson’s. There’s a growing shortage of new, state-of-the-art biotech research facilities. The buildings need special construction and ventilation that require significantly higher upfront cost than building an ordinary office building. They also need to be located in nice areas, with large comfortable offices for 800 – 1,500 management and researchers. The total cost to build a biotech center is usually between $200mn-$400mn. But, rents are higher, leases are longer and there are usually tax subsidies available.

 

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The other good way to make long-term money investing in US real estate is to take advantage of the fact American companies, unlike Chinese ones, do not like owning much real estate. It tends to hurt their stock market valuation. So, bigger US companies often build long-term partnerships with reliable real estate developers to act as landlord.   Starbucks is still growing quickly and is always interested to find more real estate partners to build and own dozens of outlets for them. Starbucks provides the design and often chooses the locations. It is happy to sign a 15-20-year lease that gives landlords a rate of return or 7%-8.% a year,  higher if the developer borrows money to buy and build the new Starbucks shops. The only risk if at some point in the next 10-20 years the 2%-3% of the US population that buy a coffee at Starbucks every day stop coming.

The Japanese never developed a similar long-term strategy to make money investing in US real estate. Instead, they just spent and borrowed money to buy famous buildings they thought would only go up in value. They not only lost money, they lost face. After staying away for 20 years, Japanese investors, mainly insurance companies, have just begun investing again in New York City.

Japanese investors arrived 30 years ago confident they would be as successful buying real estate in the US as they were selling cars and tvs there. They learned a bitter lesson and left with their confidence shattered. Chinese can, should and must do better

 

(Charts courtesy Asia Society and National Association of Realtors)

 

As published by Bisnow

财经杂志 《美国房地产投资负面清单》

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The silver lining in high-priced urban land — China Daily commentary

June 22nd, 2016 No comments

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For those of us living in prosperous first- and second-tier cities in China, the land beneath our feet is exploding in value. Every week seems to set a new price record, as real estate developers buy up land to build on in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing and elsewhere.

This has two ill effects. First, it adds more upward pressure on already high housing prices. Second, since the land buyers have mainly been large State-owned enterprises, they will need to sell the apartments they plan to build at one of highest prices per square meter in the world to make profits. It’s another matter that the SOEs are meant to help solve, rather than exacerbate, the serious lack of affordable housing for China’s ordinary urban population.

But there is one hidden and perhaps surprising benefit. The high and rising land prices are confirmation that land sales are becoming more transparent, less prone to potential favoritism and insider dealing. That is ultimately good for just about everyone in China. In the recent record-high land sales, the seller is the local government. In some cases, the price paid was more than double of what the government itself estimated the land would fetch. So it is up to the government now to spend the windfall wisely, in ways that will improve living standards for everyone in the city.

Too often in the past, urban land for residential development was sold for less than its true market price. The unfortunate result was that a comparatively few lucky real estate developers were able to buy land at artificially low prices and then make unconscionably high profits. Not for nothing was it said over the past 20 years that the easiest way in the world to make big money was to become a realty developer in one of China’s major cities.

When a local government sells land at artificially low prices to developers, it can amount to a transfer of wealth from China’s ordinary folks, the laobaixing, to those favored real estate companies. That’s because the developers take the cheap land and then build and sell expensive apartments on it. And the government itself gets less revenue than it should have. This means less money to spend on services that benefit everyone: urban transport, affordable housing, schools, parks, hospitals and the like.

Few Chinese developers have mastered the art and business of building and marketing high-quality apartments on time and within a set budget. Apartment prices have almost always risen during the three years it takes to go from an undeveloped plot to a finished building. If a developer got a good deal on land, he/she was able to sell the new apartments during construction, use the cash to pay off the bank loans and lock in a very high profit.

Going forward all this will become far more challenging. When a developer goes bankrupt, the real victims are usually the ordinary folks who have bought apartments during the construction phase. Time and again, it has proven difficult, nerve-wracking and time-consuming for these buyers to get their money back or make sure the apartments they bought are completed.

As the risk of bankruptcies rise with land prices, I’d like to see rules requiring residential developers to buy insurance to automatically reimburse buyers in case they go bust. The insurance will also put additional and useful pressure on developers to complete work on time and maintain an acceptable quality. If the developer isn’t making progress, or there are other signs of trouble, the insurance company would either withdraw coverage and reimburse buyers or require a new and more reliable developer to take over. Either way, the goal must be to protect, in a transparent and predictable way, the investment of ordinary homebuyers.

Up to now, too much pressure and risk has landed on the shoulders of buyers rather than builders, with cities also short-changing themselves. A fairer and better balance may now be emerging.

The author is chairman and CEO, China First Capital.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-06/22/content_25798648.htm

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Five China financial news articles in the South China Morning Post

June 13th, 2016 No comments

SCMP logo good

 

Please click on headline to read article. Each includes quoted comments based on interviews with CFC.

 

Xinan

 

 

CSRC

 

 

Mergers

 

PE

 

Shunfenf

 

Qianhai investors fret over soaring property prices — China Daily

May 4th, 2016 No comments

 China Daily logo

Qianhai investors fret over soaring property prices

By Zhou Mo

Qianhai

Shenzhen – Hong Kong and foreign enterprises operating in the Qianhai special economic zone have expressed concern over Shenzhen’s high property prices and entrepreneurs’ ability to integrate with the mainland market.

But, they acknowledge that Qianhai’s preferential policies and open environment have made the zone an ideal place for businesses from Hong Kong and abroad to tap into the mainland market.

“From the aspect of government administration and environment, Shenzhen, I believe, is the best place to set up business in the country, and Qianhai is the best area in Shenzhen,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive officer of China First Capital, an investment bank.

“However, from the aspect of cost, it’s not the best. Soaring property prices in the city have increased costs for businesses, and there needs to be a solution,” the US entrepreneur said.

Wednesday marked the first anniversary of Shenzhen’s Qianhai and Shekou zones coming into operation as part of the China (Guangdong) Pilot Free Trade Zone, which also includes Zhuhai’s Hengqin and Guangzhou’s Nansha districts.

As of April 15, more than 91,000 enterprises had been registered in the zone, with registered capital amounting to 4 trillion yuan ($616 billion). Among them, over 3,100 were Hong Kong-funded enterprises, which contributed nearly one-third of the zone’s tax revenue.

“Qianhai will continue to focus on cross-border cooperation between Shenzhen and Hong Kong, and strive to create a platform to support Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” Tian Fu, director of the administrative committee of Qianhai and Shekou, said at a ceremony marking the first anniversary on Wednesday.

Innovation and entrepreneurship are among the key areas of cross-border cooperation. To attract Hong Kong entrepreneurs to set up business across the border, the Qianhai Shenzhen-Hong Kong Youth Innovation and Entrepreneur Hub (E Hub) was launched, providing tax incentives, funding opportunities and free accommodation to Hong Kong entrepreneurs. As a result, more and more startups from the SAR are setting up offices in the E Hub.

“The opportunity cost in Hong Kong for entrepreneurs is relatively high, with high rents and labor costs, and the Hong Kong market is small,” said Amy Fung Dun-mi, deputy executive director of the Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups. “Therefore, it’s wise for them to tap into the mainland market.”

Many of the companies have been doing well, Fung said, while noting that some have not made much progress so far.

Fung said when Hong Kong entrepreneurs start operating on the mainland, it’s necessary that mentors are provided to help them, as environment, laws and policies between Shenzhen and Hong Kong are different.

She also urged the authorities to provide more support to help Hong Kong startups find investors.

http://www.chinadailyasia.com/business/2016-04/28/content_15424101.html

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More investment options would check home prices — China Daily commentary

March 17th, 2016 No comments

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More investment options would check home prices

By Peter Fuhrman (China Daily) Updated: 2016-03-17 07:57

More investment options would check home prices

Homebuyers at the sales center of a property project in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, on Feb 29. Cities like Nanjing and Shanghai have announced preferential housing tax policies, which have ignited local enthusiasm for home-buying. [Photo provided to China Daily]

China’s banks, financial regulators, government officials and homeowners can all perhaps breathe easier. Despite surface appearances, China’s over-heated property market will not collapse as the US housing sector did in 2008, taking much of the world economy down with it. Yes, there are danger signals in China’s enormous real estate industry. China’s problems are real and need addressing, but the differences with the United States are large and decisive.

Start with the fact the US housing crash was brought on by lax lending practices, a politically rigged regulatory system and a debt-fueled “buy-and-flip” short-term investment strategy. Another fundamental difference: in the US buying a house with borrowed money is subsidized by the tax code. Not so in China. China also, thankfully, has nothing like the subprime “Ninja Loans”-meaning loans to those with no income, no job, no assets-that were widely available in the US before the crash.

The biggest risk in China is not a US-style tidal wave of failed mortgages that leave families homeless and banks insolvent. Instead, the risk comes from an unbalanced flow of capital into property investment. Too much of China’s total savings are now going into this one form of investment. While buying apartments has long been popular, other types of investments-especially in the stock market and in unregulated fixed-income securities-have suffered a big decline in popularity in recent months, with good reason.

The weight of all that additional money flooding into property investment inevitably pushes housing prices up, especially for apartments in major cities. Putting more land on the market for development and building more low-cost housing are both good moves.

But the best way to cool China’s housing market both now and for years to come is to have more good and safe alternatives for people to invest in. This will take some time as well as a strengthened regulatory and legal environment. But changes are urgently needed.

Meantime, the government should continue its policy to gradually expand the amount of money Chinese can legally invest in shares and mutual funds outside China.

Chinese savers and investors, like those in other countries, look for the highest return at the lowest possible increment of risk. In the last nine months, this risk-return calculus has undergone some profound changes. That’s not only because of the steep slide in the stock market since July last year, which caused many Chinese investors to pull their money out.

Other hot areas have tumbled just as sharply, as slowing growth exposed the risks of these alternatives. Wealth management products are basically a form of collateralized lending direct from savers to larger Chinese companies and municipalities. Investors have grown more worried about defaults and other signs of mounting trouble among borrowers. The interest rates on offer don’t seem adequate to compensate for the risk.

Even more worrying is what’s happened of late in so-called peer-to-peer (P2P) lending. This was until recently the hottest new way for individuals to earn big money with their savings.

The amount of money invested in P2P lending last year nearly quadrupled from 2014 to 982 billion yuan ($149 billion). But P2P investors’ worst fears came true when one of the bigger P2P loan packagers, Ezubao, suddenly went bust in January. Ezubao had offered mostly fake investment products to nearly one million Chinese investors, with promises of annual returns of up to 15 percent. Ezubao allegedly took more than 50 billion yuan from investors. Sadly, the cardinal rule of investing, “if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is” is not as widely observed in China as it should be.

Little wonder then that investing in property should now seem to many Chinese like the safest and sanest investment, apart from putting money in a State-owned bank. While the investment logic is sound, the unfortunate result is that buying a place to live in is getting too expensive for too many people in China, especially in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen.

More than most other places, China’s housing market is dominated more by investors looking for profits than people looking to put a roof over their head. The balance needs to be restored. For that to happen, these investors need to find other places to invest that offer the potential for equally attractive risk-adjusted returns.

The author is chairman and CEO of China First Capital.

 

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-03/17/content_23903326_2.htm

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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

December 27th, 2015 No comments

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.

 

 

 

 

Shale Gas, China’s Very Buried Treasure — Nikkei Asian Review

November 19th, 2015 1 comment

Nikkei2

 

Water, water not a drop to drink. While that may not precisely sum up China’s dilemma, it is clear that the country with the world’s largest shale gas reserves, and urgent need to extract it,  will have problems achieving its ambitious long-term goals. The newly-finalized Five Year Plan calls for an enormous increases in natural gas output in China. The carbon emission reduction agreement signed by President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping also requires China to diversify away from coal. Shale gas is the obvious replacement.

As of now, virtually all that gas remains trapped in the ground. The two companies given the plum rights to develop the gas, China’s oil giants Sinopec and PetroChina, may not have the technical competence to fully develop the resource. The companies that have the skills, mainly a group of small entrepreneurial US drillers, has so far shown zero inclination to either come to China or come to the aid of the two SOE giants by providing equipment and know-how.

To attract them to China will likely require a significant shift in the way China’s energy resources are owned and allocated. It will mean creating terms in China every bit as favorable, if not more so, than skilled shale gas drilling companies enjoy in the US and elsewhere.

 

shaleMap

This is why for China’s senior leaders and economic planners, this map is as much a curse as blessing. Knowing that vast quantities of much-needed clean energy is in the ground but not having the domestic infrastructure and technology to get it to market efficiently is about as tough and frustrating as any economic problem China now confronts.

The Chinese policy goal and the on-and-in-the-ground situation in China are on opposite sides of the spectrum. China has said it must quickly increase the share of natural gas as part of total energy consumption to around 8% by the end of 2015 and 10% by 2020 to alleviate high pollution resulting from the country’s heavy coal use.  The original target announced with great fanfare was for shale gas production to increase almost 200-fold between 2012 and the end of the decade. But, this goal was quietly slashed by 30% last year. More slashes may be on the way.

What’s most needed and in shortest supply in China: more commercial competition, more players, more market signals.

Based on the US experience, drilling for shale gas isn’t the kind of thing that big oil companies are good at. Unfortunately for China, all it has are giants. Rather inefficient ones at that. Sinopec, PetroChina are, based on metrics like output-per-employee, perhaps only one-tenth as efficient as the majors like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon and BP. Note, these big Western companies all pretty much missed the boat with shale gas. In other words, the bigger the oil company the worse it’s been so far at exploiting shale gas. Yes, it’s these big global giants who now seem the most interested to work with Sinopec and PetroChina to develop shale gas China. In fact, Shell is already partnered up with Sinopec. How’s this likely to work out? Think of a pack of elephants ice fishing.

China’s dilemma comes down to this: it’s probably the most entrepreneurially-endowed country on the planet, but entrepreneurs are basically not allowed in the oil and gas extraction businesses. It’s a legacy of old-style Leninism, that the state must hold control over the pillars of the economy. It works okay when the problem is pumping petroleum or natural gas from giant onshore or offshore fields. But, shale gas is another world, with many and smaller wells. A typical one in the Barnett Shale gas region of Texas costs $2mn – $5mn, barely a rounding error for large oil and gas companies. These smaller wells, depending on prevailing price and drilling direction, can achieve a return within one year or less.

Profits are usually much higher for shale wells with horizontal drilling capability. But, it’s also much trickier to do. Production drops off dramatically in most shale gas wells, falling by about 90% during the first two years. So, you need to know how to make money efficiently, quickly, then move on to another opportunity.

The one place where Sinopec is now producing a decent amount of shale gas, at field in Sichuan province, the cost of getting the gas out of the ground is running at least twice the US level. Partly its geography and partly it’s the fact giant state-owned companies operating in a competition-free environment usually need three dollars to do what an entrepreneurial company can do for one.

Ancient Chinese oil well

China was the first country to drill successfully for oil, over 1500 years ago.   It could use more of that native ingenuity to unlock the country’s buried wealth. The shale gas industry is largely the product of one brilliant and stubborn Greek-American entrepreneur, George Mitchell, who began experimenting with horizontal drilling in Texas about 30 years ago. He had his big breakthrough in 1998. Everyone knew the gas was down there, as they do now in China. The trick Mitchell solved was getting it out of the ground at a low-cost. The company he started Mitchell Energy & Development, now part of Devon Energy, remains at the forefront of shale gas exploration and production.

China needs Mitchell Energy as well its own George Mitchells, who can use their pluck and tolerance for risk to make the gas pay. Not only shale gas, but China is also blessed with equally abundant deposits of coalbed methane. Pretty much all this methane is in the hands of big state-owned coal companies. Talk about a wasting asset. The coal miners have zero expertise, and for now it seems zero incentive to go after this fuel in a big way. Just about everything about the oil and gas business in China is state-owned and price-controlled.

The applause was nearly deafening, especially in the US and Europe, when the leaders of the US and China announced the big agreement to reduce carbon emissions. No one can argue with the sentiments, with the policy goal of creating a cleaner world. But, absent from the discussion are specifics on how China will meet its promises. It’s only going to happen if and when natural gas becomes a major part of the energy mix.

China has of course built pipelines to bring gas from Russia and more are on the way. But, even this huge flow of Russian gas, an expected 98 billion cubic meters per year by 2020,  will provide at most 17% of China’s projected gas needs by that year. Clearly then, the most meaningful thing that could happen is for the shale fields in China to be thrown open to all-comers, but especially the mainly-US companies that are experts at doing this. That isn’t happening.

I’ve been in the room with Chinese government officials when the topic was discussed about how to make it enticing for US specialist shale companies to drill in China. There’s a growing understanding this is the right way to go, but still the policy environment remains inhospitable. While China has the most shale gas, there is a lot of it in countries including stalwart US allies like Poland and Australia where the US companies are far more welcome and don’t have to deal with a market rigged in favor of state-owned goliaths. Everyone who wants to see a cleaner China and so a cleaner world should wish above all else that China’s shale and methane fields become a stomping ground rather than a no-go area for great entrepreneurs.

An edited version was published in the Nikkei Asia Review. 

Click here to download article. 

 

 

 

 

Free Trade Zones, The Next Phase of Economic Reform — China National News TV Interview

August 2nd, 2015 1 comment

CCTV logo

CCTV

It is the world’s most watched nightly news report, China’s CCTV 7pm evening news program, “Xinwen Lianbo” (新闻联播). Simultaneously broadcast on most terrestrial tv stations in China, it has a nightly audience estimated at over 100 million.

This past week, the level of broadcast Chinese on this news program took a brief, steep dive. The reason: a short clip of me speaking Chinese led off a news report about recent economic reforms in Guangdong Province and the introduction of pilot free trade zones in Guangdong‘s three largest cities, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Zhuhai.

You can watch the video by clicking here. (You may need to sit through a pre-roll advertisement.) My contribution is mentioning how comparatively easy it is to register a business in Shenzhen Qianhai,  the most ambitious of Guangdong’s free trade zones.

I was out of the country in Europe when the broadcast was aired, so didn’t get to watch it live. But, I knew instantly something was going on. As I sat in a lunch meeting in Switzerland at 1:15pm (7:15pm China time), calls and messages started flooding in from friends and acquaintances watching the report in China.

 

Trials and tribulations: China’s shifting business landscape highlighted in new report — Financier Worldwide

July 23rd, 2015 No comments

Financier

Trials and tribulations: China’s shifting business landscape highlighted in new report

BY Fraser Tennant

The deeper trends reshaping the business and investment environment in China today are the focus of a new report – ‘China 2015: China’s shifting landscape’ – by the boutique investment bank and advisory firm, China First Capital.

As well as highlighting slowing growth and a gyrating stock market as the two most obvious sources of turbulence in China at the midway point of 2015, the report also delves into the deeper trends radically reshaping the country’s overall business environment.

Chief among these trends is the steady erosion in margins and competitiveness among many, if not most, companies operating in China’s industrial and service economy. As the report makes abundantly clear, there are few sectors and few companies enjoying growth and profit expansion to match that seen in previous years.

The China First Capital report, quite simply, paints a none too rosy picture of China’s long-term development prospects.

“China’s consumer market, while healthy overall, is also becoming a more difficult place for businesses to earn decent returns,” explains Peter Fuhrman, China First Capital’s chairman and chief executive. “Relentless competition is one part, as are problematic rising costs and inefficient poorly-evolved management systems.”

To read complete article, click here.

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

July 20th, 2015 No comments

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.