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Crisis seen from the Sinosphere (II)

Wednesday, May 13th, 2009

From the post left unfinished last week. Some of the main arguments read (or heard) in China Crisis discussions:

The Time

Economies don’t grow indefinitely.  Low cycles follow high cycles and after 30 years it is about time. China cannot break the laws of economics, so the recession must necessarily come in the next X years. The country hasn’t prepared itself politically and psicologically to face this period. In the end, we are sure to have trouble.

Of course, this argument is of little value without the X, and many proponents of a time limit have failed in the past. This is the field of technical analysts and other mystical thinkers. Mythology also plays a role:  In Chinese history, cataclysms mark the end of a cycle. An earthquake preceded this crisis, and a solar eclipse is coming in July, the dynasty has lost its virtue. These arguments tend to work better with a bit of hindsight.

The Markets

The World’s economies are interdependent today. China’s economy is largely dependent on exports and FDI. The weight of these external factors in China’s growth has been much discussed, but regardless of the exact numbers, few doubt that it is a significant motor of the economy. External motors failing, China turns to internal ones: investment and consumption. Today, strong public investment, mostly in infrastructure and energy, is making up for the loss. Click to continue »

Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics

Monday, March 2nd, 2009

cp7zmp6g

Today I am starting my review section with one of the books on Chinese economy that has impressed me most in the last year, “Capitalism with Chinese characteristics”, by MIT professor Huang Yasheng. It is a book that clearly stands out from the recent China books, and it might be destined to become one of the big references in the field.

There is no shortage of good China books in the last years. Many are written from a business perspective, by people with first hand experience who will tell you exactly how things are done here. Others look at the available economic data and build interesting theories to explain them. Few go deeper than this, to look into the heart of the matter: the politics behind the Chinese economy.

The problem is:  it is so difficult to obtain reliable information on Chinese policy that most efforts in this field turn into circular arguments over the same limited data. Professor Huang breaks the circle by going back to the sources and questioning directly all the mainstream assumptions, leaving many of them upside down. The situation in China requires this approach, as he says in the preface:

In studies of American economy, scholars may debate about the effects of, say, “Reagan tax cuts”. In studies of the Chinese economy, the more relevant question would be, “Did the government cut taxes in the first place?

By going back to the archives of what, in his own words is “some of the world’s most medieval record keeping”, Huang Yasheng is able to come up with a whole new picture of Chinese economic policy in the last three decades. This book is the result of painstaking archival research into rarely examined files, such as a “22 volumes compilation of internal bank documents” or the archives of the Ministry of Agriculture.

A qualitative leap from the classic tea leave reading, and one that deserves some careful consideration, even if the conclusions drawn will not be to the taste of every reader. Click to continue »

My Handshakes, I like them Double

Thursday, February 19th, 2009

Finally, we have a new blogger in the community who has moved all the way to South America to bridge-blog about the Chinese expansion there and other interesting stuff.

Tom Pellman is Double Handshake. He was an editor in a well known economics magazine in Shanghai, he is almost trilingual in Chinese and he is now in Peru to see that Latin America’s largest population of Chinese are enjoying their Pisco.

Have you noticed that, in China, most of the people you hear speaking Spanish are not European, but overwhelmingly Latin American? Did you ever wonder why so many Chinese are flocking to the Salsa Dancing schools, and why in Shanghai there is a latin night scene more active than the one in Barcelona, for example?

Well, in some places, language is not the only means of communication. And if you want to smell the Juan Valdes, you better keep and eye on these two continents, because things are moving fast under our very noses.

Double Handshakes.


Chinese FDI in Barcelona. This is the end.

Saturday, February 14th, 2009

I have a bunch of friends back in Spain who are always quick to send me the juiciest China news coming up over there, and to supervise that I’m fulfilling my duties as a bridge blogger.

This time I have received a couple of links from Spanish newspapers El Pais and El Mundo where there is evidence of at least two different Chinese industries that continue their cheerful expansion to the West in spite of the World Crisis: These are the industries of Shady Barber Shops and Mahjong Gambling Dens. Fourteen of them have been closed down in a recent police raid in Barcelona.

These are the two articles, one very recent, one from last year:

In recent months local residents of the districts of Eixample, Sants-Montjuïc, Gràcia, Horta-Guinardó and Sant Martí, had brought to the police their suspicions that many hairdressers opened recently by Chinese citizens were something more than to cut and dye hair.

Yes, how perspicacious. I never knew of these things  during the three years I lived in Barcelona. For linguistic reasons I had quite a few friends in the Chinese migrant community over there and I frequented the Chinese areas of the city. As far as I know these FDIs must be very recent.

Anyway, so much for the Chinese hairdressers’ expansion. Although gambling and prostitution are not among the Rights that this blogs stands for,  I can’t help feeling a bit sorry for those Chinese that see their  business seized by the police. Something must have gone wrong with their otherwise perfectly profitable business model. Perhaps they didn’t remember to “glocalize instead of globalize”. Perhaps the local police superintendent is not keen on Asian chicks, or maybe they chose the wrong hand to oil. Who knows.

The New Iceland?

Since we are at it, and on a completely different subject, check out below this scary chart of Spanish unemployment that newspaper El Correo published this week. Two little thoughts:

First, I am seriously afraid that Spain is going to turn into the next Iceland. The growth of these last years was so based on the real estate bubble that troubles could be smelled all the way from China. Am I going to turn into a poor immigrant in Shanghai working my ass off to send money back to homecountry? It would be an interesting role reversal, after all the Chinese I met doing exactly that in Barcelona. Oh well, it was  inevitable at some point, I guess, I just never imagined it could come so soon.

Second, as an engineer I note again how numbers and charts are powerful tools of manipulation. The chart below  goes so high on the Y axis that it almost needs logarithmic scales to fit in the paper. A mere problem of the units chosen, of course… or of the number of copies the newspaper wishes to sell.

Inversely, it would be very easy to make this graph look flatter with a more harmonious  objective in mind… CCTV, take note, you might consider hiring a specialist like me to re-engineer your charts and numbers for harmonious results. But then, what do they care, they simply would not publish the negative charts.

(yes, it is CCTVbashing week this week)

paro11

3 Reasons why we might be sitting on a 鞭炮

Friday, February 6th, 2009

More bad news about the Crisis. Yesterday All Roads had another of those worrying posts: 3 Announcements and 2 Rumours, and not one of them good.

Still, on our return from the double New Year’s season, many of us are suprised to see the sky is not falling on our heads, and the dire predictions we did before the holidays have not quite turned true. Indeed, the Crisis in China seems to have a very annoying quality for bloggers: it is not happening. Yes, we’ve had bad news coming every week for the last months, we’ve seen experts we respect telling us how bad the unemployment is, how many factories are closing. And all of them are right, if we look at the numbers. Yet, on the street, no Crisis to be seen.

What is going on here? Who is taking our Crisis away, depriving the dismal scientists of their fair share of joy and fulfilment? And more importantly: is it not time to deem the whole affair a bluff, and go join the ranks of the optimistic, together with the guys at the World Bank and the CPC?

Where are all the Crises Gone, long time passing?

You might remember that post I wrote where I started out wondering about the different perceptions of the Crisis in China and in the West. 3 months have passed and this contrast is, if anything, sharper than before, as I have seen during my New Year’s travels. Right now Europe is bleeding, there is no question about this. China, on the other hand, looks to the casual observer like a normal, almost healthy economy. One cannot sense the Crisis.

In Shanghai, Zhejiang, Fujian, three of the engines of China’s economy, I have seen nothing going on but normal everyday life. The shops are full of people, “we hire” signs are on the windows, and taxi drivers remain for the most part optimistic - at least those who didn’t buy shares. One of them even told me: “Riots only happen in Guangdong, in Shanghai we are civilized”

Back to the office, in my work with industrial investors in China I see the same picture: while some Western clients have cancelled or postponed their 2009 FDI projects, not a single project has been stopped by our Chinese clients, which are all large SOEs.

The time’s for the Ox and don’t give me no Bull

Here are 3 reasons that might explain this strange gap between theory and observation: delay, transparency and inertia.

  • Delayed effect: The crisis comes to China in a very different way than to the West. In our case it was a bursting financial bubble,  hitting us all with the speed of sound. In China, it is different. They didn’t have the “complex financial instruments”,  their financial system was relatively isolated. In China the Crisis is caused by exports and FDI, which is a far less explosive mix. Look at FDIs, for example: a typical project cycle to build a factory is 3 years, and there’s a point of no return somewhere in year 2, when the construction is mobilised and the equipment paid for. This introduces a long delay while the ongoing projects finish and until the absence of new projects cause panic in subcontractors. Same effect with the production of factories which had a large backlog in 08.
  • Inertia: China is a massive system that has been moving at high speeds for 30 years. This doesn’t stop in one day. It is not only the phisical momentum of the thousands of ongoing projects, it is also psycological inertia. in the minds of many Chinese the system is strong, and there is no reason to believe in a Crisis that has never happened in their working lifetime. Behaviours do not reflect fear, and many go about their New Year’s shopping like any other year. Worse still, some seem happy to believe that it is America’s fault and this is an American Crisis; and mind you, not all agree that smart China need lend the old brother a hand.
  • Transparency: This is the most important reason of the three, and the one that scares me most. For all the good things that one can say of CPC’s economic policy (yes, they did draw 300million out of poverty) there is one serious fault that nobody fails to notice: Lack of Transparency. With the largest part of the economy dominated by SOEs or following direct orders from the party, it is not unreasonable to think that there might be a bigger soup on the fire than we are led to believe.

I don’t want to cause alarm or instigate hoarding behaviours like that of our old professor, but this is not looking good. If there’s one single best way of making a Crisis more deadly, that is withholding information and letting it burst only when it is too late.

The two pillars of China’s growth in the 2000s were SOEs and FDIs. The FDI leg is seriously failing now, and the effects will be felt progressively. Even with all the financial might of the Chinese State, it is hard to imagine the SOEs taking the place left by the FDIs, let alone going out to take over the World. I cannot see the Chinese companies leading the effort, I can’t see their necessary creativity and initiative to open new markets to replace the lost export ones. All I can see is a bunch of Giant SOE’s which are better at leveraging their massive size and influence than at impressing us with their products.

There is something quite anomalous in this perceived calm of today, and this blogger thinks that he can smell a Rat. But the time is not for Rats anymore, it is for Ox.

Which is one 2 bits short of a Bull.

Trillions to the Moon

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

I was thinking last night of the stimulus package and of how, since the beginning of the crisis, economy has invaded every conversation, and we all go about speaking of Billions and Trillions like nobody’s business.

And I have decided to write this little post to explain to my readers what is a Billion and what is a Trillion. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am not taking you for an idiot, we all know that a T is a thousand B and a B is a thousand M (this is the generally accepted convention in English today, and the one I will use).

But when we hear that the Chinese are going to spend 4 trillion RMB to stimulate their economy, or in general when we discuss such large quantities of money, do we really understand what they mean? Do we have even a notion of what they can do?

I am going to give you first a quite surprising calculation from an Engineer. Based on the empiric observation that a 万 (100notes of 100RMB) stacks up to about 15mm, and supposing that 1RMB notes are about as thick as 100RMBs, I have come to the following results for the 4T RMB stimulus:

  • In 100RMB notes it would stack up as high as the Earth’s Radius.
  • In 1RMB notes it would stack up to the Moon and back.

Considering that a large part of the population spends not much more than 1RMB for a lunch in China, now perhaps you can visualize a bit better the significance of the money we are talking about.

Hospitals and Factories

For those serious business readers who are not impressed by the magic of numbers. As a blogger whose -attention, disclosure!- day job is advisor to direct investments in China,  I can use some figures to reposition our currency. I will not support these estimates here, but if you want you can easily find examples in many corporate websites on the announcements section.

These are my figures:

- One average city hospital, about 400 beds:              250 MRMB
- One average size factory,  2000 workers:                 400 MRMB

This is a fairly average state-of-the-art plant in capital intensive industries, not the toy sweatshops in the Pearl Delta River, nor the monsters like Foxconn Shenzen.

So now we can convert our currency to Hospitals and Factories and look back at some of the quantities that we have been speaking about these last days in the light of this conversion:

  • The Stimulus plan is worth 16,000 Hospitals or 10,000 Factories.
  • The Shanghai tower is worth 60 Hospitals or 40 Factories.

And speaking of the Shanghai Tower, I have some friends in Shanghai working for Gensler and I wish them the best for this beautiful building. But one can only hope that by 2014 the situation will have changed, because right now it looks like empty offices are flying in the sky.

Note:   Europeans: divide all numbers by 10 for Euro.  Americans: divide all by 7 for Dollar.

Outgoing FDI: Chinese to bid for Iceland

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

The Chinese internet community is enthusiastically building up resources to buy crisis stricken Iceland at a bargain. The webste Douban has taken seriously the ebay auction for the Island, and offers the first 10,000 chinese to join the investment group privileged access to houses on the seaside and to government positions. As a +, the possibility to run the island as a communist regime.

你还在中国买房子?我们在冰岛等着你

The auction, which apparently originated in the UK ebay site, has been followed by a few countries in the world, and now China sees its opportunity to invest the excess of foreign currency. Perhaps it is telling of the state of household savings in China that the autor at Douban considers 100,000 yuan to be at the reach of any chinese.

At an estimated 40 Billion euros, the author of the announcement calculates that 1,000,000 users joining the goup should be enough to buy out the country if each of them contributes 100,000 yuan (yes, somehow the calculation has also got chinese characteristics).

In any case, the Icelanders can breathe for now. The group has only obtained the support of 4,300 users at the time of writing, and new additions seem to be stagnating these last days.

It is good to see in any case that chinese take this with a sense of humour, and one can only hope that the Woaizhongguo patriotic internet community’s response will be as civilized the day someone publishes these kind of jokes about China.

AUCTION FOR ICELAND

AUCTION FOR ICELAND

UPDATE: 10,041 Chinese have joined already. No more positions available in the national government but still some laid back jobs left in town councils. Still far form the 1M users necessary.

Crisis and The Great Wall of China

Tuesday, October 28th, 2008

During my travels these last weeks in Europe and Asia, and on my return to China, I have observed some rather striking contrasts. So much that they made me think a lot about the present state of Chinese economy, and here is a word about it.

Two different ways of seeing the world

I was in Europe for the last time the week that Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy - some call it already “Meltdown Monday”. Pretty scary, but the news didn’t seem surprising for anyone there.  Ever since the beginning of the year most people had seen the crisis coming. On the Spanish beaches, there were less tourists to be seen this summer, and the variable rate mortgages were getting stiffer for all. The governments that were not in electoral campaign had profusely announced what was to come.

That same week, during a congress in Lyon, the American guest from the marketing consultancy came out to the stand and presented the prospects of our industry up to 2010. He had a very professional looking PowerPoint with some colourful graphs that vaguely reminded me of the slides in a waterpark. The delegates from the rest of the countries looked bored, and only we - New Delhi, Kuala, Shanghai - were hurriedly taking notes. Nobody had shown us that back home.

The whole atmosphere I encountered in Europe was in stark contrast with what I had seen and what I am living still today in China. The crisis has not yet touched this country. The taxi drivers at the airport, who usually know a good deal of economics, don’t even mention the word crisis. On the corporate side, the contrast is even bigger. Most of my local clients, who take a WSJ for breakfast every morning, are not only not worried, but they actually look at the future with renewed optimism. They know that a big crisis (危机) is also a big opportunity(机会). In an intuitive language like Chinese, the two words share one single character.

The Great Wall of China

The prevailing thought here seems to be that of the Great Wall of China: Confident and proud of their financial system which has resisted the negative western influence, Chinese at all levels are convinced that the crisis will not hit them hard. To reassure them, there is the precedent of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which devastated the Asian tigers’ economies and left China, the only country strong enough to ignore the  western blunderer IMF, mostly unscathed.

The media here have already been speaking about the crisis for a while, but always as an external problem, and with a generally positive outlook. The official Chinese press is prudent as usual, but the general idea still seems to be that China shall be the word’s bastion of stability against the irresponsible western financial devices. Thus the official discourse goes: Growth to slow down mildy, there will be some  restructuring to boost the domestic markets, and we will come out stronger in the end. And in everyone’s mind is the opportunity for Chinese companies to go out shopping for deals in capital thirsty western counterparts.

Of course, Chinese are aware that international markets are the weak link, as a large part of the GDP is made up of exports to western countries and FDI. But they count on two factors  to ensure the minimum of vital growth required by the system. On one hand, the massive ongoing investments in infrastructure that expand their tentacles day after day to each end of the country. On the other hand, they bet on the development of Asian markets to counter the descent in Western demand.

In view of all this, the new priorities of the technocrats, as they explained last week in our industry briefing in Beijing, are: 1- Develop the markets to find a way out for Chinese production, and 2- Take advantage at the worst of the crisis to go out and acquire foreign companies, and achieve through these means the creation of truly global corporations, with an access to know-how and technology which is much more direct than that obtained from FDI.

The Great Wall of China, the myth that for millennia has defined the Chinese people, is born again in the realm of finance. And, shielded behind it, the sons of the Dragon hope to regain the glory of past times.

A weak point in the Wall

There are however some signs indicating that Beijing’s plans might not work out so cleanly. In the first place, although the Chinese financial system, entirely controlled by the government, has indeed remained more conservative than the western one, this does not make it in itself an efficient system. A series of failed investments in the near past, such as Blackstone or Bear Sterns are good examples. And the opacity typical of the large Chinese banks, heavily influenced by the Communist Party, is not precisely the best guarantee of success.

It should be noted as well that the very foundations of the Great Wall, the massive reserves of foreign-currency held by the Chinese government, may not be the solution for every problem. Most people in China fail to understand that the foreign-exchange reserves are not free assets, and cannot be used freely by the government without seriously affecting its monetary policy, or rather, as professor Michael Pettis calls it, its currency regime. Indeed, until the domestic market is strong enough, China will be forced to keep the RMB as low as possible to keep up with the exports, which will completely condition the freedom of its policies.

Looking at the markets, already several observers have started to note the fall in sales of Chinese companies. It is very doubtful that the Asian Markets can grow sufficiently quickly to absorb the growing Chinese manufacturing output. In the end of the day, Asian markets mean India and Russia, the only two countries with a critical mass to match Chinese needs. They are both strangled by serious structural problems to be able to respond quickly enough to China’s needs. And the hesitating actions taken for land reform to increase the consumption of peasants might be a good idea in the long term, but it sounds very optimistic to bet on domestic consumption in the short term.

Add to this that Chinese economy, in spite of being in the middle of a development miracle, has severe structural problems, partly derived from its political system, as commenter Will Hutton brilliantly puts forward in his book “The Writing on the Wall”.The lack of a “soft” infrastructure, as he calls the ensemble of characteristics of a civil society that are necessary for the proper functioning of a market economy, makes China a very vulnerable system. It is symptomatic, for example, the total lack of internationally recognized brands, or the many cases of mismanagement, such as the recent case of baby milk contamination.

Beijing taken

But there is a much more worrying aspect, which derives precisely from the Great Wall effect. Historically, the Great Wall of China has not been effective to prevent barbarian invasions, and in a way it has often had the opposite effect. The Han people, protected by their Wall, had a tendency to feel invulnerable and live with their back to the North. In 1644, when the Manchus crossed Shanhaiguan, they took the Chinese by surprise. Beijing fell very quickly (to internal rebels in the frst place), and the last of the Han emperors was left with no choice but to hang himself from a Pagoda tree at the Jingshan Hill, right behind his forbidden city. This is History. But it is a story that has too often repeated itself in China, and which can revive under a new shape in the XXI century.

It is well known, and the economic miracle of the last 30 years is a proof of it, that Chinese economy is guided by a corps of well trained technocrats who know very well their subject. And undoubtedly Zhongnanhai must have a Plan B readily prepared for contingencies. But it seems clear that, as much as they might want to prepare, if the crisis hits hard in China, the scope of reaction of the system is very limited by its own structure and its own people.

Indeed, the great majority of Chinese workers, unlike their western counterparts, are ill prepared to face a crisis, let alone to understand it. Ever since the end of the Cultural Revolution, they have only known 30 years straight of growth. The Chinese people has kept silence since the summer of 89, when Deng and the Red Army made them understand that getting rich comes first. Since then they have accepted injustice, inequality and corruption in exchange for national pride and a notable increase in material conditions. The day the system fails to deliver, due to unemployment, inflation, or other crisis effects, the pact of silence shall be broken.

Unlike our governments, the Chinese Communist Party will be unable to shield itself behind an international economic situation that its own people do not understand. And all its legitimacy,  based on economic development and on the dubious legacy of Mao, can vanish overnight. China needs a minimum annual growth to employ the massive wave of peasants that are migrating to its cities, the biggest migration in the history of humanity, as the topic usually goes in China comment books. The leaders know this very well, and the 7.5% of annual growth that they set as a goal in the 11th Five Year Plan is probably about the minimum they estimate for the whole formula to add up.

It the Wall falls in these circumstances, as in the Ming period, the psychological effect could be devastating. And when the forces of the hundreds of millions are unleashed, the bureaucrats in Beijing might have no other way left than the one of the (political) Jingshan hill.

Possible outcomes

We might be right now at a turning point in the process of development of modern China, which will seriously impact the course of history in the XXI century. This year 2008, the one of the 30 anniversary of the beginning of Deng’s reform, marked by a series of disasters, and rounded off by the spectacular success of the Olympic Games, might well be the year in which everything changes. In the Chinese tradition, natural disasters, and earthquakes in particular, have long been omen of political change. The last serious earthquake was, precisely, in 1976.

Whatever happens, whether the Chinese Wall resists or not, the international crisis shall precipitate many changes in China, and in the rest of  the world we shall do well to keep a watchful eye on these events, because they shall have a major impact on our own lives.

If the Wall resists, Westerners will be forced to admit the validity of the Chinese economic system. Chinese capital shall go out to the world. Taking advantage of the opportunities provided by the crisis, Chinese economy may take in a very short period of time a decisive leap, and under the solid supervision of a regime legitimized by its success, it can spectacularly accelerate its progression to become a superpower. In a very short period of time, the most optimistic of predictions for China can become true.

If the Wall should collapse, on the other hand, Chinese economy may suffer a rapid decline, with almost immediate social and political consequences that may drag the rest of the world into a crisis that could go beyond the purely economic. The outcome in this case is much less predictable, and only mutual understanding and tolerance among the peoples of the world will avoid disastrous results.

So is the crisis hitting us or not?

The greatest economists have historically failed to predict crises, and are rather better at analyzing the problem “a posteriori”, finding out that it was all very clear after all. Crises are by definition unpredictable, so the point of this blog is not to guess whether or not the Great Wall of China shall resist this time the barbarians.

Instead, the conclusion is that, whatever the outcome, the role of China in the world is going to change radically as a result of this crisis. In the meantime, CHINAYOUREN will be here to inform you and keep a watchful eye on the Crisis and the Wall.

EDIT1: Deleted little rant against Western Media. Added shameless promotion of CHINAYOUREN.