FRASER HOWIE: My name’s Fraser Howie. I’m an independent analyst on China. And author of a number of books on the Chinese
financial system, in particular, Red Capitalism, and then before that, Privatizing China. So I’ve been in Asia for about 25 years, primarily
working in the financial sector– Hong Kong, Beijing, Hong Kong, again, and now I’m based
in Singapore. But always with a big focus on China, in terms
of my day job, but also my writing and commentary. It was actually myself, and a co-author, and
a colleague at a company called CITIC, which was the first Sino jointventure securities
company set up in China. About 15 years ago, we started writing about
the Chinese financial system, simply because we saw what was being written by China back
then, and this was in the late ’90s, 2000 or so. And frankly, we thought it was nonsense. We were on the ground in China. We saw what the securities markets were like. We saw what the stock market was like. And it was clear that the pundits in Hong
Kong were just far too optimistic about what China was. And then we thought, there’s a story to tell. That got us writing. It was actually on the back of a report we
wrote for the CICC at the time. And we wrote Privatizing China, which was
based on a look at what was then about 15 years of the stock markets in China. And really, just going right back to basics–
really in the late 70s, when reform started in China, fair share issuance in ’79, and
then the development of 4trading through the ’80s, listings– And they say that was privatizing
China. But then as the knot progressed, we realized
that we had more to say, and in particular, in the banking sector because if you remember–
go back to that time when we were writing Privatizing China and riding on the stock
markets. The Chinese banking system was basically bankrupt. In 1999 Zhu Rongji, the Premier at the time,
started a big bailout program where they set up bad banks, asset management companies in
China, and we saw that happening real time. It was a very long process. And so by ’05-’06 you started seeing these,
what were just previously, bankrupt banks being listed, raising multi-billions of dollars. And we thought, this is nonsense. These are Chinese banks. These aren’t Western banks. And they aren’t banks in the way we understand
them in the west. And we thought there’s a story there. So that was the genesis of Red Capitalism. And in Red Capitalism, which was eventually
published in late 2010, beginning of 2011, we went through that history of how banks
were reformed in China, how you took a bank or banking system and you made it into what
was, at the time, basically, the world’s most expensive banks. Valuation– I think it was something like
a quarter of a trillion dollars, $250 billion with all the Chinese banks. That’s an incredible figure remembering that
day declaring the system was bankrupt. So that was the genesis of Red Capitalism. Interestingly, the bulls thought it supported
their case, the bears thought it supported their case. We didn’t write it with any case in mind. We wanted to tell a story because we felt
that, again, so much of the hype, so much of the headline in China is superficial. In understanding China, you’ve got to get
away from the facade, the face of China. China is great at telling a story about how
it sees itself. And a lot of people buy into that because
China can be a very opaque and difficult place. But especially in the stock markets and then
in the capital markets in general, that almost certainly what it says on the tin isn’t what’s
in the tin. And so therefore, it’s important to understand
the background to these things, to understand the accountancy behind it, and this chicanery,
quite frankly, in a lot of the financial system. I think it’s really important if you want
to understand where we are in China now. It’s what I call the Olympic cycles. If you look back to the ’08 Beijing Olympics,
I would still maintain, although the economy was probably less than half the size it notionally
is now, I would say that’s the modern high point of China, frankly. That If you look before– the Beijing Olympics,
they put on this incredible show. They built so many subway lines. They did so many things which no other country
allegedly could do. It was a great catalyst for building across
the country. The economy was booming. Everything seemed to be going. Everyone was pandering to China. And I think that really was a high point. Of course, that was August in ’08. And then, of course, global financial crisis
and we all remember– or maybe we don’t remember now, but that last quarter of ’08 really was
dreadful. Things, literally, just fell off a cliff in
that last quarter. And that was very important in China’s case
as well because China was hugely affected by that. I think that everyone, of course, remembers
the output or the response to ’08, by the Chinese government, this huge stimulus program,
which started off a whole series of events, which we’ll come to. But I think, remember, before that, and the
real reason for that was not simply to keep global growth going, but China had, was it,
the headlines, 20, 30 million people unemployed, these migrant workers. This was the mainstay of the Chinese economy
that this migrant population was working in factories along the coast, and that just the
downturn in exports, the downturn in the global economy really impacted China. And so what you saw there– and this again
was absolutely central to why we wanted to tell the bank story– was because the response
of this stimulus was basically you turn on the credit taps. That after spending the better part of a decade
trying to reform the banking system, trying to make it into something that was something
at least approaching a market-based system where there was some degree of risk control,
some oversight, you basically had the rulers in Beijing reverting to their old practice
of using the banks as a piggy bank to basically fund growth. And so you turn on these credit taps, and
literally any warm body could get money in ’09. And so you had this huge expansion of credit. And of course you saw, guess what, a big rebound
in growth, which should not surprise anybody. Growth’s an output, not an input into these
models. And so you had this huge expansion of credit. But I think that was the start of something
that has taken China, as I say, before those Olympics, before that last quarter of ’08,
China was a growth story. There’s no question about it. It had been 20 years by then of double digit
growth. China could continue to grow for another two
decades, three decades, whatever it may be. And yet, that was a real turning point because
China’s gone from a debt story– or from a growth story to a debt story, which is just
staggering. And I think we forget about this because the
growth numbers have still remained high. And people say, yes, they’ve fallen from their
highs, but hey, they’re still doing 6 and 1/2% or 7% if you believe in those numbers. They say, it’s still much better than what
the West’s doing. But that’s incidental, because the real story
in China now is that the reason you’re still getting that growth is because credit is growing
at double the rate of GDP growth. And so that ’08, that response, that ’09 stimulus,
the early stimulus to keep growth going really set in motion an addiction to debt, and took
China– and let’s remember, well, there was clearly an impact from the global economy. It wasn’t necessarily a crisis per se. And so it’s interesting now that you look
and you compare Chinese growth numbers and the growth, particularly the build up of gross
debt in the economy, it gets compared to what the US is or what the UK is or Japan is or
Greece or whatever. You can take any of these countries. But these are all countries that have clearly
gone through crises. In China’s case, I don’t see there’s a crisis. Yes, there’s slowing growth. There’s lots of problems with their economy. There’s many areas in China you can look at
and say there’s real problems. But in terms of actual real fundamental financial
crisis, there isn’t one. There’s no real panic there. There’s still a lot of faith in the government. There’s still a lot of resources and capacity
of the government they can put to work. And so, you’ve had that huge credit build
up in spite of a real problem, which really makes me wonder when I think about future
issues, when you think, if a crisis does come in China, and given what’s happening in the
States with the new president, you can certainly see scenarios where you are going to get crises
coming, then will China have the wherewithal and resources? But coming back to that stimulus. So you had a positive response from China
in ’09. That obviously was lauded at the time that
this would support global growth, support global demand. At the same time, you also had a government
who started to acknowledge that there was fundamental imbalances in their economy, and
that this needed to be reformed. And of course there was lots of nice words
and nice talk about this, how we’re going to restructure, we’re going to move away from
this dependence on fixed asset investment. and we’re going to move more towards a consumer-driven
economy. And here we’re eight years on, an Olympic
cycle– two Olympic cycles later, and you think, this really is quite horrible. You’ve effectively had the growth rate halved
and the debt double, which hardly is really a successful formula in many ways. I think whether China becomes the world’s
largest economy is almost frankly irrelevant, because that’s just– that’s like just weighing
the health or measuring the health of your kids based on their weight. There are many other factors that are far
more important to think about than simply, are they simply getting bigger? Are they growing? And I think China has continually failed over
this past eight years or so to really grasp that reform process. And again, this isn’t just something from
the new leadership. This is something if you go back to about
five or six years, there was a big report from the World Bank, done in conjunction with
the Chinese government, called– I think it was China 2030, but need to restructure their
economy, move away from fixed asset investment. And it laid out a whole series of reforms
and steps to try and remove this dependency. But guess what? As the global economy has failed to recover,
as China’s own economy has started to stutter in many ways, there has been a continual dependency
on debt. And so what you’ve seen in China, you’ve seen
incredible innovation, but in the worst possible way. That instead of, whereas at the start of this
crisis in ’08 you still had 60% of debt in their economy- – or probably higher, certainly
a decade more or so ago, you had 80% of debt in China basically being from bank loans,
very simple. You can look at the amount of deposits they
had, and you looked at their bank loans, and you control that through a loan to deposit
ratio. So it was very easy to literally turn the
tap on and off. But what you’ve seen is a proliferation, over
the past eight years or so, of broadly called shadow banking. And I think that doesn’t even come close to
describing it, because it’s such a murky term by definition. But you have had incredible innovation, as
it were, of bankers and entrepreneurs and businessmen figuring out ways to get around
systems which are put in place by bureaucrats to try and limit credit. And the difficulty is that returns for much
of China’s business is low, and therefore they’re desperately trying to look for new
inventive ways. At the same time, as rates have fallen in
China, you’ve also got depositors who are saying, I want better returns. And so you’ve had this springing up of– and
we talked about this when we wrote Privatizing China. This was really just the start of this process,
of these wealth management products, short term products, guaranteeing better rates which
got immediate deposits, which weren’t necessarily carrying it under the loan to deposit ratio. But again, got around that, that lending restriction. We got depositors’ funds into the hands of
those who wanted it. And in some ways, it’s a good sign. It’s a liberalization of the currency or of
the interest rate market, which is always a very important thing in China. But effectively what’s happened is that much
of that control over the banking system has been lost. And where we had highlighted this at the end
of Red Capitalism, the system now has become so much more complex. Whereas you really could think previously
of a dozen banks or so controlling the bulk of the loans, you knew exactly where they
were going, and it was very manageable, you now have a highly opaque system of banks,
of shadow banks, of wealth management products, of trust funds, of corporate lending of what’s
called entrusted loans– it’s just loans being siphoned through banks– wealth management
products created by securities companies. And then mix into that guarantee companies,
which have sprouted up to try and guarantee these loans. You have then also things being sold on the
internet. You have pawn shops where– it’s almost endless. And I keep thinking, I should write down and
try and map this whole system out. And then I though, it’s like trying to map
the brain, that there’s almost so many connections and nodes that have appeared. And the difficulty is you don’t actually know
the connections from one to the other. And you’re so, am I double counting this debt? Is this a chain of debt that’s growing? Is this new debt? And so you can actually– and I read some
reports about estimating the size of debt in China. And I think, I have absolutely no idea if
that’s true or not. These are huge numbers. And again, argued that there must be some
double counting there. Clearly what you see when you actually speak
to our entrepreneurs, when you speak to businessmen on the ground, when you speak to banks, there
is, without question, an A lending to B lending to C lending to D, and this chain and this
node of connections. And then you think, this is clearly worrying. And it is worrying. But what no one seems to have any idea about,
including myself is, when is too much too much? And this is the real problem. We can talk about this problem. We can talk about this growing problem in
China. But frankly, I have no idea when the party
stops. And again, you can look back in history. A lot of cases, you know, the Ottomans probably
peaked in the 17th century and they were still going up until the end of the Second World
War. Things can go on– bad things can go on for
a long time. I think also that the greatest comfort that
China should take in its current debt situation is that Japan still exists. For my 25 years in finance, I started following,
like many, the Japanese warrant market. And you know, Japan had problems. Japan was falling. And then people thought, there was even people
in the early ’90s who thought the Nikkei was going back to 40,000. But it was actually on the way to 7,000. And Japan has largely been in recession for
the best part of 20 years or more. And you think, well, why can’t China pull
off a similar trick- – a different sort of trick. It’s clearly not as rich, clearly not as developed,
but you are ultimately still underpinning so much of this in China, even if you can
map this highly complicated system, which you can’t. Because into that you’ve got, is it local
government financing? Is it, like I said, the wealth management
products? Is it the regular bank business? Is it rich individuals? Is it overseas funding? OK, so let’s see you map it all. But who’s actually going to be the person
to pull their fingers out of the dyke and let the water fall through? Because in China, there is this continued
belief still that the government will underpin everything. And to some extent as a working model, I think
that probably makes sense. And again, anyone who is predicting the collapse
of China– first of all, I have no idea what that means. If your debt’s doubled and your growth’s halved,
that looks pretty much like a collapse in some ways already. The bullish case in China has now become it’s
not collapsing, which is a big turnaround from where we were five or six years ago. So, even if you can map all that, I still
think, yeah, you’ve got to look at the politics here as well. You’ve got to look at the mindset, the control
of information. So someone goes bankrupt? Why should I care about someone else’s bankruptcy? My wealth management paid back. Wealth management product is very difficult
to get someone out in the street protesting or really causing a stink for someone else’s
misfortune. And so therefore I think, how does this really
become a systemic crisis? And it’s not clear to me that it does. Telling me the numbers are getting bigger
still doesn’t tell me how you get a systemic crisis. What staggers me is that there are so many
people– and again, clever people, lots of smart people. And whether it be economists, hedge fund managers,
whatever, lots of smart people who will go on TV and talk about the economics of the
debt issues, et cetera. And I think, can’t really argue with any of
that. I’m not a trained economist. I may be right, may be wrong. But what does stagger me is that there is
often a willingness or a willful blindness on the politics of it. And I think nothing in China– you simply
cannot divorce economics from politics in China. And certainly if you’re worried about debt
situations, and from big picture– so if you’re looking at the stability of the banking system,
if you’re talking about the currency, if you’re talking about government debt, if you’re talking
about local government financing vehicles, bank bailouts, however you want to propose
it, the politics is absolutely essential. And to think that it’s somehow China– I would
say the law of economics works just as well– if they work at all, they work just as well
in China as they do outside of China. They don’t stop at the border. So in that sense, economics, yes, does work
in China. But at times people think, oh, somehow the
Chinese have got their own economics or it works differently. I say, well that’s because you’re not accounting
for it probably, because much of that other accounting is effectively the politics, and
you’ve got basically the government is standing there. And without question, I think that the right
view to take, certainly for the moment, is that the government will stand by. It’s certainly going to stand by the banks. You’re not going to get a Lehman Brothers
moment. One of the big banks, one of the big– I think
they technically have four and then seven what they call systemically important banks
in China. So none of those big banks are going under. Smaller rural banks, yeah, that’s possible,
but they will be merged in something else. But politics and political support is absolutely
essential. And to ignore that, you do so at your peril. I think the trouble there is though, I think
it was Churchill who said about Chinese politics, “It’s like two dogs fighting under a carpet.” You frankly got no idea what’s going on at
any given time. And I think the very rise of Xi Jinping, where
you may take the positive stance that this is a strong, powerful leader consolidating
power, and so can push through reform– you say, well frankly, that means we had everything
wrong about Chinese politics before. Because before he came into power, the consensus
across the board– there was just no.. China was now a consensus driven leadership
by committee type of model. There was not going to be a strongman again. That was not going to be a strong political
leader. So basically we have either completely misunderstood
things previously to allow Xi Jinping to come into place, or we just were just simply ignorant
of the fact in the first place. I think the mistake is that, to almost give
too much credibility to Chinese political institutions, that we have seen certain things
happen over and over since Tiananmen Square, so over the past 20 years. And we have assumed that these are institutionalized
processes of smooth transfer of power. And frankly they weren’t. There was a lot more fighting behind the scenes. Bo Xilai is an obvious example like that you
know. 2011, people were talking about Bo Xilai,
as of 2010, as a possible next leader. Very few people saw the Bo Xilai issue coming. Those that did were roundly abused to be certain. No, no, this could never happen in China. There is no sort of coup coming. There’s nothing like this. And clearly the behind the scenes machinations
were very active. So while I may say, the politics is important,
I’m also going to admit somewhat contradictory as well, I have no idea what’s going on in
politics half the time. And as I say, I think Xi Jinping, by the analysis
of five years ago, should never have come to power. His consolidation of so many titles– how
much power he’s got, there’s probably some debate. But certainly of titles, again, should never
have happened either. That was not supposed to be able to happen
in this consensus model. And so, you think, but even with that power,
what does he really want? I come back to even why we started writing. Even that phrase reformer in China– he’s
a reformist. He’s a reformer. I have no idea what that means in the Chinese–
I do have a– but what I tell you, it doesn’t mean what we think it means in a Western sense. And again, it’s not just like the Chinese
have their own way of doing things. But these names, just these labels have such
different meanings. And so when Xi Jinping wants reform in the
sense that he wants things to run better, he wants the Communist Party to run better,
he wants state-owned enterprises to be more efficient, he wants less dependency certainly
on the US dollar, certainly on the States. He wants less dependency on foreigners. He doesn’t want Western ideas seeping into
Chinese education, and so things like that. So if that’s reform, it’s reform. It’s a self-sufficiency that he wants. But the idea that he wants to embrace free
markets in any way, or even embrace the market as a decisive factor– which his own documents
have said– I think is highly misleading. This is a person who wants it– Reform so
often in the West is understood to be economic reform with the government pulling back, of
the markets taking a bigger hold and market forces taking a bigger hold, of bankruptcy
coming to the fore. Hey, your business is bankrupt. We’re going to bankrupt your business. We’re going to close this. We’re going to sell these assets. That’s not what the Chinese mean by reform. They’re talking about administrative reform. They don’t necessarily want to face all those
arbitrary things. And so when you look at what happens in the
markets, I think this is a classic. It’s, let’s go back. So we’re at the end of 2016. Let’s go back 10, 11 months and we saw the
renminbi collapsing. It moved a few percent, if that. It’s hardly a collapse. The renminbi in the past 18 months have moved
10%. I think the yen did it in about six weeks
recently, and sterling did it in about six hours. So this is hardly major market moves. But of course for China, these are are major
market moves. And I think if you go back to the beginning
of the year, January, February, when the currency started to get very weak, the panic in Beijing
simply wasn’t lower currency levels. It wasn’t that the moves had been so significant. They’re all well within any bands they themselves
have set. They’re well within historic ranges. But what they didn’t like was they didn’t
like the market pulling them. And this, I think, is the real fear. Because if you start having a market fall,
as the stock market did in 2015, as the currency started to do then later in the year and beginning
this year, as anyone who’s spent any time in a market knows, that takes on a dynamic
of its own and so on that forces people to come out and do something. They have to act because it will be even worse
tomorrow. And that’s of unexpected or that unknown reaction,
that being forced by the market to do something is what really worries the Chinese. Now we’re nearly touching seven. We’ve already had a PBOC fixing of 6.95 in
the past few weeks. And so in that sense, it’s not simply the
lower level which is the worry, but it’s the unexpected and the volatile nature of markets
that forces people to do things. Chinese leaders don’t like to be forced to
do anything. They certainly like to give the impression
they’re very much in control. And they themselves– This idea, I think one
of the things that sticks– there’s a number of things from, let’s say, the past 20 or
30 years in China that stick– or in Asia that stick with the Chinese leaders. 1997, the Asian financial crash really stuck
with them. I think they looked at Hong Kong. They looked at Thailand. And these sort of headlines, whether they
were true or not that a New York hedge fund manager presses a button and a billion dollars
leaves Thailand, and Thailand is decimated and people are unemployed and factories are
closing– very simple, very tabloid type of headline, but that’s exactly the type of thing
the Chinese government are desperate to avoid. And so that volatility of markets, the unexpected
nature of markets is something that they recoil against. So, where does that leave the currency? It’s going to get weaker. I don’t think that’s really any surprise. But do I see a great devaluation? No I don’t, because I don’t see how that plays
into the government’s favor. This idea of taking sort of tough medicine
early, getting the worst over with, I think sadly that’s passed. I think that’s the difficulty, that that time
has now passed for them. I think if they were to do that– And again,
we know markets overshoot. And again, if you were to say if the currency
is overvalued– and I don’t really care if it is overvalued or undervalued, I just know
it’s not market-driven. And I’m pretty big on market-driven forces. So, in that sense, I don’t know what the right
level is. But should you devalue 5%? Is 5% enough? Well, why 5.0%, 4.9%– well, 5.1%? Be a numbers snob, go for 9.9%. You know, is it 10%, 11%, 12%, 13%? I don’t know, is it 15%? Maybe it should go to 20%. Maybe it should go to 8.5%. I don’t know, what’s enough? What’s enough and what are you guys trying
to signal there? Because certainly if you were to go back to
8.3, where we were for best part of 15 years or so, then that sends a very bad signal of
course. That basically almost wipes out the past 11
years of currency movements and currency strength. And then you think, oh my God, China is like,
it’s really going back to some almost prehistoric economic environment as it were. So I don’t see them doing that because I think
it sends such a destabilizing signal. I think instead they’re going to waste more
reserves, waste a lot of time, a lot of effort by this slow depreciation. And it’ll come in fits and starts. It’s not going to be a straight line. But there’s going to be some fits and starts
on the way down. The argument that somehow they’re wasting
reserves, the Communist party has never been efficient. They’ve been– it’s efficacy, not efficiency. They achieve what their goal is. They’ve got lots of people. Their entire history is about wasting resources
to achieve some arbitrary goal they set on one day that the next day was no longer important. My God, this was a country that sent out schoolchildren
to clap all day to ensure that sparrows couldn’t land so they would die, thinking that that
would improve public health in Beijing. So in that sense, I get that somehow they’re
wasting resources. I don’t think that matters to them, because
what they’re focused on is maintaining control, and not necessarily being exposed to that
market volatility and that whiplash. Because goodness knows where that could take
you. Because if you lose confidence in the government–
and again, this is what underpins so much of what goes on in China. You can talk that, oh yes, they’re rebalancing. The growth rate’s coming down. You could argue their debt’s not too high. But everyone basically falls back on, but
the government’s in control. They’re still in control of all those levers,
whether it’s fiscally, whether it’s socially, whether it’s the internet, information flow,
whatever. And if you have that sort of shock to the
system, then I think that becomes highly destabilizing. When you’re talking about politics and risks
of China in the coming years, I think the risks are ultimately political, not actually
economic. Because the politics– and again, how can
anyone be sitting here at the end of 2016, while thinking ahead to next year, without
thinking about Donald Trump, because the rhetoric there, that relationship– which has always
been a bit of a love and hate relationship, going back for centuries– clearly will change. It’s already started to change. For better or for worse, we’ll find out. I think though what’s very clear is that Trump
is clearly going to take a much tougher stand on China. He’s certainly talking tougher on China. What his stand is on China when he’s in power
and we’ve been through six months, a year, then I’ll tell you what it is, because frankly
I have no idea what it’s going to be now. But you know he’s going to certainly try and
be tougher on China. I think there are a number of things that
are worrying about that though. Not that being tougher on China is a bad thing,
because I think if my complaint– and I’ve often been called about, I’ve been bearish
on China. And I think that’s a dreadful term. I think bulls and bears exist in the stock
market. I think they’re dreadful terms with trying
to talk about countries or bigger picture things. I’ve always seen myself as a realist in China
because I’ve spent a long time there. I’ve worked with Chinese companies. And I’m very realistic about the real limitations
of China, often that China, because of its sheer size of population, of financial reserves,
or whatever it may be, seems to be this behemoth which seems unstoppable. And yet the reality of dealing with Chinese
companies and often individual Chinese, or even the Chinese government, is much more
fractious and nowhere near as successful as the big picture would be. And so when I’ve been sort of negative and
critical in China, it’s because I think one of the first things is to start talking truthfully
to China about China and about your relationship with it. So in that sense, tough talking does no harm. I think because much of what China– I think
the frustration that people have often with China is that China doesn’t even live up to
its own promises, of whether it be reform, of market opening, market access, and things
like that. So in that sense, there’s lots of reasons
to be tougher with China. And that’s the good side, if you like, of
Trump. Although, is that what he’s going to do? I don’t know. What worries me more with Trump is that there
seems to be– he’s fighting the wrong battle. He’s fighting a battle from a decade ago or
from two decades ago, that somehow that the very basic model of American jobs moves somehow
direct from America straight to China, and that if only we are tough on China, put tariffs
on Chinese goods, that those jobs will come back. Well, if that simplistic picture was ever
true, it’s certainly not true now. And simply putting tariffs on Chinese goods
doesn’t solve that problem. So I’m worried that the– and certainly his
economic adviser Navarro, whether his economics even holds up, many economists would argue. But certainly his China policy doesn’t necessarily
seem to hold up. He seems to paint China as the great evil
in the world that’s responsible for all ills. And certainly China has a role to play in
many of those ills. And certainly Chinese policy has certainly
contributed to many of those apparent ills. And there’s things we should be tough on China
about. But simply this rather belligerent attitude
I don’t think is very conducive. Not that I’m annoyed or worried about upsetting
the Chinese. That’s almost an argument for saying those
things if you’re just upsetting the Chinese Communist Party. I have no problems with that at all. But you’re not necessarily going to achieve
the goals you want. I think that’s what you’re– Trump’s wanting–
needs wins, and he needs wins against China. The approach he’s taken, I’m not convinced
he’s going to be able to do that. What you have seen as well of course– and
this plays into Trump’s worldview, and others– is it China of course themselves have become
more and more belligerent over the past five years or so. And this has certainly increased under Xi
Jinping. It’s partly been to support their own economy. And this has come across a wide range of issues. One of course is of economic and the greater
focus on domestic production of certain goods, of restricting fair competition from foreign
companies or forcing foreign companies to onsource certain activities into China, particularly
in the technology space, which is obviously very worrying given the tight control that
China has over technology, et cetera. So there’s those sorts of aspects. But you’ve also seen them being nationalistically
much more belligerent. Obviously we’ve seen that in the East China
Sea. You’ve seen that in the South China Sea. And it’s China as the bully, China as the
big country and you’re the small country, get used to it type of model. Which, ultimately I think will backfire on
China. yes, we all know China’s a big country. We all know that all the countries in Asia
are very dependent on it. Economically they’re very linked with it. But China is– I’m not quite sure what it
thinks it’s setting itself up for, because it has no friends. I was once giving a talk in Europe and I said
that China has no friends. And a lady from the Chinese embassy came up
afterwards and say, “But that’s not true. We do have friends.” I said, “Well name one.” “We have a friendship treaty with Pakistan.” I went, “Ah, anyone else?” And she said, “Singapore.” I said, “Sorry, is that a question or a statement?” And so China doesn’t have friends. It goes out almost out of its way to alienate
countries in the region, certainly countries it should be cooperating with, countries that
have large Chinese diaspora as well. So they have natural affinities with them,
but they seem to be unable to build an inclusive type of model. And it becomes a very Han chauvinistic model. And this, I think, is ultimately an underlying
weakness in the politics in China. So, you look at those domestic sort of political
issues, that domestic inability to build friendships and alliances, even within Asia, its natural
community. You then bring into this Trump, who has almost
alienated everybody he meets. And then you think, this is clearly going
to be volatile for the coming years. Being tougher on China, not a problem. Is Trump the person to do it? I really have to doubt, because I can’t see–
he’s a man who revels in his own ignorance, and seems to have surrounded himself with
people who, again, are not necessarily think that simple solution to complex problems are
the way forward. I don’t think that’s necessarily is going
to be– it may be good for markets. There certainly will be volatility, as many
of my friends would say. But it’s not necessarily going to be good
outcomes I think. What is interesting– and obviously I work
in finance and I write about the Chinese financial system, but I don’t manage money. I thankfully don’t need to give people advice
to what to invest in China, although my default answer is, I’m sure there’s lots of good of
good business to invest in China. But I think what’s interesting or when I think
about China or how I think about it differently from others, or many of the people who would
be my peers or the readers of Red Capitalism, that I came to China because I was interested
in China. I didn’t come to China for the market because
it was a big market or there was a big stock market or there was business opportunities. And so I’ve often thought that’s given me
some advantage, perhaps, of trying to understand China or trying to just, maybe, just accept
some of the frustrations there. And I think of this particularly over the
past– since that Asian– or since the global financial crisis. So you look at over that long eight years,
those two Olympic cycles as I talk about, and you think about, lots of people have done
lots of work on debts and whatever, and this growing network of debt and all these notes
and look at these empty apartment buildings and whatever. And I said yes, that’s true, that’s very nice. And then they automatically then sort of jump
through on to, well this must stop, that this must come to an end, that default beckons
or whatever. And I think, that’s sort of true. Of course it’s true, and ultimately there
is a price to be paid. But I think in China, two of the things that
I always think about China– this is because I’ve been interested in China long before
the economics of it as it were– is that China is the land of the absurd and the arbitrary. And I think unless you understand or appreciate
that China is this absurd country in some ways that’s struggling to become modern, then
you come too quickly to these conclusions. Oh the bank’s accounting’s all hocus pocus. The bank must therefore go bust and I’m shorting
the banks. Well why would you do that? There’s no evidence banks are going to go
to zero. There’s no short sell report that’s going
to show– expose all. And so you’re almost looking for the wrong
sort of outcome. And I think it’s understanding this, of the
absurdity and the arbitrariness of it, that you simply, when you do your China analysis,
you are left with a lot of unanswered questions. You are left almost in dead ends. You think, but surely the next step means–
I say, well it does. I’m not saying it doesn’t. But who’s going to take that next step? Who’s going to force the bankruptcy? Who’s going to ask the difficult question? In Chinese, when you raise these types of
points, Chinese will say to you, semi-apologetically, but also in earnestness about just apologizing,
In China it’s like this. And you think, not again. And you know it’s true. But this, sadly, is– and I think if you’re
an investor, at all sorts of levels, not just whether you’re picking stocks or whether you’re
doing real business– and clearly people have made a lot of money in China. So it’s not as if it’s just a complete fiction
or fraud. But you simply end up with a lot of these,
like I say, loose ends and unfinished stories, that often sort of fizzle out in some way,
and it doesn’t come to a clean bankruptcy or something. But what you find is that the loss has been
socialized in some ways, that someone else bailed somebody else our or they borrowed
from here, and the story morphs into something else. And that’s very difficult, I think, to explain
a lot of the time. It’s a bit like the politics we talked about,
the politics and economics being tied up. But it’s often very difficult. If you focus just on the numbers, yes, the
numbers can expose a lot of sort of malfeasance or wrongdoing. But that’s only part of the story, because
there’s also then another parallel track of almost like back as it were or state support
or local support that carries on in the background that allows things to continue. And everyone sort of plays along with the
game. It’s in nobody’s interest to pull the rug
away in that sense. So I think once you understand that about
China, I think, does it make you a better investor? Maybe– maybe you get a bit less frustrated. Because again, people– even though I’m in
sort of financial markets, I was authorized. So I consult with various people on all sorts
of China topics. And I remember somebody came here doing a
big project, a big property deal, with a big blue chip Chinese name. And I was advising him over a glass of wine
as you do. And he said something like, “So, what did
you think of my Chinese partner?” And I said, “Well the first thing you need
to understand is that all Chinese partners are bad partners.” And he said, “Well what did you mean?” I said, “Well it’s not necessarily they’re
out to defraud you, but they’re almost certainly not what you think they are. And so even though this is a blue chip name
and they’re saying they’re going to invest X hundreds of millions of dollars with your
property project, do they have approval to bring the money out of the country?” “Well they’re a big Chinese name.” I said, “Do they have approval to bring–”
“We’ve not asked, but surely they’ll be able to get it.” “Why would they be able to get it? Aren’t you watching the news? Don’t you know how difficult it’s getting
money out of the country? Have they got approval to do the project in
the first place?” “Oh? You mean they may not?” “Well why would there? You cannot assume that.” So it’s not that they’re necessarily lying
to you. They may be very honest about doing this project. They may have the money in China. But you don’t need the money in China. You need it somewhere else. And so I think understanding the framework
in which China operates, partly you could argue is a good deal due diligence. But it’s also understanding how China operates,
how entities, how individuals operate, that will often speak well beyond their capabilities
because they’ll think something will turn up, that oh, we’ll figure out a way to do
it. And often, of course, they won’t figure out
a way to do it, which makes it very frustrating because you think, I’m dealing with a blue
chip Chinese name here. And then actually they are just as beholden
to the arbitrary regulations of the government as anyone else.