Hong Kong riots

a brief-ish history

During the first part of the 19th century the UK’s stores of gold and silver were being depleted (in effect contracting the country’s money supply) to pay for tea imported from China.  London suggested to Beijing that they barter opium from the British colony India instead.  Beijing sensibly refused.  So in 1841 the British army invaded China to force the change.  The UK seized Hong Kong to use as a staging area and kept it once China submitted to its demands.  During a second Opium War (1856-60), launched when China again balked at the mass shipment of narcotics into its territory, the UK seized more land.

In 1898, China granted the UK a 99-year lease over the area it occupied.  This legalized the status of Hong Kong, which remained under the practical control of the “hongs,” a newer form of the old British opium companies, for much of the 20th century.

In the late 1970s Deng Xiaoping made it clear that the lease would not be renewed but that Hong Kong would remain a Special Administrative Region, with substantial autonomy, for fifty years after its return to China on June 30, 1997.  (For its part, the UK parliament decided Hong Kongers would find the climate of the British Isles inhospitable.  So these soon-to-be-former British subjects would be issued identity cards but no other legal protections–citizenship, for example–within the Commonwealth on the handover.  This is a whole other story.)

Hong Kong’s importance today…

The conventional wisdom at that time was that while Hong Kong China’s main goal in triggering the return was to set the stage for the eventual reintegration of (much larger) Taiwan, where the armies of Chiang Kaishek fled after their defeat by Mao.

Today Hong Kong is much more important, in my view, than it was in the 1980s.  Due, ironically, to the sound, and well-understood worldwide, legal framework imposed by the UK, Hong Kong has become the main jumping-off point for multinationals investing in China.  It’s also an international banking center, a transportation hub and a major tourist destination.  Most important for investors, however, is that its equity market not only has greater integrity than Wall Street but is also the easiest venue to buy and sell Chinese stocks (Fidelity’s international brokerage service is the best in the US for online access, I think, even though the prices in my account are invariably a day–sometimes three–old).

…and tomorrow

Mr. Trump has begun to weaponize US-based finance by denying Chinese companies access to US capital markets, US portfolio investors and, ultimately, the dollar-based financial system.  China’s obvious response is accelerate its build up of Hong Kong as a viable alternative in all three areas.  As with the tariff wars, Trump’s ill thought out strategy will most likely galvanize these efforts.

the riots…

Hong Kong has 27 years left to go as an SAR.  For some reason, however, Xi seems to have decided earlier in 2019 to begin to exert mainland control today rather than adhering to the return agreement.  His trial balloon was legislation under which political protesters in Hong Kong whose statements/actions are legal there, but crimes elsewhere in China, could be arrested and extradited to the mainland for prosecution.  This sparked the rioting.  These protests do have deeper underlying causes which are similar to those affecting many areas in the US.

…continue to be an issue

The recent change in Hong Kong’s stock listing rules (to allow companies whose owners have special, super voting power shares) and the subsequent fund raising by Alibaba seem to me to show that Beijing wants Hong Kong to become the center for international capital-raising by Chinese companies.  From this perspective, Xi’s failure to minimize disruptive protests by withdrawing the extradition legislation quickly is hard to understand.

One might argue that Xi, like Trump, is trying to reestablish an older order, purely for the political advantage it gives.  In China’s case it entails reviving the Communist Party’s traditional power base, the dysfunctional state-owned enterprises that Deng began to marginalize in the late 1970s with his move toward a market-based economy (i.e., “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics”).   I find it hard to believe that Beijing is as impractical and dysfunctional as Washington, but who knows.

My bottom line:  I think the Hong Kong situation is worth monitoring carefully as a gauge of how aggressively China is going to exploit the opening Trump policies have haplessly given it to replace the US as the center of world commerce–sooner than anyone might have dreamed in 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Investing in an age of deglobalization

Rana Foroohar is one of my favorite Financial Times columnists.  The subtitle of her July 21st column about deglobalization is “The wisdom of relying on the equity of US multinationals is now suspect.”  Her conclusion is that in the years to come the real economic dynamism in the world is going to come from China and emerging markets.  The way for foreigners like us to participate is to own Chinese and other emerging markets equities themselves rather than use US multinationals as proxies.

I think Ms. Foroohar’s conclusion is correct, although I don’t think the reasons she gives are.  That’s a surprising departure from her usual incisiveness.  For what it’s worth, here’s my take:

–over the past thirty or forty years, economic expansions in the US and Europe were especially robust because they were fueled not only by reviving domestic demand but also by high-beta growth in international trade.  That period is now over.  The main reason, in my opinion, is that the large, relatively open, stable economies in the Pacific have already been fully penetrated by multinationals, so there’s no extra cyclical oomph to be had.  In addition, the developed world has also become more protectionist.  And the increasingly overt racism of the administration in the US is making American goods and services things to be avoided rather than aspirationally purchased.

–the 1980s-style argument of US investment managers with no knowledge of foreign markets and no inclination to learn is that US-based multinationals are an adequate substitute.  By and large, this has been incorrect, although there have been periods, like the 1990s, when Japan was collapsing and the US was king.

–Ms. Foroohar cites Warren Buffett, a holder of American Express, Proctor and Gamble, Kraft Heinz and Coca-Cola, as an advocate of the approach in the paragraph above–and as a case study of why buying US-based multinationals no longer works.  But as I see it, these are all names with sclerotic corporate managements who have been pretending that Millennials and the internet don’t exist.  Add IBM, a former big Buffett holding, to that pile.   Multinationals like Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Disney haven’t had the same issues.  Note, too, that both MSFT and DIS had to toss out backward-looking managements before achieving their recent success.

–I do think that China should be a key element of any long-term-oriented stock portfolio.  In addition to the secular growth story, the current Washington strategy of forcing US-based multinationals to move low-end manufacturing out of China will likely end up giving China a substantial economic boost.  Similarly, the use of the dollar as a political weapon–the arrest of the Huawei founder’s daughter on money laundering charges, for example–creates a big incentive for China to speed development of its domestic capital markets, making finance easier to obtain for fledging firms there.

However, as with any other foreign market, there is a price to be paid for entry.  The rules of the investing game–the investment preferences of locals, the reliability of accounting statements and regulatory filings–are likely different from those in the home market.  All this needs to be learned.  My approach with China far has been to stick with Hong Kong-listed names, where these risks are lower.  Nevertheless, it seems clear to me that there will be greater opportunities for knowledgeable investors on mainland exchanges.  Sooner or later we’ll all have to teach ourselves, or find an expert manager to rely on.

 

 

Trump on trade: unintended consequences?

A straightforward analysis of what Mr. Trump is doing would be:

–tariffs slow overall growth and rearrange it to favor protected industries.  There’s no reason I can see to believe something different might happen in the US

–apart from the third world, protected industries tend to have domestic political clout but to be in economic trouble.  In my experience, these woes come more from bad management than from foreigners’ actions

–the go-it-alone approach is a weak one, since it provides ample scope for a target country to shop tariffed goods through an intermediary

–the apparently arbitrary way the administration is acting will cause both domestic and foreign corporations to reconsider future capital investment in the US.

 

There are, however, two other issues that I think have long-term implications but which aren’t discussed much.

–tariffs may cause industries that have moved abroad to retain labor-intensive work practices (and continue to use dated industrial machinery) in a lower labor-cost environment to return to the home country.  If such firms come back to the US, it won’t be with the old machinery.  New operations will be very highly mechanized. In other words, one likely response to the Trump tariffs will be to accelerate the replacement of humans with robots in the US.

–as I see it, China is at the key stage of economic development where, to grow, it must leave behind labor-intensive work and develop higher value-added industries.  This is very hard to do.  The owners of low value-added enterprises have become very wealthy and powerful.  They employ lots of people.  They have considerable political influence.   And they strongly favor the status quo.  The result is typically that the economy in question plateaus as labor-intensive industries block progress.  In the case of China, however, the threat that the US will effectively deny such firms access to a major market will kickstart progress and deflect blame from Beijing.

 

If I’m correct, the effect of trying to restore WWII-era industry in the US will, ironically, achieve the opposite.  It will accelerate domestic change in the nature of work away from manual labor.  And it will run interference against the status quo in China, allowing Beijing’s efforts to become a cutting-edge industrial power to gather speed.

 

 

slowdown in China

In the late 1970s Deng Xiaoping was forced to tackle the gigantic mess that central planning had made of the Chinese economy during Mao’s rule.  The problem:  highly inefficient, loss-making, corruption-infested, Soviet-style (feel free to add more negative, hyphenated adjectives) state-owned enterprises dominated the industrial base.  The products were poor;  the books more fiction than not.  Deng’s solution was to adopt Western-style capitalism under the banner of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.”  This meant pulling the plug on bank credit and political favor for state-owned enterprises and redirecting support toward the private sector.

The result has been 30+ years of economic growth so strong that it has vaulted China from nowhere into first place among world economies.  In fact, the PRC is now 10%+ larger than #2, the US, using Purchasing Power Parity as the yardstick.

According to an astute observer of China, Nicholas Lardy, writing in the Financial Times, however, current Chinese leader Xi Jinping has not simply been cracking down on the cumulative excesses of the private sector over the past couple of years.  He has also reversed Deng’s policy in favor of building up the state-owned sector again.  Lardy thinks this decision is reducing China’s annual GDP growth rate by a whopping two percentage points.

I’m not sure why this is happening.  But for China, the highest economic principle has never been about achieving maximum sustainable GDP growth.  Rather, it’s whatever is necessary to maintain the Communist Party in power.  Reduction in GDP growth is a secondary concern.

 

I don’t know how this affects China’s stance in tariff negotiations with the US, especially since White House economists seem to be suggesting that the US economy is already beginning to contract under the weigh of current tariffs plus the government shutdown   (increased tariffs slated for March will only deepen any decline).  From a longer-term point of view, though–and assuming Chinese policy doesn’t change–for a company to simply have exposure to China will no longer be any guarantee of success.

 

internet companies vs. state-owned enterprises in China

Recently Beijing announced it wants to take equity positions in the major internet companies in China and place Communist Party officials on their boards of directors.

What’s going on?

I see two general possibilities.

Some background first.

Deng’s economic reform

In the late 1970s, Deng Xiaoping realized that the Chinese economy was too big to be controlled through central planning.   To grow it had to adopt Western economic (but not political) methods.  So he began to allow the market, not doctrinally-correct political cadres, to dictate the direction of expansion.

A major issue he faced in doing so was that, say, three-quarters of Chinese industry was owned by the state.  These companies were rudderless, and hopelessly inefficient–but they employed tons of people.  If large numbers lost their jobs all at once, the ensuing social instability might threaten the rule of the Party.  Therefore, economic progress had to be tempered by the need to avoid this outcome.  And this in a nation without sophisticated macroeconomic tools to control the pace of growth.

The result over three+ decades has been a Chinese economy that lurches between boom and bust, depending on the temperature in the state-owned enterprises.  The strategy has generally been successful, I think, with the state-owned sector now representing less than a third of China’s overall output.

possibilities

–China’s internet companies have become large enough that their actions, intentional or not, can accelerate the speed at which state-owned companies shrink.  So they need to be monitored much more carefully than in the past.  This is the benign interpretation, and the one which share prices suggest the market has adopted

–China’s internet companies have become large enough to generate “creative destruction” in large enough amounts to threaten the economic control over China exercised by the Communist Party itself.  If this is the case, then the oversight over domestic internet conglomerates will be much more draconian than the consensus expects.  That would presumably result in considerable PE contraction for the firms being controlled.

My guess is that the first possibility is much more likely to be the case.  But I think we should watch the situation closely for new hints about Beijing’s intentions.

Shenzhen Connect starts next week

…on December 5th.

That’s according to the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited (HKEX), whose Stock Exchange of Hong Kong subsidiary signed an agreement with its Shenzhen counterpart on rules for Shenzhen Connect last month.  The agreement was just approved by mainland Chinese regulators.

what is Shenzhen Connect?

It’s a mechanism that allows investors in Hong Kong to buy or sell Shenzhen-listed stocks, up to a specified (but large) total daily limit.  It also allows China-based investors to buy and sell Hong Kong-listed stocks through the Shenzhen Exchange.

The start of Shenzhen Connect trading follows the successful establishment of a similar arrangement between Hong Kong and Shanghai, called Stock Connect, a little more than two years ago.

significance?

In a practical sense, Shenzhen Connect and Stock Connect together end the closed nature of the Chinese stock market.  Doing so is an important economic objective of Beijing.  It’s another step down the road to dismantling the central planning and control that has characterized Chinese socialism since WWII.

rising Shenzhen shares?

Will this signal a boom in Hong Kong interest in China-listed shares?  I don’t think so, but it will be interesting to watch and find out.

Stock Connect, which opened the Shanghai stock market to foreigners wasn’t such a big deal, in my view.  That exchange is dominated by state-controlled banks and by stodgy old industrials headed mostly by state functionaries with no idea of how to run a profitable business.  Beijing will protect the banks but is content to let the  gradually wither and die.  So I didn’t see any rush to be the first foreigner to arrive in 2014.

The Shenzhen Exchange, on the other hand, is home to much more entrepreneurial firms, with little or no official state involvement.  So, in theory, yes, I might want to participate.

A big roadblock for me, though:  I have no idea whether I can trust the financial reports that companies issue.

Two ways to find out: listen carefully to what local players say and do; and visit the companies that sound interesting, interview the managements–and then watch to see how what they say matches up with operating results and what the financials report.

Even then, my experience is that you may not be safe.  Years ago, I visited a small Hong Kong manufacturing company at the urging (I didn’t need much) of a friend.  The firm told me a fabulous story of its success making computers for children.  I went back to see the management some months later.  They didn’t recognize me as a person they’d spoken with before.  This time they told me an equally dollar-sign-filled story, but this time they were an auto parts firm.  Whoops.

I’m not willing/able to put in the effort required to understand how the stock market game is played in Shenzhen.  So, Shenzhen Connect won’t tempt me away from the sidelines.

 

 

Janet Yellen, this week and last

Fridays are strange days on Wall Street.  That’s because, unless they’re super-confident, short-term traders don’t like to hold a large inventory of securities over a weekend.  Too much time for bad stuff to happen.  So they sell enthusiastically on Friday afternoons.

There’s certain sense to this behavior.  For them two days+ may be a long holding period.  Also, companies and people, particularly sneaky ones, like to save bad news up for late Friday afternoon or the weekend, when they think no one is paying attention.  This lessens the pain, they think.  Often, it has the opposite effect, however, since anyone who’s been around for a while knows what a late-Friday press release invariably contains.

 

So in one sense it’s not a great surprise that the huge effort–enough to send her staggering off the stage–Janet Yellen put out yesterday to explain that, yes, the US economy is in great shape and, yes, the Fed is going to take the first baby steps to get the country out of interest rate intensive care (IRIC (?)–although it may be too late for this acronym) before New Year’s eve had no lasting positive effect on stock prices today.

The reason is that, aside from robots designed to react to newsfeeds, everyone knew that already.  In fact, her announcement on Thursday the 15th that the Fed Funds rate would stay at zero for now wasn’t a shock, either.  Futures markets had been putting the odds of a rate hike in September at less than one in three.

Yet the stock market took something Ms. Yellen said last week the wrong way.  If it wasn’t the interest rate announcement, what was it?

Actually, I think there are two things, one said and one not.

The first, and more important, in my view, is the unspoken but strongly held belief by the nation’s finest economists that if we have to depend on the White House and Congress for economic support, we’re doomed.  That’s because monetary possibilities to plug up a hole in the bottom of the boat are all used up.  The federal arsenal now contains only fiscal policy—changes in government regulation of business, or in spending priorities or in taxes.  The Fed knows it isn’t going to get bailed out by Washington if it raises rates too soon–something that has gotten many nations into trouble in the past.  Therefore, it has to err on the side of caution, even if that’s unhealthy to do.

We all sot of know this, but it’s not a plus to be reminded that as a nation we’re stuck in at best second gear as long as Washington dysfunctions its way through life.

The second, the one said, is that developments in China have the potential to hurt US growth enough to tip us over the edge.  I don’t think the effect on the stock market is so much about the details.  It’s the headline that matters–that the US is no longer so large that we’re impervious to what may happen in any other single country.  It conjures up thoughts of the post-WWI, when the UK passed the mantle of world economic leadership to the US, except that we’re now in the role of the UK.

Again, everyone sort of knew this was happening.  But having it confirmed by our foremost economists is another thing.

To put this in stock market terms, I don’t think Ms. Yellen is calling into question the market’s ideas about current earnings as about the multiple those earnings are worth.