One day in October, 2015, a group of disgruntled investors gathered in Beijing to lodge a complaint: they had bought so-called wealth management products from a state-owned guarantor backed company that managed nearly $8 billion in assets, and which had collapsed later. Such defaults have been uncommon in China’s wealth management product space, but the now-gargantuan industry may pose a large risk to China’s financial system. Many risky aspects of the wealth management products industry make people worry about the possibility of a chain reaction similar to the 2008 financial crisis, when the US mortgage market buckled under similar strains.
After several decades when most Western governments inclined toward freer and more global trade, the mood seems to be changing. In the US, the presidential candidates have agreed on little but the need to keep a closer eye on trade agreements. In the United Kingdom, the new Prime minister, Theresa May, seems determined to fulfill the British public’s wish to leave the European Union, despite the fact that the pound sterling sank recently to a 168-year low. Skepticism over trade deals seems likely to remain a stubborn presence in most of the mature economies, so what should Chinese companies do to react?
For the past three decades, the general political consensus in the mature Western economies has been that trade liberalization is a good thing: most economists credit rising levels of global trade and cross-border investment with lifting nearly a billion people out of poverty in the developing world and reducing prices for consumers almost everywhere. Yet despite those successes, a growing segment of the public in the mature economies sees the impact of liberal trade policies quite differently— the revisionist view sees free trade as a major cause of the declining prosperity in the mature economies. Why has an anti-globalization consensus developed?
Central banking is not enough. While monetary policy did much to recover from the global financial crisis, its instruments have been largely exhausted and rendered ineffective. Low interest rates and quantitative easing may have kept the engine spinning, but are not pillars of sustainable economic policy. In China, there might still be scope for more monetary easing, but Mohamed El-Erian, chief economic advisor at financial services group Allianz and formerly at the helm of investment firm PIMCO, warns that, ‘‘China needs to avoid the trap that the advanced countries have fallen into, namely that of excessive prolonged reliance on central banks.’’
Chinese companies are buying football clubs and investing in sports companies all over the world, despite the fact that many of them had zero experience in sports before. Some investors think it’s a good opportunity to invest in the world-class sports assets when many of them are undervalued and cash-thirsty amid sluggish economic growth in Europe. But for Chinese buyers, there are both political and economic factors at play. The Chinese authority supports the buying, hoping that these overseas sports resources will help boost the domestic industry. But will they bring real changes and improve the performance of China’s national football team?
Since early 2015, 47 Chinese companies have received combined offers of $43 billion in funding from private equity houses and Chinese internet giants to delist from American exchanges and make a run for the domestic stock markets. So far 14 of them have delisted and none of them have managed to complete the journey and re-emerge on a Chinese exchange. The sudden desire to rush for the exit represents a swift reversal of a quarter-of a-century flow of Chinese companies to the West. It is the result of two factors: poor performance of many Chinese companies on western exchanges, and the much higher valuations that companies can command in China.
China’s industrial economy did not stabilize: it declined in the first quarter of 2016, according to the latest CKGSB survey of over 2,000 industrial firms nationwide. The survey, led by CKGSB Professor of Finance Gan Jie, shows that overcapacity and weak demand remain biggest challenges for China’s industrial economy. The Business Sentiment Index, a major indicator of the survey, stood at 46 in Q1 2016, a one point increase from Q4 2015, but still indicative of contraction. The BSI is the simple average of three diffusion indices including current operating conditions, expected change in operating conditions and investment timing.
Asia is seeing growing rivalries—and also the enduring influence of the US. In the post-war years it was perhaps easy to take for granted the deep and vast sway held by the US in Asia—from its significant role in the Asian Development Bank to its closeness to regional powerhouse Japan. China’s recent rise has reconfigured the terms of politics, economics and trade in Asia—and the world. That has informed the US’s much-discussed ‘pivot’ to Asia, a key plank of which has been the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Are China’s prospects in trade and regional influence hampered because it is not a signatory of the TPP?
Ten years from now, business historians will offer a number of reasons financial services had changed so radically since 2016, from general advances in technology to the regulatory reaction to the crash of 2008. But one factor appears likely to stand out above all the others: the blockchain, a distributed database that serves as the backend of the virtual currency Bitcoin. Today, financial services are investing billions in blockchain technology. Many believe it will lead to a radical simplification of banking and payment systems everywhere—a world where money and other assets take nanoseconds to transfer, cannot be lost or stolen, and require no intermediaries to process.
For consumers in mature markets, the financial technology boom doesn’t seem very exciting. What they’ve seen so far is technology that shaves a few minutes off an efficient process, such as being able to deposit a check by taking a picture of it instead of going to the ATM. But for parts of the world where people still buy and sell things with banknotes, the FinTech boom is likely to be a major event with important economic consequences.