“Success” against the virus ≠ zero deaths

Covid beach

One of the most fascinating aspects of the reaction to Covid-19 in the West, has been the near-perfect alignment between the political Left vs Right, and the sides of caution vs courage. Almost without exception – after a few early weeks of confusion – those who favour big government and intervention, also favour lockdown, wearing masks, almost permanent health screening and continued economic dislocation. Those that favour small government, lean towards Swedish-style herd immunity, and want an end to the lockdown and for people to just get back to work. Anecdotally, there are very few people crossing over at all, which I find remarkable.

In East Asia, by contrast, the response has been uniformly lock-step: everyone tolerates intrusive government and everyone supports the (virtue-signalling*) wearing of masks. Expats in Hong Kong, for instance, have felt heavily the weight of – effectively – racial prejudice for their differing attitudes on what constitutes “best practice”. All pretense of those traits of modernity – self-reliance, independence and adventure – which were driving urban Asia forward have vanished as these societies demonstrate their true colours of sheepish governmental dependency and open embrace of social closure.

The economic debate has raged for some time. Just to take headlines from recent days, one side (rather too gleefully for my liking) posits “Four reasons state plans to open up may backfire — and soon”, while the other retorts that “The lockdown left is no friend of the working class”. But for me the most pernicious rhetoric is that of men like Andrew Cuomo, whose popularity is premised on the logically fallacious claim that:

“ … if you ask the American people to choose between public health and the economy, then it’s no contest. No American is going to say, ‘accelerate the economy at the cost of human life.’ Because no American is going to say how much a life is worth.”

In this assertion we see the defeatist and absurd idea that lives should be protected at all costs. The fawning view that “Asian countries focused on containment in a bid to minimise mortality” has been accepted as the rightful moral goal of virus policymaking. The economics debate is fruitless, since it pits logic against emotion; but the moral point is important.

The analogy between Covid-19 and the common ‘flu is compelling and purposefully misunderstood: it is not a biological parallel per se, but rather one of social morality. It is an impossible and unnecessary task of government to eliminate death from natural causes. There is such a thing as “natural attrition” from disease and old age; and the ‘flu, which kills tens of thousands each year in the UK and US, remains the last bastion of socially accepted, blameless death on a large scale. The ‘flu is not like dying from traffic accidents, which might arguably be prevented; it is natural process of life and if this virus does not come to get you, the next one will. To try to prevent this is to commit yourself to a problem with no solution other than feeding an unquenchable appetite for resources – and in turn would ultimately spell the end for universal public healthcare which would be burdened intolerably by the expense. I will say this again: an acceptable level of deaths from Covid-19 in the UK should number in the tens of thousands before severe economic dislocation is necessary; several times more again in the US. “Success” was never, and should not be measured against, negligible mortality – for this virus or future ones.

Both Trump and Boris have thus made significant errors in their response; but the error was not so much their technocratic plans on testing and quarantines. Rather, the biggest blunder they made was to allow the narrative to move on to the grounds of protecting all life. From inception, both governments suddenly found themselves on the hook for an unachievable and undesirable objective: limiting deaths to zero or almost zero. This put them on a hiding to nothing and set a terrible precedent for both – though Trump and the US is likely to escape a touch more lightly. But Trump has also made a rod for his own back with his China rhetoric – since however true it is that the virus came from China, externalizing the cause, rather than making people accept it as a normal part of existence, strengthens their belief that “success” means stopping it like one would a foreign invader.

By the same token, for the first time in my recent life, I now no longer feel China is necessarily the long-term “winner” it might be. The government is very nearly promising its people protection against the unprotectable, setting expectations that may not long from now see them demand healthcare instead of military expenditure. All very well, but it will build no independent Great Power status like that.

I for one do not believe we should – or will – inhabit a world where major viruses lead again and again to the necessity for lockdowns. By the same token, neither do I believe that we should inhabit a world “safe” from such lockdowns only through constant testing, screening and health surveillance. Instead, we simply have to become a society of humans capable of digesting the idea that death is a fact of life; deaths from viruses and other natural causes, all the more so. To be constantly worried about death of this nature (as opposed, for instance, to war) is to be petty, parochial and apathetic, unable to see the bigger picture. I liken it to a company whose employees and management are constantly focused on cost-control and the bottom line; all the while forgetting the visionary focus on growing the top-line. Such a company is one living in the past, occupying the twilight of its existence, not looking to the future. It constitutes a lack of ambition.

Speaking personally, for all the distress and heartache that any disease or event incurs, I would rather not live in a society which exerts its time and resources, however good the intention, in trying to protect its people from life rather than encouraging them to jump into it. I would always favour courage over caution. Perhaps in this, I have finally discovered my true, core, Toryism.

 

* Curiously, a piece written by Jason Ng, an anti-government activist and lawyer, which vocally disapproved of expats during the virus and pretty much specifically called for expats to wear masks in order to “show solidarity” with locals – the very definition of virtue signalling – has been taken down from the Hong Kong FP website where it had been posted.

The Chinese New Economy: Alibaba as Sauron and why the old economy will be the winners

Sauron eye

Anyone familiar with the Chinese new economy will be aware of the rise of the internet giants of Alibaba and Tencent, along with their satellite businesses. Most will also be aware of the largely exclusive ecosystems within which Chinese online life is led – platforms that encompass everything from messaging to shopping to transport to payments and beyond.

It seems astonishing to remember that barely five years ago many commentators fretted over whether China could ever achieve real innovation. The Harvard Business Review for instance posed the question “Why Can’t China Innovate?”, baldly stating:

Can China lead? Will the Chinese state have the wisdom to lighten up and the patience to allow the full emergence of what Schumpeter called the true spirit of entrepreneurship? On this we have our doubts.

This of course is all rather a fading memory now. Innovation can broadly be divided into three areas: upstream (essentially, “how it works”), midstream (“how it’s made”) and downstream (“how it’s used”). For years, China as a manufacturing hub had made quite noteworthy progress on midstream innovation but most uneducated observers – including many in government – have an unhealthy obsession with upstream blue-sky invention. Yet as we can see with the likes of Berners-Lee, inventors are rarely rewarded and rightly so, since the real creativity and invention from the likes of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos is in the downstream. Jobs was an arch innovator in how technology is actually used and therefore spread through an economy, with a vision of how lives are actually impacted and changed. Chinese companies, particularly through the big online giants, are clearly doing the same: modern life in China is now lived in quite an advanced but different manner to modern life in OECD countries. Alibaba and Tencent have contributed towards the creation of a real and organic Chinese modernity and technological innovation within China arguably outpaces even the US even leaving aside issues of theft.

So it is worth spending a moment to look at these two major ecosystems and how they really behave – who they are, as it were. First, there is a question of why ecosystems exist in China in the first place in a way which outside of China they do not. Amazon comes the closest of the American tech players to demand a closed ecosystem but even they seem to find limits. Western shareholders have always rewarded single-capacity specialization, and often find the idea of any conglomerate absurd, let alone a tech company offering bicycles and banking.

In China though, this has been natural, for two reasons. First, there is the historical socio-anthropological tendency within Chinese society to build a “closed loop universe” within one’s own family or clan, which has extended to the national level through the Communist Party and SOEs. My own preference for explaining this remains Karl Wittfogel’s hydraulic empire theory, which tells us that most ancient civilisations relied on centralized power to deliver water to its people, enshrining the principles of autocracy and top-down governance at the government and family level. This in turn typically leads to closed-loop systemic thinking since everything has to work together or else nothing works – diversity of thought is only bad news. Secondly though, and somewhat ironically, these ecosystems have become so broad precisely because they are making up for assurances which the Chinese government cannot offer. When you make a purchase on TMall, you have more faith in the Alibaba-backed guarantee that your products will be delivered and that your payment is safe, than one does with the disparate parts of the national banking, postal or legal system offered by the government. The tech giants had to offer a total universe, or else consumers would have been reluctant to actually engage with the new business model in the first place.

Chinese ecosystems (2)

Source: SCMP

So much for why they exist – the bigger issue is how to understand who they are, what their personalities and identities are and how they should be understood from the outside. One possibly analogy, given their conflict, is that of the Cold War. In this world, Alibaba are the Soviet Union – a sprawling empire with a strong centralized view on how things are supposed to be done. Tencent on the other hand are the United States, a beacon of freedom and inspiration but which has its own agenda focused on generating and owning consumption. JD.com are Britain: commercially-minded, focused on trade and fully acquiescent into the American (Tencent) world. Lastly you have Meituan – which owes its existence to Tencent, but like France to the US is entirely ungrateful and maintains the pretence of wanting an ecosystem of its own.

Upon reflection however, a new analogy came to me which may be a touch more accurate, which is Middle Earth. In this version of events, Alibaba are indisputably Sauron, the lurking, evil presence which looks across the lands of men with an unrelenting will to dominion. They provide you the tools to “help” only so that they can own them and you. They invest in you because they need to control your system from the inside. Resistance is futile; eventual subjugation can be the only outcome. The interesting one is Tencent, who I liken to the High Elves of Rivendell. The things about the Elves is this: they are generally on the side of good, and can facilitate it; but they are not themselves a force for good since they sit far away from the battle, detached from it all. They too provide tools, but they may not tell you how to use them; their attention is ultimately elsewhere. The forces of Men ranged against Sauron – let us assume these are essentially a proxy for traditional retail and consumer business in the region – ultimately have to find the solution for themselves, aided at times by the Elves but not reliant on them. If I were to stretch this analogy ad absurdum, perhaps this makes the Dwarves JD.com with their grubby focus on gold and commerce; whilst Meituan the slightly nobler Rohirrim, since they, er, move around a lot on delivery scooters like the horses of the Riddermark. Which start-up will be the valiant hobbit which destroys Alibaba, God only knows.

The serious point to all this is that for old economy companies, it feels like making a choice is inevitable. But the more one looks at the giants of the new economy, the more apparent it is that in the conflict of “internet+” vs “+internet”, it will likely be the latter – especially established asset owners – that win out. In particular, it is difficult to imagine that in this inflated global asset price environment, that the business which need, as Alibaba and JD.com especially are doing, to build out a network of physical infrastructure can be the eventual winner. Well, maybe one early mover can, but the world is not about to be flooded with online victors – by and large, the winners will be whoever of the old economy players adapts best to the new, rather than a new economy player.

And this then comes down to the vision thing. I have another analogy: I call it the “Physics & Philosphy” dilemma™. P&P is a little known but highly intellectual degree at Oxford (arguably the most esoteric of all) which combines two subjects that are not immediately connected. Yes, it is true that in the first term, courses such as Logic may play a part in both areas but then it would appear the two diverge. Yet we should see this like the rings of Saturn: you start off at one point travelling in two opposite directions on the ring, and whilst they move far apart to begin with in the end they meet again. In P&P, the questions at the other end of the circle see the two disparate subjects poetically rejoin on questions such as: what lies beyond the Universe? What happens if time stops? What if light bends? What is not obvious when you start the degree, become enormously obvious by the time you end it.

And seeing what is on the other end of this ring – what exists on the “dark side of the planet” as it were – is the very thing that marks out business geniuses from mere mortals. It took Amazon 14 years to become profitable, but there seems little doubt that Bezos had an idea of what lurked out of his sight in the distance. Likewise Jobs as he labored through various versions of Apple. But the point is, old economy companies can equally achieve this. We know the famous examples of IBM and Intel reinventing themselves based on their competencies; Apple itself did so. Further back in history are companies like Berkshire Hathaway and General Electric, and even Nokia who started life in rubber products. Reinvention is hard, but the world has not ended just because a series of new giants seem to own everything in sight. If the old economy is to learn anything, it is that with courage and vision, and a will to innovate internally if imperfectly, the future is still going to be theirs. For every Amazon which succeeds, there will still be a dozen Walmarts and Targets which make it, stronger than before.

The technology giants will go down in history mostly as the midwives of change, delivering the new baby to their old economy counterparts. We are already seeing them do this, below the surface as Alibaba and JD.com start to crystalise value in real businesses where they can (finance, technology etc rather than the core e-commerce platforms which have rarely made money for anyone). In many ways they are merely pioneering the examples of what the future looks like, so that old economy companies can learn from it but probably implement it better – the Chinese O2O supermarket businesses are a case in point. Indeed the cheerleading nature of the new economy player’s roles in businesses like retail, ahead of its time, loss-leading and ultimately doomed as a standalone business, begs another more controversial comparison. The tech giants are St John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness; the old economy players are Jesus.

Why commentators like Martin Wolf are still firmly thinking inside the box on China

aging-population

China’s rise is not about following the conventional economic norms, and the reality is that an ageing population is probably better than a young one

China has always been a black box. For the whole of my professional life, companies (investment banks being amongst the worst) happily hire someone – anyone at all – who claims to know the Chinese market if they can make even a sliver of money. Consequently, these people are given free rein to build their own silos. For boards in London or New York, China remains “a faraway nation of whom we know nothing”. It is from this mysterious, exotic ignorance that reliably insightful commentators, from publications which should know better, produce some tired answers to tired questions. Sad to say, amongst them was a recent piece from Martin Wolf at the Financial Times titled The Future May Not Belong to China.

Now, the future may very well not belong to China. Much of what Wolf outlines from his Capital Economics report (rather too much from one source for my liking) is unarguably true: the over-investment, the under-consumption, the increasing corporate debt and reliance on exports. But they only change from fact to “problem” when seen through the same old prism of economic development. China though has been disrupting the whole framework through which one sees these issues, confounding a whole mini-industry of untiring China bears. Who can forget the inflation crisis of 2010 – 2011? The Chibor crisis in the summer of 2013? The stock market crisis in 2015? The capital outflow crisis over 2016 – 2017? In each of these and many others besides, China was to be “found out”; it never was, not because the facts were inaccurate but because the basis for observation by outsiders was so incomplete (although to be fair some of the facts were also inaccurate). The fact that the naysayers and doom-mongers have been consistently wrong may be a cheap point to make, but it is worth making nonetheless. The only laws of economics, it seems, are the ones amateur journalists derive from their undergraduate readings of Adam Smith, Ricardo and Keynes.

china bears

A non-exhaustive list of China bear headlines since 1990

However I would submit two additional unrelated and possibly more controversial theses. The first is that the way China encounters these perceived crises is actually a mark of its success in terms of being on a pathway to global power, rather than a failure. There is a reason why China encounters “difficulties” where Japan, during its own precipitous rise in the 1970s, did not: China is actively trying to change the world it is living in. These crises are the tremors generated by moving tectonic plates, as Chinese objectives grate against the rules and outcomes it is being measured against. Currency and capital flows, interest rates, debt and the banking system – these are all examples of Chinese policy that do not make macro-economic sense until you factor in that it wants to change the system and if it plays its cards right, it probably can. We are faced with the first occasion since the United States back in the 1840s, where the world may have to accommodate a new power, and accordingly the rules will change. For China, this friction is good.

japan china gdp

Source: The Economist (2010)

To run through just one example of this, let us look at capital outflows. The reason capital outflows seem like a “crisis” is that the Chinese government wants to control the currency rather than let it be determined by the market. To pay for this, it must use foreign exchange reserves to keep the exchange rate stable. This becomes a huge cost when the environment is weak – except that the reason China does this is to try and make the RMB a regionally accepted trade and reserve currency. This could be done through just trade alone, but in China’s case it will also be done through the crypto-imperialism of the Belt & Road and other initiatives. If it succeeds, it will both eat into America’s ability to project power through the dollar, as well as ultimately encourage greater consumption of Chinese-made goods which in turn once again brings capital flows back into balance. It is a risky and expensive, all-or-nothing gamble; but unlike merely acquiescing into the current world system, if it succeeds it will have changed the regional financial and trade landscape. A price, some would say, worth paying.

The second thesis focuses on the cliché that China may be facing the middle income trap – that it may “get old before it gets rich”. This is typically paired with the curiously British trait of enthusiasm for India as an alternative story. Yet I would argue that with the coming of automation, China is actually on the right side of history on this and that far from fearing age, the adage should be turned on its head: for many comparable countries it is youth, not age, which will be a great peril; and these countries may be too young to ever get rich.

We have for some decades been fed the neoliberal trope that a younger population is good for the economy, and that pursuit of youth, through birthrates or immigration, is a Good Thing. Yet we are fast approaching the point where this notion is being exposed, because automation is actually a process which will eat into youth employment rather than any other. China’s workforce is actually declining and has been for some years, just in time for robots to start taking over.

The process of classic industralisation is just one of various models for a country to develop. But in this particular model, families can contribute labour rather than capital in order to obtain greater earnings, and thereby over time accumulate household assets. For many countries though, this industrialisation may never now be possible. The Economist noted as much when opining that the pathway of development exhibited by the China + ASEAN axis is probably irreplicable by anyone else including markets in Africa and South America. Goods may be manufactured in some of these economies, but it will be robots that do most of it and young median households will never cross either the asset-owning or educational thresholds required to survive automation before it hits.

Now, it may be that these countries find other models to become rich, but I doubt it. Agriculture or resource extraction will be possible for only a precious few. The mercantile model is not stable or sustainable. Services, as we have seen, actually produce a lower return on labour than industrialization does since jobs are often of a lower quality. In any case one of the stark lessons of 2016 was the fact that in 29 out of 50 states in the US, trucking was the single most common form of employment – and this, more so than manufacturing, is where automation will first hit.

us job types

Source: NPR (2015)

The fact is that to weather automation, median family assets need to reach a critical mass enough to be “invested” into the economy such that they can be gainers from robot productivity rather than victims. The most obvious if questionable form of asset-ownership would be home-ownership, but in an ideal world it would take other forms. China’s urban population has just about caught this train (financial income growth has far outstripped wage growth in recent years), but younger populations in India or Vietnam may not make it. Young people inevitable have fewer assets having had less time to earn; if their family does not reach this critical automation-neutralising financial position, they face eternal unemployment. OECD economies mitigate this conundrum somewhat through welfare transfers, but welfare is another privilege of long term asset accumulation by Society – a privilege emerging markets do not have. It is a race against time and any country that fails to achieve this will be left without a chair when the music stops.

In this context, I have little time for those who argue, as Wolf does, that India is “the most interesting other economy” (Americans I have noticed, tend to use Vietnam as their preferred example). As one of my friends commented, “the human race will probably be extinct before India has an airport like Pudong”. Taken individually, each of these points (China’s extra-economic rise and youth being a greater concern than age) have huge implications about the rules and framework for emerging market development theory. Taken together however, they may represent a perfect storm which leading to an inflection point in global economic development. In this case, being wedded to the old ideas, commentators like Wolf are probably missing it.

Critics of the film Crazy Rich Asians don’t really understand it

Family

I will admit it: I liked Crazy Rich Asians. In fact, I liked the movie so much that I went to watch it twice at the cinema. This does not appear to put me in good company, since most of the film’s fans seem to fall into the lobby of trite Asian empowerment, whilst normally thoughtful commentators are calling it a “disappointment” and a “missed opportunity”. Inevitably, it has also fallen victim to those saying it is not representative enough of the Singaporean society it aims to depict.

Yet all of this rather miss the point, and misses the film’s genius. Yes, Crazy Rich Asians contains a charming if generic tale of the poor-girl-conquers-rich-family; yes, the film gives uneducated audiences Asia’s own Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, of which many would be unaware; and yes, it is a glorious exposition of pan-Asian pride and “arrival” – the film’s opening sequence in a London hotel almost seems an almost gratuitous assertion of the changing balance of power between Asia and the West. Yet all of this represents only a superficial comprehension of the film, and mostly, one seen through an inherently western lens.

Rather, Crazy Rich Asians is a profound social commentary about the state of the Chinese diaspora, its diversity and depth, and the gravitational forces that are pulling it apart. What Jon Chu (and author Kevin Kwan) have done is brought into focus the central question vexing much of Beijing, Kuala Lumpur of Los Angeles: who owns Chinese identity? To understand the real meaning of this film is to understand the transcendent nature of what it means to be part of the Greater Chinese world.

There are, at heart, two main stereotypes of this Chinese diaspora, and two Chinas, being juxtaposed against each other (at this point I am going to note that I use various monikers with caution, and expect the reader to understand the general thrust of the label rather than be unhelpfully bogged down by the minutiae of definitions).

OCs

The first, represented most prominently by Eleanor Young (rather than, I think, by her own mother-in-law) is that of the historic “overseas Chinese” community, who by and large left China before 1949 and in the largest numbers during the upheavals of the 19th century. These are the communities which populated India, Burmah and Malaya, before sometimes going on to Britain or further afield. The Chinese of Singapore, where Crazy Rich Asians is set, and Malaysia, where it is partly filmed, are central to this, as were the former Chinese communities in Bombay, Calcutta and Rangoon amongst others. Families of this ilk regard themselves immutably as the guardians of true Chinese culture as handed down by millennia of history prior to the 20th century. Their China is “China”; all else, whether the contemporary Mainland or the migrants to America, is ersatz.

The second group, depicted principally by Rachel Chu, is that of the classic American-born Chinese (“ABC”), somewhat unfairly maligned in the film as a “banana”. But this term hides a multitude of sins, since there are plenty of families of Chinese descent in the US who are far more traditional and in-line with Eleanor Young than is the protagonist here; really the story is of Rachel’s mother Kerry, whose story is not explicit in the movie but who can readily inferred as being one of the post-1980 New China emigres (as indeed related in the books). This cohort, whilst being “Chinese”, were already Chinese of the post-Cultural Revolution era and bear all the rootlessness of that. Their story of emigration is far different to that of the pre-1949 generation and it is telling in attitude, outlook, habits and behavior of their children. This is particularly true of the US where assimilation is most culturally demanded, but also to a lesser extent in Canada and Britain. For them, there is not a lot tying them to the China their parents escaped.

ABCs

The film also adds a few other Chinese ingredients into mix. The Mainland is barely mentioned, presumably in order not to offend the new owners of Hollywood studios and allow the movie a chance to be shown in the world’s second largest market. Instead though, Hong Kong (through cousin Eddie Cheng) is used as a proxy for the Mainland’s gauche, parvenu ways – and ironically, since Hong Kong is rather more brash and arriviste than they would like to think, the proxy is rather fitting. This is perhaps a nuanced little dig at all those Honkie elites who think so much of themselves. Next the grandmother, Shang Su Yi (again not named in the film but in the books) is a veiled reference at the legendary domineering of Shanghainese women. Taiwan indeed is probably the largest omission from the storyline, being referenced only in passing. Lastly there is Singapore itself which, although portrayed as a centre for overseas Chinese is actually a modernity unto itself, as represented by the Goh family of nouveau riche ah beng’s and ah lian’s. Much of Singapore is barely recognizable for the traditional Chinese of London or even KL; in terms of real Chinese culture, Malaysia is what Singapore thinks it is – thus making the filming location even more poignant.

Neither the Young’s or the Chu’s reside in China today, but the conflict between them raging everywhere from Singapore to San Francisco, is deep, passionate and fierce. The overseas Chinese community of pre-1949 are both proud and condescending precisely because the China of their heritage is still so dominant. Crazy Rich Asians is fundamentally a homage to, and the story of, this peculiar overseas Chinese world and the enormous struggle it has faced in being the bearer of the one true Chinese light, whilst being weighed down on one side by the magnitude of Mainland China and on the other by the dilution amongst ABCs. Even for western audiences, this is obvious: the stereotype of the thrifty family that keeps the plastic wrapping on the dining room chair set (think Fresh Off the Boat) is real – but it is also specific to southern Chinese families who went overseas. Northern culture, which now dominates middle class life in Beijing and even Shanghai, is not thrifty but rather garish spendthrifts who will throw money at anything. Not for them the lessons of trauma and hard work. And as a final insult, we are now in a world where Simplified Chinese characters, by sheer scale of the PRC’s importance, is now the default Chinese – no foreigner today would dream of learning anything Traditional.

I would be inclined to make the lazy assertion that those who do not get Crazy Rich Asians are just too shallow to appreciate its many levels. Yet I cannot, because the true beauty of the film is precisely that such people are a part of the story; the very fact that they do not fully comprehend it is part of the greater contradiction which Chinese are posing to each other. This movie is aimed at multiple audiences, and satisfies each in its own way. Its enduring strength is the way each audience will respond differently and no-one really finishes with the same viewpoint on who they sympathise with and support – Eleanor or Rachel? Indeed many Chinese may not think any of the story is relevant to them; but it is more so than they may ever realise.

Being myself from a Chinese family of southern provenance who arrived via Calcutta to Britain, my instinct is to agree that our true culture is that transmitted through the strict guardianship of overseas Chinese communities. But having spent the greater part of my life in the Mainland and having had the rare privilege of knowing Beijing as far back as the 1980s, I understand also where New China comes from and its impulses. These Three Chinas – the PRC, overseas Chinese and ABCs – are all locked in the kind of conflict which is characterized by the (Anglo-American) maxim of being “separated by a single language”. The reason the film is so successful is that it stirs so much in each of these various China’s, but does so both severally and collectively. Just one example is the soundtrack, which includes everything from the Shanghai jazz scene of the 1930s to the world of 1970s Cantopop covers, to Chinese contestants on The Voice. The sheer range of the music, its roots and influences, is a story of Chinese culture through the ages.

So whilst Crazy Rich Asians can come across as pedestrian to the uninitiated, the complicated and nuanced realities which the showy aesthetics overlay are equally important. I am sure that Jon Chu set out to tell this very story of divergence and disruption, knowing that each of his audiences would find something different to enjoy (and criticize it for). But even if he did not, for those who truly understand the complex tapestry that forms the world of the Chinese diaspora, he has created a masterpiece that repays watching, and poses socio-cultural questions of us which will not only not go away, but will only become more prominent. This painful dilemma is the challenge being faced by tens of millions across the world, parents, grandparents and others, who this film is designed to represent and tell the story of. To look at Michelle Yeoh is to feel the grip of generations over our Chinese souls and on some level, to think, “I understand why she is us, and we are her”. It speaks powerfully about our identity, and forces us to contemplate what it is to be without it. This is a seminal work of Chinese cultural existentialism, cleverly wrapped in pop culture – it is an Asian Banksy; it is MC Hotdog expressing Hegel.

It is not so much about “seeing ourselves on screen”, so much as “what is to become of us?”. Perhaps in the next installment, we will be told.

The End of Entrepôts – why the future is big, not small

Lugard

Photo: Lord Lugard with the Legco in 1909

It is one of the most oft-repeated fallacies in modern politics that the future is destined to be ever smaller and fragmented. One only has observe the fetishization of breakaway movements such as Scotland or Catalonia and hear the accompanying, knowing murmurs telling us that in political terms at least, atomization is the way of the future – small is beautiful. Some still reach further back, summoning up the collapse of the Soviet Union as proof that all large entities must collapse.

This is completely at odds with reality, on a number of levels. First, recent history has, far from being driven by a narrative of devolution, instead been dominated by the rise of “big countries” which in turn are resurrecting their own brand of Great Power relations. The corresponding decline in relevance of smaller entities is pronounced – most noticeably in the shape of individual European nations which have seen their weight fall off considerably. The 2010 Copenhagen agreement, where Obama sidelined the Europeans to reach straight for emerging giants, was an early sign of this; the gradual extinction of the Quadrilateral in determining trade policy was another.

Indeed in my 2013 paper on China and multilateralism, I noted that the world is if anything heading towards a new “community of empires”, with both the foreign and domestic policies of China, Brazil and India joining the US and Russia in pursuing an unrelentingly imperial logic. In response, those outside of their orbit are banding together to form what are prima facie trade blocs, but which are in reality the beginnings of something much more. Whether the European Union, ASEAN or Mercosur, nation-states are ceding sovereignty slowly but surely for the express purpose of aggregating their power in the world beyond. Even in unexpected corners of functioning humanity such as East Africa, union is the name of the game. Status and size do not have a linear correlation; as one reaches critical mass, the relationship becomes exponential. A power ten times as large as its neighbours is far more than ten times as important.

At the heart of this is a simple thesis: in the long run, the power of any country will be determined by the size of its population (with a shared identity – more of that another time), somewhat adjusted for a country’s natural resource base. In the long run, all else is mere noise. Yes, certain countries or civilisations may exercise disproportionate power for a period of time, even centuries. This can have any number of causes but often it is because of temporary technological disparities – temporary because in the long run, all technology will permeate meaning that we arrive back at where we started: population. Any vision of a world where the largest population blocks are not the most important countries must be premised on a smaller, more nimble country actively and exploitatively keeping larger population blocks subject. This was a kernel of much of European colonialism of the 19th century (which should not be conflated with a general model of imperialism exercised in human history).

Now in the long run, as Keynes says, we are all dead. So does it matter? I would say yes it does, particularly for those living in and around the rising powers of Asia such as China, Indonesia and to a lesser extent, India. Because some of these changes are no longer concerns for the long term, but coming to maturity now.

One lesson is this: the age of entrepôts such as Hong Kong and Singapore is fast coming to an end. In the future, there will be no space for such outposts any longer, at least in their current form. This is because the very existence of such centres is a lingering post-colonial legacy, based on an economic system that is now no longer extant. City-states like Singapore thrive because they are a form of offshoring, and the offshoring they offer is reaching the end of its useful life.

We should be crystal clear that offshoring has two forms: there is offshoring for work a country does not want to do, and offshoring for work it cannot do. On the one hand, there is what we classically understand as “offshoring” where one jurisdiction offers a cheaper way of producing goods and services for a richer one – offshoring from below. Textiles in Bangladesh fall into this, as does the core of China’s economic rise during the 1990s and 2000s. The second form is what hubs such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Dubai and even London offer to an extent – offshoring  from above. They provide capabilities that other poorer, less developed countries cannot do themselves.

The problem is that much of the world is catching up. There is precious little that can be done in Hong Kong today that cannot be done in China; yet Hong Kong really only exists to serve the Chinese economy, much as some lament its progress to becoming “just another” Chinese port. Singapore is safer for the moment, but it is still implausible to imagine that Malaysia, much less Indonesia, will allow the island to remain an offshoring hub for high value-added industries such as finance. As with China, they will end up doing everything themselves. The post-colonial legacy of substantially inadequate skills and infrastructure will be bridged, if not today, then tomorrow. At that point, the city-states will have precious little left. This is a problem not faced by Bangladesh – but then no-one wants to be Bangladesh. There is a reason why entrepôts barely exist in the OECD and if they do, they service a tiny, marginal sliver of their neighbours’ economic life as Jersey or the British Virgin Islands do. It is because there is no room at the top.

Britain suffers from many of the same issues. Plenty have lauded the supposed rebirth of the British automotive industry, and in a few instances, this is well justified. But for every Aston Martin or Morgan, where real value-add and R&D is achieved in the UK, there is a far bigger presence of Nissan or Toyota. The latter however, are essentially a little Bangladesh model – investment into the UK occurs not because of any inherent capabilities, but because we are marginally cheaper and have fewer regulatory restrictions (unionization etc) than regional neighbours. This is not much of a national dream.

The other side of the UK is that of the entrepôt. Here I am referring to her services exports – but not the headline-grabbing financial services sector, which will be pretty easily replicable elsewhere, but rather industries such as advertising, publishing, design and architecture which are more genuinely unique. And one can tell that they are unique, since whereas the UK can barely export any financial services to the big empire economies of the US or China, it sells large quantities of stylish design. The problem is, this is nowhere near enough to support an independent UK – the idea of the UK becoming a “Singapore of Europe” is beyond fanciful, as I have noted before.

Singapore has been conspicuous in how strongly it clings to and pushes for ASEAN. And the reason is clear: if ASEAN does not succeed in binding the region together, Singapore will soon have nothing to offer its larger neighbours. Only a union of sorts will allow it to continue holding a position of import. Hong Kong’s commercial residents have long acquiesced to the fact that it will have to be another Chinese city, albeit one offering some special rules and playing a specific role. Hong Kong’s flagship airline’s troubles reflect the decline of hub-and-spoke trade in favour of point-to-point, and are a microcosm of how the whole economy is developing. Dubai will play off the inability of regional giants to pull their weight (Iran, Egypt and Turkey) but if and when they do, it too will face the same problems of reinvention.

But the old model of “Singapore” is a complacent and condescending anachronism – and those pushing the model for countries like Britain are living a sheer fantasy.

Explaining the Umbrella and Sunflower protests

As a brief follow-on from my previous piece on Taiwan, I have done a quick and dirty analysis on what is driving youth discontent in Greater China, and specifically what has arisen in Hong Kong and Taiwan in recent years.

In this single chart, I believe I capture what I would call the “aspiration deficit” in being a young person in these two jurisdictions today. Here I have calculated the house pricing and rental in key cities as a multiple of graduate starting salaries.

Graduate salaries

Sources:

  1. Graduate salaries for PRC cities from Baidu News, as per 2017
  2. Graduate salary for Hong Kong from SCMP, as per 2016
  3. Graduate salary for Taiwan from Taipei Times, as per 2016
  4. House price and rental data from Knight Frank Greater China Property Market Report Q3 2017, based on Luxury Residential

The caveats: this is not designed to give any sort of rule of thumb about how long it takes to save for a flat, or how much is used up of income to pay for rent. I may even come up with a better methodology going forward – if the data allows. Instead, this exercise is simply a measure of what pressure there is on the dreams of those who newly come onto the job market, having been promised that their four years at university would lead them to a better life. This is why the luxury Residential market is I think an adequate metric on which to judge.

What is shows is quite how desperate prospects are for many of those in Hong Kong and Taiwan. Their earnings are stagnant, yet house pricing is going up. Welfare is better than in China, but the infrastructure is beginning to creak. The idea of looking after themselves – let alone looking after their parents – seems distant; and of course having children in this environment is ever less appetising. This is perhaps the single largest contributor to the upheavals experienced from students and other youth in the Umbrella and Sunflower movements – and it explains why so many young people see their future in China or elsewhere abroad.

To bring this back to politics, I wrote some time ago on the problems Beijing has had in relying on local tycoons to press their case in Hong Kong:

… less obvious has been how housing prices are preventing young local Hong Kong residents from starting lives properly, and in this as with much else the fault lies in a government that has existed to serve the tycoons – let us call them the Oligarchs – instead of the people. Beijing has been complicit in this since it decided to use the Oligarchs as a shortcut towards legitimacy after the handover. In colonial times, many tycoons were respected by locals as examples of being able to escape the unspoken racial glass ceiling, but since 1997 these Oligarchs have gone on to really take local people for a ride. Beijing is now paying the price for siding with the rich against the poor for so long. There is a limited amount of time that this can continue before Beijing must begin to change sides.

The same, in a sense, is true of Taiwan, where the big business lobby has been allowed to get rich off mainland China, repatriate their earnings and create asset bubbles in Taiwan that put home ownership increasingly beyond the reach of locally based graduates. It is a death spiral for aspiration – and it is this, much more than any real impact on living standards – which diminishes the legitimacy of any regime.

China is reinventing the equity markets – and Britain’s aspirations are shrinking

First, the exposition:

  1. Exuberance for equity as a class of investment reflects how confident a given society is in their future; preference for fixed income indicates the opposite
  2. China has been reinventing the equity markets for some time now, becoming the first country since the rise of the US to really have the risk appetite for it
  3. In doing so it is breaking the convention of maturing countries in the region (Japan, Korea, Taiwan) as well as ageing civilisations such as Europe
  4. As with so much else, China is the new America

The above can be seen in a number of ways. Consider this: despite the scare stories about rising Chinese debt, it is in fact equity (both institutional and private capital) which has mostly funded fixed asset investment in recent years – averaging 66% over the last decade versus just 52% over the decade before. Anecdotally too, we know that all around us in China new startups have no problems accessing micro-equity from friends and family for the most spurious of businesses.

Self-raised funding as a % of fixed asset investment in China, 1995 – 2016

Self-raised funds.png

Source: National Bureau of Statistics

Note: the NBS splits out five categories of funding for FAI, namely Government Budgetary Funds, Domestic Loans, Foreign Investment, Self-Raising Funds and Other Funds. It is reasonable to assume that Self-Raising Funds constitutes equity investment, and that a portion of Foreign Investment may also do.

Likewise, institutional equity and equity linked investments account for a higher proportion of Chinese asset allocation than their East Asian peers – and are more reminiscent of the US in approaching 60% of allocations. Conservative Japan and Korea are the reverse. Small wonder then, that annual stock turnover in China is far higher than other markets (around 5.0x compared to c. 1.5x in the US, Korea and Japan) given the limited supply of listed equity.

Equity proportion of total non-cash household financial assets, 2016

China vs peers portfolio allocation.png

Source: Goldman Sachs Investment Research, 2016

Again, this reflects the fundamentals of not only an economy, but the society on which it sits. Buoyant equity markets reflect confidence not just in business, but in the system and the role of a country in the world. This is especially true when we think about equity provided by the retail markets, either through stock markets, or its proxies, or through earlier stage funding such as seed and venture funding where China is now the world’s second largest market. The basic principle is that when tomorrow seems like it will be better than today, people will gamble.

China still has a long way to go, of course. Its stock market capitalization per capita at c. US$6,000, still lags its peers and is just one thirteenth that of the US (and no, PPP is not appropriate here). Its private equity market, though already Asia’s largest, still has some way to catch up also at only one-third of North America. Nonetheless, China seems to be well placed to pick up the baton from the US of driving the whole culture of equity and all its attendant benefits.

And it matters. The point about equity is not just that it is one source of funding, but rather that it is a source of long-term funding and seeding for growth. A country that begins preferring fixed income to equity is giving up on its future, but also giving up on the idea of being a leader in innovation and technology. It is no coincidence that America has been the world’s great equity proponent for the last century and the cradle of  most technology; or that China is following in its footsteps. These are the hallmarks of “big countries” that make their own rules and are a force in the world.

On the other hand, a country like the UK should be very worried indeed: equity in portfolio allocations has declined alarmingly from well before the 2008 crisis. This reflects some ageing – but the ageing profile is less severe than many of its neighbours. Rather, I believe it reflects a psychological retreat from aspiration.

Changes in broad strategic asset allocation for UK plans, 2003 – 2017

UK asset allocations

Source: Mercer European Asset Allocation Survey 2017

This, much more than Brexit or the reduction of blue water navy capacity, indicates the decline of British aspirations. On a recent podcast, someone asked “but how close is China to really producing an Apple?”; the curt reply came, “how close is Britain?”, alluding to the even greater absurdity of such a prospect. If this continues, Britain will certainly no longer be a “big country”.

Private equity with Chinese characteristics

Elsewhere, I intend to reflect on my pet theme that China is reinventing – and indeed single-handedly resurrecting – equity as an asset class. In my opinion, this reflects an underlying self-confidence and correlates with the emergence of other equity cultures such as the Netherlands in the 18th century, England / Britain in the 19th and America in the 20th century, in contrast to the contemporary Japans, Koreas and Taiwans of this world.

In the meantime, developments in Chinese private equity are also worth noting. For a start, when we talk about private equity in Asia ex-Japan, we are effectively talking about just one country: the PE market in Greater China reached US$222bn in 2016, whereas SE Asia combined only managed US$37bn. The ASEAN region has not yet emerged as a market of material scale.

However the prevailing orthodoxies of PE in China are also showing that the market will not come to simply resemble OECD behavior. As many observers will know, Chinese funds operate in a grey area between classic private equity and venture capital, and sometimes throw in an element of special situations or even hedge funds to boot. This comes through in the types of deals that are done – whereas conventional buyouts still account for almost 80% of the N American market, in China this is just 20%. Instead, growth capital and PIPEs account for a much larger chunk, itself revealing that PE funds typically take smaller stakes in Chinese targets and rarely buy the whole company.

Asian private equity deals by type (2012 – 2016)

PE by type

Source: AVCJ and Prequin via Bain Asia Pacific Private Equity Report 2017

Why is this? There are a number of reasons which play a part:

  1. Stage of development – the simple point that in a high growth market, sellers may be younger and in any case desire to have a greater piece of the future upside that a company might yet deliver. It also means that there is less appetite for use of debt in the transaction.
  2. Exit liquidity – by far the biggest problem PE funds have had in emerging markets is a clear pathway to exit. Recent turmoil in the Chinese stock markets for instance cause a lower risk appetite for funds, who may find it easier to sell a stake than to shepherd the company to IPO.
  3. Control issues – perhaps the most important matter, PE funds do not always have the confidence to take a company over completely since they will be susceptible to the vagaries of China country risk. A partner of some sort often seems necessary to keep a company functioning the way it has been historically.
  4. LP involvement – this leads neatly to the preponderance of strategic investors who exist in the market, and who it is better to work with than against. LP involvement in deals stands at 29% in APAC and an enormous 57% of deals over US$1bn, compared to a global average of just 17%.

LP involvement in transactions

LP involvement

Source: Bain Asia Pacific Private Equity Report 2017

So where does all this leave us? In my mind, there are a range of different players in the Chinese PE market, and they fulfill a range of roles. On the one hand, there are the classic international players, but often these are not capable of realistically doing a deal on their own without some sort of local partner angle. On the other end of the scale, you have the very Chinese funds who retain many of the classic characteristics of Chinese business ambiguity in their dealings – at times almost seemingly linked to the state. In between you have the good stuff – the international firms who have really localized and look and smell like Chinese funds; and the few local funds who have really made an effort to westernize in their business practices, if not their focus.

Here, purely subjectively based on my own experience, is an overview of the landscape of funds in and around China:

Chinese PE.png

This will cause many an argument, I am sure. But I have tried think about ways of reflecting the degree of “localisation” too. The best I could come up with involving an excel spreadsheet was to analyse where these funds were keeping their staff – the more onshore, the more localised they might be supposed. The results were interesting if not conclusive:

PE by office.png

Source: company websites

Warburg Pincus and Blackstone represent good counterpoints. Warburg is by common consensus one of the most successful foreign funds in China, and its staffing reflects this since more than half of the Asia employees are based in Beijing and Shanghai. This reflects the 26 Greater China deals they have done against the 4 in ASEAN. Blackstone on the other hand, prefer to hub-and-spoke out of Hong Kong (a business model which has had its day, as I have written before). Their deal count is correspondingly lower. It need not be added that sheer numbers of staff can help, but only if they are the right staff in the right places.

The lesson of all this is simple: China will be a very large, profitable private equity market, but it will do so on its own terms. As with much else, assuming that China will develop along the lines of its OECD counterparts is a recipe for disaster. Whilst it has some of the framework for creating a functioning market, the behavior will be totally different. Foreign participants will have a role, but they will have to adapt. This will be, as Deng Xiaoping said, private equity “with Chinese characteristics”; but perhaps we can also add, it does not matter if it is a local cat or a foreign cat, as long as it catches deals?

Why Chinese firms have a succession problem

Chinese society has long produced family business empires. A quick glance at any list of Asian tycoon families show them to be omnipresent, whether in Hong Kong and Taiwan or the further flung diaspora in SE Asia – including in Thailand and Indonesia where Chinese surnames have become so mutated as to be almost unrecognizable. It is not just Kwoks, Kweks and Lees, but the Hartonos and the Chearavanonts who are furthering traditional Chinese family values.

Everywhere that is, except China. It is fascinating to consider what is likely to happen on the Mainland over the next two decades, when the first generation of post-Deng businessmen finally start to retire. Many have noted the succession crisis facing these companies for some time; empirically, I have yet to meet a single 富二代 who has any intention at all of managing their parents’ business after their retirement. It is not just personal experience, either: a recent PwC survey showed some startling numbers contrasting modern China with its overseas counterparts.

Picture1

Source: PwC Family Business Survey (2016)

Fewer than one in five Chinese entrepreneurs surveyed indicated that they intended to pass down the business. This compares with somewhat higher numbers in Singapore, higher again in Malaysia and Hong Kong (c. 40%) and far less than in the most directly comparable jurisdiction, Taiwan. Here, almost three fifths of families want their children to take over – and indeed, they have already gone through one or more generational handover.

Why is this? The obvious point to make is that, as with so many other aspects, China will not be following any known development paths. But there are probably a few more specific reasons too.

First, there is the entire structure of the economy and the perceived pathway towards exit. Speaking to SMEs, many will tell you that their end game is to list the company, which is true as far as it goes. But the more important point is that they see the government as the likely ultimate inheritors of any important business, either officially or unofficially. In this sense, the incentive for dynasticism is limited and becomes less relevant the more successful a venture becomes. Instead, monetization remains the key aspiration.

Secondly, there is the creeping issue of inheritance laws. Again, we have yet to see the first real fortunes and large scale asset inheritances being tested in the Chinese legal system and anecdotally, it is notable that increasingly numbers of the Chinese middle classes have ceased to give birth abroad, fearing what the implications might be when largely domestic legacies come to be divided up under Chinese law. For companies which have now been successfully “domesticated” through policies such as a stringent foreign exchange regime, this becomes the same question writ large.

Most intriguingly of all though is the prospect of meaningful cultural change. Overseas Chinese families have an unbending sense of filial piety even today, with many younger generations taking over family businesses despite not wanting to. Modern China, post the Cultural Revolution and factoring in the One Child Policy, much less so. Furthermore, children educated in western business schools clash with their parents over management style. And for many, the rapid change in the Chinese economy means that their parents’ businesses are just too damned unsexy, as one observer notes:

The transition is particularly evident in the manufacturing industry; many children who are educated abroad shun the manufacturing sector and prefer to seek opportunities in finance and other ‘cool’ areas. Fortune Generation estimates more than 65 per cent of children whose parents own manufacturing businesses don’t want to be involved in the industry.

Why put the hours in, when you could use your parents money for funding the latest absurd tech startup?

However whilst this is all bad news for champions of Chinese traditions and parents who want to see more of their children, this does mean an impending surge of opportunities for  investors. It seems those PE funds really ought to be speaking first and foremost to the sprawling private wealth arms of the investment banks, rather than their corporate finance people.