Over the past few years, there have been questions about whether the “smart money” is leaving China. For example, high-profile, Hong Kong businessman Li Kashing has been reorganizing his empire to lighten the amount of Chinese property assets he owns, and refocusing on other parts of the world, principally Europe. So, is the smart money leaving? Well, in this case, it is hard to know, as it can be very difficult to separate personal issues from hard-nosed investment decisions or tactical shifts in allocations between regions.
In any case, mainland property assets are still a very significant part of Li’s wealth and in some cases, even though he has been shedding some property, associated companies still retain an interest in the management of those properties. More recently, too, other businesses with at least as strong a pedigree in China have been making significant acquisitions in their core businesses there, particularly in consumer-facing sectors. So, not all the “smart money” is necessarily moving in the same direction. There have definitely been some recent retrenchments from China by multinational companies. As American businessman Jeffrey Immelt has said, “China is big, but it is hard. Other places are equally big, but not quite as hard.” Sometimes it is easier for home-grown companies, focused primarily on their domestic market, to succeed.
Perhaps more significant are the recent sales by some Hong Kong banks of banking assets held on the mainland. Is this a way of taking some of the risk out of the balance sheets of Hong Kong banks? There has been some concern in recent years over the growth in loans to the corporate sector, and potentially in exposure to rising nonperforming loans on the mainland. Since last year, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) has been far more public about lending details of Hong Kong bank loans to Chinese corporates. Mainland assets at the end of 2013 had grown to 17% of Hong Kong bank assets. Hong Kong remains eager to grow its role as a financial center for China over the long term. But it seems apparent that the HKMA is at least somewhat concerned over the pace of growth of the mainland market and its ability to regulate such activity. In addition, some regional banks with mainland loans have been reassessing the risk of these assets, particularly among state-owned enterprises. But even here, though the near-term concern is over rising non-performing loans, this reassessment may be in part a symptom of the belief that these companies will become gradually slightly more commercial and lose some of the implicit backing of the state. Apart from the implications for banks’ risk, would that be such a bad thing?
Then there is the long term—who are the buyers of China’s assets. Well, I would argue—we are. U.S. investment in Chinese securities is at very low levels. According to Treasury data, less than 3% of U.S. residents’ holdings of foreign equities are in China and Hong Kong combined. Although the absolute level has grown throughout the 2000s, it is now little changed since 2010. And it makes sense from the point of view of diversification for the U.S. to be buying more Chinese assets and the Chinese to be buying more U.S. assets.
Let’s not forget that every sell is a buy – greater foreign ownership of China is likely to go hand in hand with greater China ownership of foreign assets– witness China’s investment abroad climbing from 2% of the world’s total (as of 2006) to nearly 6% as estimated at the end of 2013. Indeed, we have seen some Chinese insurance companies starting to buy real estate and other assets since China’s regulators made this easier in 2012. (New York’s Waldorf Astoria is now Chinese-owned.) Programs such as the development of the corporate bond market in China, the development of an over-the-counter market, the mutual fund industry, better regulation of and capital allocation by the Chinese banking industry and capital markets all has a dual purpose: not only to raise the efficiency and attractiveness of investing for domestic investors, but also to reassure and attract foreign investors. For it is only by achieving long-term demand for Chinese assets (alongside the significant demand for Chinese goods) that China is likely able to achieve international status for its currency.
So, is China for sale? Most assuredly yes. This partly reflects the decisions of some high profile businessmen, which grab headlines but which are an imperfect guide to the real trends. It partly reflects, one suspects, an attempt by regulators and banks to get a handle on growing mainland risk exposure. But it also reflects a natural trend of greater cross-border holdings of assets between China and the rest of the world. Over the long term, China will likely continue to be “for sale,” in my opinion, as demand for Chinese assets from foreign investors and central banks continues to grow. As always, it only really matters what price you pay.
Robert Horrocks, PhD, is Chief Investment Officer at Matthews Asia.
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