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How US Investment Banking Excesses Helped China’s State Sector

When the banking crisis broke in September 2008, the global economy went into shock and nearly collapsed. The Chinese government was widely seen as being the most proactive in reacting to the crisis, injecting more than US$570 billion into the Chinese economy.

Because China’s four leading banks are all state-owned, all of this money quickly reached Chinese state-owned companies. This stood in stark contrast to the US, where the banks were bailed out, but the money did not make it to companies and individuals, largely because the banks sat on the cash received, mainly to cover their own capital losses, and in many cases, to pay out bonuses to management.

Only recently have the Obama administration and congress started tentative investigations into the investment banking practices which brought the world economy so close to the brink. Since the US economy is now largely based on FIRe (finance, insurance and real estate), and because the financial lobby is the most powerful and well-funded lobby in Washington DC, changes and reforms have been slow in coming. In spite of this, even in the early days of the investigation, there are signs that there was more to it than just investment bankers flogging poorly understood derivatives to unknowing corporate clients, there was deliberate fraud at the heart of it.

Today, the Chinese government and economy have come out of the crisis smelling like a rose. Certain indicators, such as auto sales in China, show China overtaking the US as global leader, and unlikely to relinquish it back to the US. Compared to the US and EU, China seems positively great, and the government has made all the right moves, investing in infrastructure and keeping Chinese consumers happy and spending. Optimists believe that now Chinese consumers and its middle class have stepped in and filled the gap left by the weakening of the US consumer.

Looking a little deeper though, while the Chinese government has succeeded in the short-term, their moves raise long-term questions. Here are some of the problems:

  • Most of the money found its way to Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs), many of which are in commodity imports and heavy manufacturing such as autos.
  • China’s economic development is following the US economic development of the 1950s; which is oil-based transport. Imports of coal and oil have dramatically increased in the past year in spite of government efforts to diversify to nuclear, wind and solar.
  • As the Chinese government funnels more money through its state-owned banks into SOEs, the party and the government ironically have less control over them. Recently, the Chinese government has used administrative measures, such as ordering 73 companies out of the real estate sector and, in some cases, dismissing executives on corruption charges, but these are not a long-term solution to a systemic problem.
  • More Chinese university graduates look for jobs in SOEs instead of the private sector, seeking job stability instead of looking for better job opportunities, or a chance to start their own business as in previous years.
  • For the most part, Chinese SOEs are over-staffed and inefficient. But because of the crisis, and the overall makeup of China’s economy, they seemed destined to take up a bigger part of China’s GDP.
  • China’s seemingly unquenchable demand for commodities and raw materials, is in large part, driven by a lack of faith in derivatives. This is directly related to Wall St. investment banking practices which ran wild and unchecked under the Bush administration.

The flip side is that China’s private sector is in its most precarious position since China’s reforms began in 1979. While it has always been difficult for small businesses without strong government connections to raise capital, the situation has become worse recently. Yasheng Huang, in his book Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the State touched on many of these issues.

In the internet field, I have noticed, for example, that many of the entrepreneurs and innovators in the field are choosing to emigrate from China instead of starting their businesses in China. China has a thriving Internet sector, but the successes are those which already have venture capital funding, or have successfully gone public. For practical purposes, the early stage innovation part of the pipeline has gone dry.

It is hard to say if this is true for many sectors in China at this stage, but if there is one truth now, it’s that innovation and entrepreneurship are a vital part of every economy. In today’s China, innovation and entrepreneurship are too dependent on government connections for success. For this reason, these relationships are open to exploitation, corruption and abuse.

The Chinese government for its part has been very ambivalent about the private sector. Both the president and premier have made occasional statements about the importance of helping and protecting private enterprise businesses, but disappointingly, few of these statements have turned into tangible policies and measures. Since the Chinese government has been pressing other governments to recognize China’s market as a market economy, why don’t other governments press the Chinese government for clearer policies for China’s own private sector? Some of these questions may be:

  • Do Chinese private companies have equal and open access to raising capital as SOEs?
  • Are their products and services distributed and marketed equally in the domestic market?
  • If they are subject to any kind of unfair competition, then what channels do they have to appeal to?
  • If the answer to any of the above questions is no, then what policy commitments is the Chinese government prepared to make to remedy the situation?
  • While the Chinese government and SOEs are powerful and cash-rich now, the real heroes of China’s reforms are China’s entrepreneurs and innovators, and the hard-working and industrious people. It’s time they got some recognition and fair treatment both inside and outside China.