Monday, September 12, 2011

Why Not China?

By Bert Whitehead M.B.A, J.D. © 2011

With virtually all investment options so sour these days, clients are increasingly interested in the opportunities offered by investing in China. The stock market is totally unpredictable and, for many people, downright scary. Interest earned on savings accounts at banks is next to nothing, and now banks actually charge fees to large cash depositors (like corporations) for just accepting deposits. U.S. Bond returns are the lowest in history, making junk bonds tempting even though they yield less than Treasuries did 10 years ago.

So China’s economy seems like the bright spot in an otherwise bleak investment landscape. The People's Republic of China (PRC) has ranked as the world's second largest economy after the United States since 2010. It is one of the world's fastest-growing major economies, with consistent growth rates of 5% - 15% over the past 30 years. Many investors believe that the Chinese economy is poised for continuing growth, even in the face of economic downturns in other parts of the world.

However, there are some serious dangers that cannot be ignored when you consider investing in China. The principal dangers are debt and inflation. Keep in mind that the ‘Cultural Revolution’ ended 30 years ago and the recent 30 years of growth started from a very low base. Since then, China has become the largest exporter to the world (as well as the largest importer). To accomplish this China lent massive amounts to its cities and provinces for huge infrastructure development. Many of these projects have not worked out as expected, e.g. the bullet train project recently derailed. A notable cause of these problems is the rampant corruption in Chinese government.

Although China’s large low-paid labor pool is a huge advantage, government spending has also created very high rates of inflation. Inflation rates have been running at 6.5% nationally but reach 20-25% in urban areas. As a result, Chinese workers have been on strike in major industries, often forcing wage increases of 50-100%. That caused labor intensive industries to begin moving out of China to lower cost countries like Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

From an investment point of view, China does not offer any of the market disciplines and infrastructure offered in developed countries. It is difficult to be sure that the stock you bought is actually registered in your name. And a dictatorial government can nationalize and seize ownership of companies and whole industries at the whim of the ruling class.

Socially, China’s ‘one child’ policy is now coming back to haunt them. Over the past 30 years over 400,000,000 girls have not been born, often through selective abortion. This is more than the entire U.S. population. As a result there are now 118 men for every 100 women. This imbalanced sex ratio can be a social scourge, which forces the government to rein in the excess testosterone. Societies with a high male sex ratio have historically been prone to war, and often exhibit leadership by severe autocratic rulers (such as in the Middle East where polygamy is the rule for the most powerful). China’s demographic projections likewise are dismal. Current population distortions make it a near-certainty that in the next 30-40 years, four younger workers will be required to support each person over 65.

While concerns have been raised about China’s military prowess, particularly its ‘Million Man Army” (which is now actually 2.8 million), these fears are unfounded. The Chinese are than woefully unprepared for their own defense, much less aggression. They spend less than 2% of their budget on defense. More importantly, there is not a single officer (or enlisted person) in the huge Chinese army who has any experience whatsoever in battle. China’s last battle with a worthy opponent was 60 years ago when it was allied with North Korea.

China will pay a steep environmental price for trying to sustain its growth. Like all Communist countries, economic progress trumps their environmental concerns. Their garbage problem is totally unmanageable, the air is hopelessly polluted, and the water in most rivers and streams is virtually toxic. China’s primary competition is probably India, which also has over one billion people. India’s growth rate has been more restrained, and it has a better democratic foundation despite the problems peculiar to its society. Interestingly, India has the largest population of English speaking people in the world (over 500,000,000)! India also attracts much more Research and Development employment due to its advantage in education. Over the past 10 years U.S. companies have switched to investing in India rather than China due to the Chinese government’s overbearing demands that they be privy to US trade secrets.

All in all, investing in China is far from a sure thing. It may provide higher returns in the short term but remember that there is always a tradeoff between risk and return. Don’t overlook that your potentially high returns exist because China is one of the riskiest major country in which to do business. To my mind, its much-reported progress has the sound of another bubble getting ready to burst.

Investing in today’s environment is challenging, particularly because there are so many economic variables. The Mideastern societies are being reshaped, the European Union is teetering on the edge of insolvency, and many countries including Japan and Mexico are dealing with unprecedented turmoil. It is tempting to reach out for some arcane investment strategy like currency trading just because the alternatives are so unsatisfactory.

In this situation, Ockham’s Razor suggests that when there are many competing variables, the simplest course of action is generally the correct one. This would suggest that with current economic variables in the investment arena the most correct approach is simply maintaining a balanced and diversified portfolio. It can be foolhardy to take rash action in these times and try to ‘hit a home run’ to salvage your portfolio by putting everything in gold, burying it in the back yard, or buying Chinese Yuan. As Warren Buffet has noted: “Investors have lost more money chasing high yield than at the point of a gun!”

I appreciate the editorial review contributed by Chip Simon, CFP®, an ACA colleague in Poughkeepsie, NY