I have generally steered from using my blog as a vehicle for rants, not because I don’t have my share of targets, but because I know that while ranting makes me feel better, it almost always creates more costs than benefits. It is true that I have had tantrums (mini-rants) about the practice of adding back stock-based compensation to EBITDA or expensing R&D to get to earnings, but the targets of those tend to be harmless. After all, what can sell-side equity research analysts or accountants collectively do to retaliate? Refuse to send me their buy and sell recommendations? Threaten me with gang-audits?
This post is an exception, because the target of the rant is China, a much bigger and more powerful adversary than those in my mini-rants, and it is only fair that I let you know my priors before you read this post. First, I am hopelessly biased against the Chinese government. I believe that its reputation for efficiency and economic stewardship is inflated and that its thirst for power and money is soft-pedaled. Second, I know very little about the Chinese economy or its markets, how they operate and what makes them tick. It it true that some of my ignorance stems from the absence of trustworthy information about the economy but a great deal of it comes from not spending any time on the ground in China. So, if you disagree with this post, you have good reason to dismiss it as the rant born of ignorance and bias. If you agree with it, you should be wary for the same reasons.
The Chinese Economic Miracle: Real or Fake?
For the last two decades, the China story has been front and center in global economics, and with good reason. In the graph below, you can see the explosive growth in Chinese GDP, measured in Chinese Yuan and US dollars:
The Chinese economy grew from being the eighth largest in the world in 1994 to the second largest in the world in 2014. It is true that many of the statistics that we use for China come from the Chinese government and there are is reason to question its reliability. In fact, there are some with conspiratorial inclinations who wonder whether the Chinese miracle is a Potemkin village, designed for show. Much as my bias would lead me down this path, there are some realities on the ground that are impossible to ignore:
- The China growth story is real: Any one who has visited China will tell you that the signs of real growth are around you, especially in urban China. It is not just the physical infrastructure of brand new airports, highways and high-speed trains, but the signs of prosperity among (at least some of) its people. I did my own experiment yesterday that confirmed the reality of Chinese growth. After I woke up to the alarm on my China-made iPhone, I put on my Nike exercise clothes, manufactured in China, slipped on my Asics running shoes, also from China. As I went through the day, it was easier for me to keep track of the things that were not made in China than those that were. Based just on that very unscientific sampling, I am willing to believe that China is the world’s manufacturing hub.
- It has a Beijing puppet-master: To those who celebrate the growth of the Chinese economy as a triumph of free markets, I have to demur. The winners and losers in the Chinese economy are not always its best or most efficient players and investment choices are made by policy makers (or politicians) in Beijing, not by the market. There are those who distrust markets who would view this as good, since markets, at least in their view, are short term, but trusting a group of experts to determine how an economy should evolve can be even more dangerous.
- It is driven by infrastructure investment, not innovation: The Chinese economy is skilled at copying innovations in other parts of the world, but not particularly imaginative in coming up with its own. It is revealing that the current vision of innovation in China is to have a CEO dress up like Steve Jobs and make an Android phone that looks like the iPhone. Note that this should not be taken as a reflection of the Chinese capacity to be innovative but a direct consequence of centralized policy (see prior point).
- The China story is now part of every business: In just the last month and a half, I have been in the US, Brazil and India, and can attest to the fact that the China story is now embedded in companies across the globe. In the US, I saw Apple report good earnings and lose $100 billion in market capitalization, with some attributing the drop to disappointing results from China. In Brazil, my Vale valuation rests heavily on how China does in the future, because China accounts for 37% of Vale’s revenues and the surge in iron ore prices in the last decade came primarily from Chinese infrastructure investment. In India, I valued Tata Motors, whose acquisition of Jaguar , has made them more of a Chinese company than an Indian one, dependent on the Chinese buying oversized Land Rovers for a significant portion of their profits.
- It is also a weapon of mass distraction: In a post from a few months ago, I talked about weapons of mass distraction, words that analysts use to induce you to pay premiums for companies and to distract you from specifics. In that post, I highlighted “China” as the ultimate wild card, with mention of exposure to the country operating as an excuse for pushing up the stock price. The problems with wild cards though is that they are unpredictable, and it is entirely possible that the China card may soon become a reason to discount value, as the handwringing about earnings effects and corporate exposures of the China crisis begins.
The Chinese Markets: All Pricing, all the time!
If you have been reading the news for the last few months, which have been about the epic collapse of Chinese stocks, I would not blame you for feeling sorry for investors in the Chinese market. I would suggest that you save your sympathy for more deserving causes, because as with everything else in markets, it depends on your time perspective. In the chart below, I look at three charts that look at the Shanghai Composite over time:
It is undeniable that markets have been melting down since June, with the Shanghai Composite down 32% from its peak on June 12. However, if you had invested in Chinese stock at the start of this year, you have no reason to complain, with a return of 8.44% for the year to date, among the best-performing markets globally. Stepping even further back, if you had invested in Chinese stocks in 2005, you would have earned close to 13$ as an annual