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Peter Fuhrman
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Chairman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at China First Capital ( , a China-based international investment bank and advisory firm for capital markets and M&A transactions. China First Capital was established in 2007 and has its headquarters in Shenzhen, China.... More
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  • China's Loan Shark Economy -- Nikkei Asian Review

    (click to enlarge)

    China's loan shark economy

    By Peter Fuhrman

    What's ailing China? Explanations aren't hard to come by: slowing growth, bloated and inefficient state-owned enterprises, and a ferocious anti-corruption campaign that seems to take precedence over needed economic reforms.

    A clerk counts yuan notes at a bank branch in Huaibei in central China's Anhui Province, on Jan. 22.© AP

    Yet for all that, there is probably no bigger, more detrimental, disruptive or overlooked problem in China's economy than the high cost of borrowing money. Real interest rates on collateralized loans for most companies, especially in the private sector where most of the best Chinese companies can be found, are rarely below 10%. They are usually at least 15% and are not uncommonly over 20%. Nowhere else are so many good companies diced up for chum and fed to the loan sharks.

    Logic would suggest that the high rates price in some of the world's highest loan default rates. This is not the case. The official percentage of bad loans in the Chinese banking sector is 1%, less than half the rate in the U.S., Japan or Germany, all countries incidentally where companies can borrow money for 2-4% a year.

    You could be forgiven for thinking that China is a place where lenders are drowning in a sea of bad credit. After all, major English-language business publications are replete with articles suggesting that the banking system in China is in the early days of a bad-loan crisis of earth-shattering proportions. A few Chinese companies borrowing money overseas, including Hong Kong-listed property developer Kaisa Group, have come near default or restructured their debts. But overall, Chinese borrowers pay back loans in full and on time.

    Combine sky-high real interest rates with near-zero defaults and what you get in China is now probably the single most profitable place on a risk-adjusted basis to lend money in the world. Also one of the most exclusive: the lending and the sometimes obscene profits earned from it all pretty much stay on the mainland. Foreign investors are effectively shut out.

    The big-time pools of investment capital -- American university endowments, insurance companies, and pension and sovereign wealth funds -- must salivate at the interest rates being paid in China by credit-worthy borrowers. They would consider it a triumph to put some of their billions to work lending to earn a 7% return. They are kept out of China's lucrative lending market through a web of regulations, including controls on exchanging dollars for yuan, as well as licensing procedures.

    This is starting to change. But it takes clever structuring to get around a thicket of regulations originally put in place to protect the interests of China's state-owned banking system. As an investment banker in China with a niche in this area, I spend more of my time on debt deals than just about anything else. The aim is to give Chinese borrowers lower rates and better terms while giving lenders outside China access to the high yields best found there.

    China's high-yield debt market is enormous. The country's big banks, trust companies and securities houses have packaged over $2.5 trillion in corporate and municipal debt, securitized it, and sold it to institutional and retail investors in China. These so-called shadow-banking loans have become the favorite low-risk and high fixed-return investment in China.

    Overpriced loans waste capital in epic proportions. Total loans outstanding in China, both from banks and the so-called shadow-banking sector, are now in excess of 100 trillion yuan ($15.9 trillion) or about double total outstanding commercial loans in the U.S. The high price of much of that lending amounts to a colossal tax on Chinese business, reducing profitability and distorting investment and rational long-term planning.

    A Chinese company with its assets in China but a parent company based in Hong Kong or the Cayman Islands can borrow for 5% or less, as Alibaba Group Holding recently has done. The same company with the same assets, but without that offshore shell at the top, may pay triple that rate. So why don't all Chinese companies set up an offshore parent? Because this was made illegal by Chinese regulators in 2008.

    Chinese loans are not only expensive, they are just about all short-term in duration -- one year or less in the overwhelming majority of cases. Banks and the shadow-lending system won't lend for longer.

    The loans get called every year, meaning borrowers really only have the use of the money for eight to nine months. The remainder is spent hoarding money to pay back principal. The remarkable thing is that China still has such a dynamic, fast-growing economy, shackled as it is to one of the world's most overpriced and rigid credit systems.

    It is now taking longer and longer to renew the one-year loans. It used to take a few days to process the paperwork. Now, two months or more is not uncommon. As a result, many Chinese companies have nowhere else to turn except illegal money-lenders to tide them over after repaying last year's loan while waiting for this year's to be dispersed. The cost for this so-called "bridge lending" in China? Anywhere from 3% a month and up.

    Again, we're talking here not only about small, poorly capitalized and struggling borrowers, but also some of the titans of Chinese business, private-sector companies with revenues well in excess of 1 billion yuan, with solid cash flows and net income. Chinese policymakers are now beginning to wake up to the problem that you can't build long-term prosperity where long-term lending is unavailable.

    Same goes for a banking system that wants to lend only against fixed assets, not cash flow or receivables. China says it wants to build a sleek new economy based on services, but nobody seems to have told the banks. They won't go near services companies, unless of course, they own and can pledge as collateral a large tract of land and a few thousand square feet of factory space.

    Chinese companies used to find it easier to absorb the cost of their high-yield debt. No longer. Companies, along with the overall Chinese economy, are no longer growing at such a furious pace. Margins are squeezed. Interest costs are now swallowing up a dangerously high percentage of profits at many companies.

    Not surprisingly, in China there is probably no better business to be in than banking. Chinese banks, almost all of which are state-owned, earned one-third of all profits of the entire global banking industry, amounting to $292 billion in 2013. The government is trying to force a little more competition into the market, and has licensed several new private banks. Tencent Holdings and Alibaba, China's two Internet giants, both own pieces of new private banks.

    Lending in China is a market rigged to transfer an ever-larger chunk of corporate profits to a domestic rentier class. High interest rates sap China's economy of dynamism and make entrepreneurial risk-taking far less attractive. Those looking for signs China's economy is moving more in the direction of the market should look to a single touchstone: is foreign capital being more warmly welcomed in China as a way to help lower the usurious cost of borrowing?

    Peter Fuhrman is the founder, chairman and chief executive of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen, China.

    Mar 11 8:21 PM | Link | Comment!
  • China's Caijing Magazine On America’s All-Conquering Dumpling Maker, General Mills

    The secret is out. Chinese now know, in far greater numbers than before, that the favorite brand of the favorite staple food of hundreds of millions of them is made by a huge American company, General Mills, best known for sugar-coated cereals served to American children. (See my earlier article here.) In the current issue of China's weekly business magazine Caijing is my Chinese-language article blowing the cover off the well-hidden fact that China's tastiest and most popular brand of frozen dumplings, known in Chinese as 湾仔码头, "Wanzai Matou", is made by the same guys who make Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms in the US.

    You can read a copy of my Caijing article by clicking here.

    Getting these facts in print was not simple. I've been an online columnist for Caijing for years. When I sent the manuscript the magazine's editor, he did the journalistic version of a double take, refusing to believe at first that this dumpling brand he knows well is actually owned and run by a non-Chinese company, and a huge American conglomerate to boot. He asked many questions and apparently did his own digging around to confirm the truth of what I was claiming.

    He asked me to reveal to him and Caijing's readers the secret techniques General Mills has used to conquer the Chinese market. That further complicated things. It wasn't, I explained, by selling stuff cheap, since Wanzai Matou sells in supermarkets for about double the price of pure domestic brands. Nor was it because they used the same kind of saturation television advertising P&G has pioneered in China to promote sales of its market-leading products Head & Shoulders and Tide. General Mills spends little on media advertising in China, relying instead on word of mouth and efficient distribution.

    My explanation, such as it is, was that the Americans were either brave or crazy enough, beginning fifteen years ago, to believe Chinese would (a) start buying frozen food in supermarkets, and (b) when they did, they'd be willing to pay more for it than fresh-made stuff. Wanzai Matou costs more per dumpling than buying the hand-made ones available at the small dumpling restaurants that are so numerous in China just about everyone living in a city or reasonably-sized town is within a ten-minute walk of several.

    In my case, I've got at least twenty places within that radius. I flat-out love Chinese dumplings. With only a small degree of exaggeration I tell people here that the chance to eat dumplings every day, three times a day, was a prime reason behind my move to China. For my money, and more important for that of many tens of millions of Chinese, the Wanzai Matou ones just taste better.

    The article, though, does explain the complexities of building and managing a frozen "cold chain" in China. General Mills had more reason to master this than any company, domestic or foreign. That's because along with Wanzai Matou they have a second frozen blockbuster in China: Häagen-Dazs ice cream, sold both in supermarkets and stand-alone Häagen-Dazs ice cream shops. Either way, it's out of my price range, at something like $5 for a few thimblefuls, but lots of Chinese seem to love it. Both Wanzai Matou and Häagen-Dazs China are big enough and fast-growing enough to begin to have an impact on General Mills' overall performance, $18 billion in revenues and $1.8bn in profits in 2014.

    For whatever reason, General Mills doesn't like to draw attention to its two stellar businesses in China. The annual report barely mentions China. This is in contrast to their Minnesota neighbor 3M which will tell anyone who's listening including on Wall Street that it's future is all about further expanding in China. But, the fundamentals of General Mills' business in China look as strong, or stronger, than any other large American company operating here.

    The title of my Caijing article is "外来厨子会做饺子" which translates as "Foreign cooks can make dumplings". It expresses the surprise I've encountered at every turn here whenever I mention to people here that China's most popular dumpling company is from my homeland not theirs.

    Jan 15 7:14 PM | Link | Comment!
  • NFL Football In China -- The US Treasury Pays For Ads To Capture Big Chinese Tourist Dollars

    Watching the NFL playoffs this weekend on Chinese internet TV channel PP Live, I saw something I never imagined. No, not a live broadcast in China of American football. The NFL has a great thing going here in China. While not a big-time success yet like the NBA in China, the NFL is quietly making fans out of a meaningful slice of the country's most gold-plated demographic: males with advanced degrees and senior management positions.

    No, what surprised me while watching the game was the frequent commercials paid for in part by money from the US Department of Treasury. Yes, Uncle Sam is now involved in buying advertising time during NFL games on Chinese tv. Never quite thought I'd live to see the day.

    The ads are to promote tourism to the US. Chinese tourist money is now the most eagerly-sought-after prize in the $900 billion US travel industry. Big hotel groups, rental car companies, airlines and attractions are investing heavily to cater specifically more to Chinese travelers in the US. The ad running on NFL broadcasts features snapshots of American scenery, a catchy little song playing in the background, and then this splash screen comes up at the end:

    Follow that link and one eventually learns the group behind the ads is something called "Brand USA", a body describing itself as a "public private partnership". That's generally code for some kind of organization where the US Treasury picks up some or all of the tab, but whose purpose is to help private companies make money. Sure enough. Last month, President Obama signed legislation that keeps the government money flowing to Brand USA at least through 2020, long after he's out of office. The budget for fiscal year 2014 was $125 million.

    The board of Brand USA includes top executives from hotel group Marriott International, Disney's travel arm, the air reservation system Sabre Corporation as well as the top bureacrats in the tourist promotion office in the states of California and Minnesota. Brand USA's chairman is president of a company I never heard of called Jackmont Hospitality, whose website says it is "a minority-owned, comprehensive foodservice management company and one of the fastest growing TGI FRIDAYS® franchisees."

    The intent of the commercial is, of course, to get more Chinese to travel to the US as tourists. A laudable goal, and one that became much easier at the end of last year when Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed a new bilateral visa regime which gives citizens of each country ten-year multi-entry visas. Chinese tourism in the US is growing, with 1.8 million visiting last year, fifth most among all countries sending tourists to the US, but still about half the number of British tourists each year.

    What they lack in numbers Chinese tourists make up for in extravagance. They spend $7,200 per visit compared to $4,500 by the average foreign tourist, according to the US Travel Association.

    Like a lot my government does, the commercials running during football timeouts don't display a particularly keen knowledge of consumer marketing. The jingle is sung in English, so not likely to be understood by a lot of Chinese viewers. The places featured don't seem likely destinations for Chinese tourists. No Times Square or Fifth Avenue Apple Store in Manhattan. No Disneyland, no Harvard Yard and no Las Vegas.

    So where is the US government pushing Chinese to visit? Price Lake. Never heard of it? Me neither. According to Wikipedia it's in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, about 200 miles from the nearest major airport, Raleigh-Durham. It's said to host the largest annual gathering of lumberjacks each year. If China has a large contingent of passport-holding lumberjacks it's news to me.

    While Brand USA hasn't been around long, it's already attracted a fair bit of criticism, led by Republican members of Congress, who launched a formal investigation into what is called a "history of questionable expenditures and lavish spending" at the organization. The report they issued says all Board members, though officially appointed by the US Secretary of Commerce, were in fact chosen by an Obama aide from among those who "have donated to Democrats and Democratic organizations almost exclusively."

    The private sector is supposed to donate funds which the US government matches by dipping into a pool of money raised through a $10 fee charged to all tourists arriving in the US under what's called the Visa Waiver Program. Brand USA board members have claimed the amount they spend on travel should be considered by Uncle Sam as a "donation", including first class air fares and hotel rooms paid for by their companies. Among the claims was one for $94.87 for a two mile taxi ride in Washington DC that the report points out should cost no more than about $15 including tip. The report's conclusion is that the Brand USA documents and expense accounts "paint a picture of mismanagement, waste, and cronyism."

    No word on what Brand USA are paying for the ads during the NFL games on PP Live. Let's hope they drive a tough bargain. Other than the Brand USA spot, repeated over and over, I saw no other ads during the second half of the game. During many of the commercial breaks, the Chinese broadcast stays with a live feed from the stadium of the players waiting around for the timeouts to end, something one rarely gets to see while watching football in the US.

    The NFL games are broadcast in China with Chinese commentary only, once an annoyance but now a source of almost infinite delight for me. In case you're wondering, the name for football in Chinese translates as "olive ball".

    Chinese who like the sport and are persuaded by the ads to visit the US would do well to read up first on Brand USA and its public/private affairs. It's an excellent primer on how politics and spending sometimes operate in my nation's capitol - and so why the US has this chronic reliance on China to finance our deficits by buying US Treasuries.

    Jan 14 9:56 AM | Link | Comment!
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