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Twins!

February 1, 2013

If you want to know why I haven’t been writing much recently, here’s the reason:

This Tuesday, January 29, at 6:45am, my wife Frances gave birth to twin baby girls.  Alice Chovanec (Chinese name Cheng Yilan) was born first, weighed 2.82kg (6 lbs, 4 ounces), and was 46cm long.  Rachel Chovanec (Chinese name Cheng Xinlan) came next, weighing 2.55kg (5 lbs, 10 ounces), and was 44cm long.

Within hours, it became evident they have quite distinct personalities.  Alice (pictured right) squints and grunts at the world around her, and cries loudly whenever she needs our attention — she also bears an unmistakable likeness to her older brother William (now 3 years old) as a newborn baby.  Rachel (pictured left) hardly makes a sound, but is always opening her eyes and quietly looking around, just like she is doing in the photograph below.

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William, who until now has been enjoying life as an only child, got to meet his new sisters today and gave each of them a kiss — and then attempted to pinch Alice to see if she would cry.  Actually, besides this one instance of rather innocent curiosity, William proved to be on his very best behavior, and — like all of us — is looking forward to getting to know these new members of our family much better in the days to come.

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What Causes Revolutions?

January 13, 2013

A surprising number of people in China have been writing and talking about “revolution”.  First came word, in November, that China’s new leaders have been advising their colleagues to read Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic book on the French Revolution, L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution (The Old Regime and the Revolution), which subsequently has shot to the top of China’s best seller lists.  Just this past week, Chinese scholar Zhao Dinxing, a sociology professor at the University of Chicago, felt the need to publish an article (in Chinese) laying out the reasons China won’t have a revolution (you can read an English summary here).  Minxin Pei, on the other hand, thinks it will.

In the midst of this debate, I happened across an interesting set of passages in retired Harvard professor Richard Pipes’ slender volume Three “Whys” of the Russian Revolution.  The first “why” he asks is “Why did Tsarism fall?”, an event that few saw coming:

If you read the Russian and foreign press before 1917, or memoirs of the time, you find that hardly anyone expected the downfall of tsarism either.  On the contrary, people believed that tsarism would survive for a long time to come … For had not tsarism weathered all onslaughts and all crises [including the 1905 uprising], and emerged from them intact?

The answer, he argues, lies in the fact that Russian society changed dramatically, but its political system did not, leading to an explosive disconnect between the two:

So, around 1900, we have a mechanically rather than organically structured state that denies the population any voice in government, and yet, at the same time, aspires to the status of a global power.  This aspiration compels it to promote industrial development and higher education, which has the inevitable effect of shifting much opinion and the power to make decisions to private citizens.  Pre-1905 tsarism thus suffered from an irreconcilable contradiction.  A not-insignificant segment of the population received secondary and higher education, acquiring, in the process, Western attitudes, and yet it was treated as being on the same level with the illiterate peasantry, that is, unfit to participate in the affairs of state.  Capitalist industrialists and bankers made major decisions affecting the country’s economy and employment, yet had no say in that country’s politics because politics was the monopoly of the bureaucracy …

The result was a situation which Marx had rightly predicted had to arise when the political form — in this case, heavily centralized and static — no longer corresponded to the socio-economic context — increasingly dispersed and dynamic.  Such a situation is by its very nature fraught with explosive potential.  In 1982 [Pipes writes], when I worked in the National Security Council, I was asked to contribute ideas to a major speech that President Reagan was scheduled to deliver in London.  My contribution consisted of a reference to Marx’s dictum that, when there develops a significant disparity between the political form and the socio-economic context, the prospect is revolution.  This disparity, however, had now developed in the Soviet Union, not in the capitalist West.  President Reagan inserted this thought into his speech, and the reaction in Moscow was one of uncontrolled fury: this, of course, was a language they well understood and interpreted to mean a declaration of political war against the Communist Bloc.  Their anger was enhanced by the awareness that the statement was correct, that they were ruling in a manner that did not correspond to either the economic or the cultural level of their population.

Read that again carefully, line by line, with present-day China in mind, and I think you’ll  find some fascinating food for thought.  I have often observed that I know of no country that has changed as much in the past 30 years as China has, in terms of the kind of practical freedom people experience in their day-to-day lives.  The greatest challenge facing China’s leaders is how — or whether — a fundamentally closed political system (rule by an elite) can cope with the dramatically more open economy and society that present-day China has become.  That’s why they’re reading Tocqueville.

Enter the New Year

January 9, 2013

I took a bit of a blogging break for the holidays, so this is a catch-up post.

Just before Christmas I appeared on another edition of Sinica Podcast, this one focused on the looming clash between the U.S. and China over accounting standards for US-listed Chinese companies.  My fellow guest was Professor Paul Gillis from Peking University, whose blog I highly recommend for anyone following this subject.   You can listen to the podcast discussion here.

On New Year’s Day, I took part in a special 2-hour “year in review” episode of the Today Show on China Radio International, where we covered everything from Syria’s civil war to the Greek debt crisis to the London Olympics.  My suggestion for the “top story” of the year: China’s netizens, and how they’re changing the terms of China’s social and political climate.  You can listen to the program here.

On New Year’s Eve, the BBC ran a story on the outlook for China’s economy in 2013, which you can read here.  The conventional view is that China is headed for a strong rebound, but I questioned that conclusion:

Many analysts have warned that the model is unsustainable and have called upon Beijing to boost its domestic consumption and rebalance its economy.

For his part, the new Communist Party leader Xi Jinping has pledged to deepen economic reforms and further open up China’s economy.

However, there are concerns that a shift in its growth model may hurt China’s growth in the short term.

“They must embrace real economic adjustment, which will bring real pain and likely translate to slower growth, at least for a time,” said Patrick Chovanec of the Tsinghua University in Beijing.

Analysts and observers fear that China may not be able to bear the short-term slowdown and may turn back to the traditional model of growth.

Those fears have been fanned further after Beijing approved infrastructure projects worth more than $150bn (£94bn) as its growth pace fell to a three-year low in the July to September quarter.

“In recent months, China’s economy has seen a ‘rebound’ engineered by looser lending and a renewed surge in investment,” says Mr Chovanec.

“Markets have cheered, but others worry that China’s new leaders may be shying away from the tough choices that must be made to get China’s economy back on track.”

As I tweeted the other day (@prchovanec):

“Markets should be rooting for China to embrace real economic adjustment, not to deliver yesterday’s growth targets with yesterday’s growth engine.”

I reiterated my concerns about China’s “rebound” in a Bloomberg article published this weekend:

“Lots of projects have been approved to stimulate this economy,” said Patrick Chovanec of Beijing’s Tsinghua University. “The banks are extremely reluctant to lend to them, and that says a lot about what they really know about credit risk in this country.”

(What I went on to tell the reporter is that the funding, instead, is coming from the banks selling trust and private wealth management products.   The banks won’t touch the credit risk themselves, but they’re happy to take a fee for dumping it onto their clients, while promising even higher returns.  Sounds like subprime mortgage origination all over again).

But I was particularly gratified to see my friend David Loevinger, the former director of the Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED) at US Treasury, now a private sector analyst, make much the same point about China’s latest “rebound”:

“If China tries to sustain growth by adding debt and investing it inefficiently it will be like cotton candy: a short-term high with no lasting value,” said Loevinger, now an Asia analyst in Los Angeles at TCW Group Inc. “The U.S. got into trouble because institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were too big to fail. … China’s financial system is full of Freddies and Fannies.”

Tomorrow morning I’ll be back on China Radio International, this time talking about the new “special zones” China is in the process of setting up to experiment with financial reform, in Wenzhou, the Pearl River Delta, and now Quanzhou.  I’ll post that later tomorrow when the audio is available.

Foreign Policy: Clash of the Balance Sheets

December 12, 2012
I had a new article this week in Foreign Policy magazine on what may seem like an awfully arcane topic — a standoff between US and Chinese regulators over audit standards — but in fact has potentially huge implications for the future relationship between the world’s two largest economies.  You can read it below, or check out the original here.  You can also read my earlier blog post on this topic (from back in June) here.

Clash of the Balance Sheets

The most important showdown between China and the United States isn’t happening in the Pacific. It’s happening at the SEC.

BY PATRICK CHOVANEC | DECEMBER 10, 2012

China and the United States are on a collision course — over accounting. Last week, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged the Chinese affiliates of the world’s top five accounting firms with violating securities laws for refusing to hand over information on suspect Chinese companies to investigators. The move is the latest, most dramatic step in an escalating standoff that could easily lead to a financial version of Armageddon: the forcible (and unprecedented) delisting of all Chinese shares currently traded on U.S. exchanges, including big-name stocks like Baidu, Sinopec, and China Mobile — causing losses of billions of dollars and damaging the perception that the United States is friendly to Chinese businesses.

Accounting audit practices may seem like a topic more likely to lull nations (and magazine readers) to sleep. But as anyone who lost money investing in Enron or with Bernie Madoff knows, playing fast and loose with accounting rules can have huge consequences. Accounting is the language of business, and lying about revenues or liabilities is fraud. Washington created the SEC in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 to ensure that companies that offer their shares to the public are what they claim to be.

To meet that objective, the SEC requires that all companies selling securities to the public to submit annual financial statements audited by a qualified third party. If a company doesn’t file reports that have an auditor’s stamp of approval, its stocks and bonds cannot be traded on a public exchange. After the scandal following the 2001 collapse of energy giant Enron, in which the company’s auditor, Arthur Andersen, faced criminal charges for covering up dodgy accounting practices, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act to tighten up regulation of auditors and the audit process. The new law created the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), a quasi-public entity that reports to the SEC and is responsible for policing the auditors. Now, in order to perform qualified audits, an audit firm must register with the board and submit to rigorous and regular inspections by its staff.

Over the past decade, roughly 400 Chinese companies have listed their shares on U.S. stock exchanges. A few are multi-billion dollar state-owned enterprises, such as China Life, China Telecom, and PetroChina. More than 100 were so-called backdoor-listed companies that circumvented the cost and scrutiny associated with an initial public offering by buying and merging into a U.S. firm whose stock was already listed. As U.S.-listed stocks, all of them have chosen to submit themselves to SEC regulation in order to tap U.S. and global investors for funds via U.S. markets.

Because the bulk of their operations are in China, these companies must rely on auditors licensed in China — in many cases the Chinese subsidiaries of the top global audit firms — to audit them. For the SEC to accept their audits, these China-based auditors must register and maintain good standing with the board.

The problem is that the Chinese regulator, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), refuses to allow the board to inspect the U.S.-registered, China-based auditors, as required by Sarbanes-Oxley. It sees the idea of a U.S. regulator overseeing a Chinese auditor as a violation of China’s national sovereignty. For some time now, the board has been negotiating with the CSRC, trying to get them to accept some form of cooperative inspections, or even allow it to observe Chinese inspections. So far, these talks have gone nowhere.

It’s not unusual for the United States to get pushback from foreign countries or foreign companies on new regulations. When Sarbanes-Oxley first passed, several U.S.-listed European firms (as well as many U.S. companies) objected to a provision requiring listed firms to perform an annual audit of internal controls, in addition to the traditional audit of financial statements. They argued that this extra requirement was so costly and burdensome, they might no longer bother to maintain their stock listings in the United States, seriously undermining the position of the U.S. capital markets on the world stage. In response, the SEC temporarily suspended the rule for foreign companies, and eventually scaled down the requirement for all companies to a less onerous “top-down review.”

Recent events, however, have made it a lot harder for the SEC to show similar flexibility toward China. Since 2010, a number of short-sellers researching in China have leveled high-profile accusations of fraud against Chinese firms listed on U.S. markets. Five companies targeted by Muddy Waters, the best-known of those short-sellers, lost almost $5 billion in market value through June 2011. Several others have seen their shares rendered nearly worthless or been forced to declare bankruptcy. These firms allegedly engaged in malfeasance ranging from questionable accounting practices to inflate revenues and profits, making up numbers out of thin air (and hoping no one has the resources to prove otherwise), embezzling funds, and even being total shams.

The SEC has also raised concerns about a popular holding structure, called the Variable Interest Entity, that many U.S.-listed “China stocks” use to operate in certain industries in China, such as media and education, where foreign ownership is prohibited. The U.S.-listed company exercises operational and financial “control” via contracts, allowing it to claim the China business as its own. Virtually all Chinese Internet start-ups listed in the United States are structured this way. The SEC worries that Chinese authorities could someday invalidate the contracts as illegal, leaving U.S. investors holding completely worthless shares.

In response, the SEC has launched fraud investigations into several U.S.-listed Chinese companies and their executives, ordering their China-based auditors to hand over confidential documents to examine for potential evidence of wrongdoing. In the most visible case, the SEC in May 2011 handed lawyers for Deloitte China a federal court subpoena to turn over its audit work papers for Longtop Financial Technologies, a Hong Kong-based maker of financial software that short-seller Citron Research had accused of fraudulent accounting (prompting Deloitte to resign the account, citing “recently identified falsity” in Longtop’s financial statements).

Deloitte China fired its lawyer for accepting the subpoena, and refused to comply. In a court filing explaining why, Deloitte claimed that Chinese regulators had issued an extraordinary threat, telling auditors that handing over audit work papers would violate China’s (vague and draconian) State Secrets law, allowing China to “dissolve the firm entirely and to seek prison sentences up to life in prison for any [Deloitte] partners and employees who participated in the violation.”

The refusals come at a time when Chinese local authorities, embarrassed by the allegations, have been cracking down on short-sellers’ researchers, shutting off access to company disclosure filings and sometimes harassing and even jailing research teams conducting due diligence within China. The SEC, for its part, asked the judge in the Deloitte case for a stay until this coming January, to see if it could work out some kind of solution with its counterparts at the CSRC.

Last week’s decision to file charges against all five top global audit firms in China appears to signal an end to the SEC’s patience. In its court filing, the SEC expressed frustration, noting that since 2009, the CSRC had refused to provide any meaningful assistance on 21 information requests arising from 16 securities investigations into U.S.-listed Chinese firms. The Chinese, it has concluded, are simply stonewalling.

While the details may seem arcane, the ramifications can hardly be overstated. Chinese auditors could face financial penalties, but they could also be disqualified from conducting SEC audits. If Chinese auditors get de-registered, U.S.-listed Chinese companies won’t be able to find anyone to sign off on their audits, leading all of these firms to have their shares forcibly delisted, en masse, from U.S. markets. Shareholders would still own their shares, but those shares would be much harder to buy and sell, making them worth considerably less.

Some domestic players think China has outgrown its need to rely on U.S. capital markets. State-owned China Development Bank has put together a $1 billion war chest to help buy out U.S.-listed Chinese companies and take them private. Rather than caving in, their defenders argue, Chinese companies should come home and relist on domestic or Hong Kong stock exchanges, where they might command even higher valuations. Given that China’s Shanghai Index is down two-thirds from its peak five years ago, and with Hong Kong regulators raising similar concerns about fraud, this path may not be as easy or as promising as it sounds.

Chinese companies won’t be the only ones affected if SEC-qualified Chinese auditors go the way of the dodo. Plenty of multinationals listed on U.S. markets, many of them headquartered in the United States, have substantial parts of their business in China. Yum Brands takes in 44 percent of its revenues from the KFC and Pizza Hut outlets it has in China. Car sales in China account for 34 percent of General Motors’ profits. These numbers matter to their global bottom lines, and to sign off on their SEC filings, their lead auditors in the United States need a PBAOC-registered Chinese auditor to vouch for them. If no such auditors exist, these companies have a problem. (There may be clever workarounds, such as dividing up the work among so many auditors that none of them is vouching for a “substantial” part of the business, but it’s a costly and cumbersome solution. Nor is it clear if easy loopholes can be created for multinationals with substantial China operations without tearing a big hole in the fabric of U.S. securities regulation).

The SEC, though, may feel it has no other option. China’s constraints effectively place Chinese companies completely beyond the reach of U.S. securities laws. If this were just a theoretical concern, there might be room to maneuver. But with dozens of Chinese stocks traded on U.S. exchanges dragged down by fraud allegations, costing investors billions of dollars in losses, the SEC has to act. And each action it takes brings the United States and China one step closer to an ugly financial divorce.

Bloomberg: Challenges China’s New Leadership Faces

November 12, 2012

On Friday, I was on Bloomberg TV talking about China’s latest economic data for October (at the time of my interview, only the inflation figures had been announced), and some of the key challenges facing China’s ruling party as it begins its once-in-a-decade leadership transition.  I took a distinctly contrarian view on the latest inflation numbers, arguing they do not create room for monetary loosening to give the economy a quick and easy boost, because the issue isn’t just how much money is sloshing around China’s economy, but where that money is going.  To the extent that prices in certain key sectors like steel and coal — and I would add real estate, despite the official statistics saying otherwise — are falling, it reflects real overcapacity compared to real demand, and the absence of real value being created.  The PBOC is right to resist pumping in more money and reflating bloated investment sectors, which would only reinforce the imbalances in China’s economy and prevent the kind of adjustment China needs towards more meaningful growth.  You can watch my interview here.

I also discussed aspects of President Hu Jintao’s big address to the 18th Party Congress.  Let me just highlight four key points of the speech that caught my attention:

1)  Hu promised to double China’s 2010 GDP by 2020.  That sounds really impressive, but it actually equates to just 7% growth going forward — and I’m assuming here that he meant double real, not just nominal GDP, because otherwise the real growth rate would be even lower.  So really, he’s lowering the bar in a pretty significant way.  Hu also set the goal of doubling per capita income by 2020.  The problem is, if GDP and per capita income both double, China won’t see any meaningful rebalancing towards consumption, because household income won’t grow as a portion of GDP — and again, that’s assuming he’s talking about real income growth, because if income only doubles in nominal terms, it will decline relative to real GDP.  To rebalance its economy China needs to grow income faster than GDP — which could either mean faster growth in income, or slower growth in GDP.

2) Hu spoke forcefully about how corruption seriously threatens to undermine the Party’s rule.  I agree, and talked in my Bloomberg interview about why it’s so hard to deal with this problem.  I should also add that inflation — driving investment growth by pumping more and more money into the economy — is one of the major factors contributing to corruption, because it drives a widening gap between those who have pricing power and those who don’t, and those who have access to credit and those who don’t.  Inflation (from a big lending boom), and inflation-driven corruption, were two of the main grievances that fueled the Tiananmen protests in 1989.

3) Hu also spoke of the need to “resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests” and called on China to become a “maritime power.”  Given recent confrontations in the South China Sea (with the Philippines and Vietnam) and the East China Sea (with Japan and South Korea), as well as the launch of China’s first aircraft carrier, these lines surely caught the attention of China’s neighbors (as this FT article suggests).

4) Hu also appeared to push back against reformers’ calls to reduce the role of the state sector in China’s economy.  Instead, he insisted China would “unswervingly” adhere to “the basic economic system in which public ownership is the mainstay and economic entities of diverse ownership develop together,” and said the party and government “should steadily enhance the vitality of the state-owned sector of the economy and its capacity to leverage and influence the economy.”  His stance appeared to run contrary to the prescriptions in the World Bank report issued earlier this year in conjunction with top Chinese policy makers, which appeared to have the support of Hu’s protegé, Premier-in-waiting Li Keqiang, and had raised hopes that positive reforms might take place after the leadership transition.  We’ll have to wait to see what, if anything, the new rhetoric means for actual policy.

Sinica Podcast: Party Congress Preview

October 27, 2012

You know you’ve hit the big time in China when you’re invited as a guest on Kaiser Kuo’s Sinica Podcast.  This week, I joined Kaiser’s co-host Jeremy Goldkorn of danwei.com for a discussion about China’s upcoming leadership transition.  I really recommend listening to the 45-minute session, not so much for my own comments — which will be familiar to anyone who regularly reads this blog — but for the great stories and insights from my two fellow guests, John Garnaut of  the Sydney Morning Herald and Jamil Anderlini of the Financial Times, both of whom have just published brand new books on the Bo Xilai scandal.  You can listen to the podcast here or download it here.

While you are listening, I highly suggest you check out the provided links, including the China Economic Review article I wrote in 2010 (and mentioned in the podcast) on why China needs a new “Southern Tour,” as well as the “primer” on China’s leadership transition I wrote last year, which Kaiser was kind enough to plug as his “reading recommendation” for the week.  You can also listen to (and link to) my own recommendations, which focus on the impact the receding Arctic ice cap and cheap U.S. natural gas could have on China (and the world).

Of course, we recorded our conversation before the New York Times published its taboo-shattering expose on the hidden fortune controlled by Premier Wen Jiabao’s family members, otherwise I suspect it would have ranked high among our discussion topics.  Note, however, that I did mention the issue — including Mrs. Wen’s connection to the diamond trade — in my “primer” (which is just one reason I suspect that article, and now this entire blog, is blocked in China).

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