China is modernising, not westernising

I've recently returned from a week in Hong Kong and Singapore attending Board Meetings and conducting fund manager visits in my role as an Advisory Board Member of the Emerging Markets Masters Fund. The main topic at every meeting was the investment and economic outlook for China, particularly after the recent market falls and volatility, and reading my notes from the week, and having had time to reflect on what I heard and learnt, here are my main conclusions:

1. China's economy is slowing. This is deliberate

  • However you look at it (export numbers, PMI, retail sales, fixed investments) China's GDP growth is slowing and probably sits within the 5% to 6.5% range. Almost certainly below the official number of around 7%.
  • China doesn't need growth at the moment. Unemployment is steady (around 4% - 5%), domestic consumption is picking up slowly and exports haven't contributed to growth for the past 2 years. If China wanted growth, they could easily provide some kind of stimulus which would provide short term gain (but long term pain!)
  • What China needs is better governance, market reform, increased transparency and the elimination of corruption. The Central Government, and President Xi in particular, is very committed to achieving all of these things. I learnt of over RMB 1 trillion in approved projects which haven't yet been implemented due to the widespread fear amongst local Government officials of potential investigation and scrutiny (of both present and past projects) which is certainly slowing their economy but shows how seriously the austerity measures are being taken. This will be good in the longer term.

 2. The market will recover

  • The recent euphoric rise in the share market was driven by retail investors with too much leverage. When the market turned (for various reasons, including the tightening of margin lending, the surprise RMB devaluation and wild speculation in the western world about what was happening) these same two factors drove the market down. I saw a chart of the number of negative western media comments on China over a 20 year period and it spiked off the chart in September 2015!
  • China's economic fundamentals are still in place:
    • economic reforms
    • corporate restructuring
    • lower interest rates
    • deregulation
    • modernising the economy (not 'westernising')
  • The move by the Central Government to convert local Government debt (a source of major concern, particularly amongst foreign commentators and economists) into Government backed municipal bonds (with a 4% yield) is seen as a stabilising influence and removes some of the anxiety about this issue which has existed in recent times.
  • Volatility will continue in the short term with the slowing economy (see above) weak macro numbers and with the Government exiting the share market after providing the bolstering that was necessary to avoid a major collapse (on a scale we can only imagine) which would have had wide and unforseen consequences (eg SOEs now offering share option plans to executives and staff) and would have taken years to restore confidence. In the longer term (say 12 months from now) the economic fundamentals will prevail and the market will recover. Short term weakness should be seen as an opportunity to accumulate stocks at lower prices.

3. There's no sign of weakness on the ground

  • I visited a plastics manufacturing factory in Quanzhou City in Fujian Province (a short one hour drive from Xiamen) and met with the factory owners whose clients include many well known international brands and a multi-million dollar business operating large factories in five cities across China. They reported that business was growing steadily, there are signs of slowing in some areas of the economy, but their business was strong and stable. No slowdown there.
  • Tourism is a fast growing industry. Over 100 million Chinese people travelled overseas in the past 12 months and their own domestic market is booming. No sign of any slowdown there.
  • Household spending figures (excluding Government officials and SOEs) are strong and there is evidence of this everywhere you look. You can't seem to get into a restaurant without booking, there are queues outside the luxury brand stores (although perhaps slightly less than there used to be) and you can't move in shopping malls at the weekends. 
  • Property prices are rising again, notably in the first and second tier cities, and inventories in the third and fourth tier cities are starting to reduce. Vanke have reported a 30% increase in sales in August 2015. This is significant as the property slowdown has been regarded by many as a potential trigger for a future 'hard landing'.

We have maintained our position in China A shares (approx. 20% of the EMMF) and will no doubt consider increasing this over time to reach the MSCI EM weighting for China (though this doesn't include any weighting to China A shares) of 23% (we trimmed our position just before the market fall) when some of the short term volatility settles down. Whilst we can invest in a broad range of China A share managers, our preference is to invest in local boutique Chinese managers as opposed to international brand names, particularly those who don't run a local team. I have always maintained the view that the only way as a foreigner to understand China (whether as an investor, entrepreneur or business leader) is to work with the locals. I would be surprised if this changes in my lifetime!

Review of ACBW China 2015 - CIFIT in Xiamen

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From 7 to 10 September, I attended China’s biggest international expo – China International Fair for Investment and Trade in Xiamen, China along with my colleague, Katya. 70 Australian exhibitors and delegates joined the Australia China Business Week delegation to showcase and promote their services, businesses and investment opportunities. Throughout the 5 day mission, delegates attended a variety of functions including the official CIFIT Welcome Event (where I was fortunate to see Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba, speak to a VIP crowd), the official ACBW 2015 China Forum and a number of business matching events.

The Australian Pavilion, organised by the Australian Business Forum, was the highlight of the trip. The Pavilion showcased a variety of businesses ranging from financial services, agricultural projects, real estate and wine. With its distinct Australian branding, it attracted literally tens of thousands of visitors, investors, entrepreneurs and businesses with a genuine interest in Australia as an investment and business destination.

In addition, I chaired the bilingual ACBW China Forum which was co-hosted by the Fujian Government’s Department of Commerce.  Deputy Director General from the Department of Commerce, Mr. Shaohe Chen, also presented to the audience, commenting on the importance and future of the Australia-China relationship. The Fujian Government and ABF also organised a unique opportunity for Mission delegates to engage exclusively with local businesses, and present their projects and services in a one-on-one business matching setting. We also attended the Business Matching Symposium hosted by CIFIT where we met a variety of individuals and businesses from across China looking to engage with the Australian market.

Overall, the Mission was a fantastic opportunity to source investors for a variety of projects, to promote Australia in China as a business and investment destination and to make valuable connections and networks in China. After recently singing an MOU with the Fujian Government, ABF will host another Australian Pavilion at next year’s CIFIT in Xiamen. If you want to be a part of the 2016 delegation, please keep the 8 and 9 September free and we will be back in touch at the beginning of next year with more information.

Anhui - The link between China's East and West

Located next to China’s wealthiest and most developed cities and provinces, Anhui has long been overshadowed by the affluence and influence of its powerful neighbours. Located in the Yangtze River hinterland, Anhui is considered part of the Yangtze River Delta Region, China’s largest and wealthiest economic zone. However, with the Government’s recent focus on the development of its second and third tier provinces, Anhui is quickly emerging as the key link between China’s rich eastern seaboard and underdeveloped western and central areas. The big cities of Shanghai, Nanjing and Wuhan lie within a 500-km radius of Hefei (Anhui’s capital) and within that radius; there are 500 million people who account for nearly 40% of the nation’s GDP.

About Anhui

Anhui province is considered part of China’s eastern region and is located across the basins of the Yangtze River and the Huai River. The province was established in the 17th century and is the birthplace of the famous Hui group of merchants, the strongest of all merchant groups in China. Anhui is regarded as a 2nd tier province, with a comparably lower GDP than others. However, similar to other 2nd the 3rd provinces, Anhui has a GDP growth rate of approximately 9% per annum.

Anhui’s geographical location boasts two significant advantages:

-          Firstly it lies on extremely fertile and mineral rich land. Over 123 different types of minerals have been discovered in Anhui and the province is considered to have some of the most abundant and rich reserves of coal, iron and copper.  It is no surprise that some of China’s well-known manufacturing corporations such as Ma Steel Group (iron and steel manufacturer) and Conch Group (plastic and cement producer) are based in Anhui.

-          Secondly, Anhui lies along the Yangtze River – China’s longest river connecting 11 provinces from the East China Sea to Sichuan. In September 2014, the Chinese Government launched the ‘Golden Waterway Yangtze River Economic Belt’, a national plan to transform the river region into an economic super zone. Port cities along the River (such as Wuhan and Chongqing) have also made transport and logistical plans to handle and take advantage of the expected increase in activity along the Yangtze. 

Major industries:

1.       Hardware and software – manufacturing and education

With its abundance of primary products and materials, a large population and its strategic location along the Yangtze, Anhui has long been considered as an important manufacturing hub for China. The province is well-known for producing modern equipment, automobiles and home appliances, and manufacturing petrochemicals and machinery. In fact, Anhui products are China’s leading automobile exports – making up 22.1% of the nation’s total. Also, the province’s production of air conditioners, televisions, refrigerators and washing machines accounts for approximately 20% of the national total. Its capital city, Hefei, is considered as China’s biggest production base for household appliances.

In recent years, the Government has made a concerted effort to push Anhui up the production value chain – developing its capabilities, skills and knowledge in the production of green and hi-tech products such as new energy materials, advanced intelligence information technology, biopharmaceuticals and hybrid cars and buses. To foster this growth, Anhui has implemented a strategic provincial plan which includes the establishment of three national technology and innovation zones and an economic district in the north which receives special benefits such as tax incentives and fee exemptions to encourage companies to experiment, innovate and nurture talent. The province is now well-known for its strengths in science and education – it houses over 2000 research institutes and universities and over 40 specialist laboratories and technology research centres, only second behind Beijing for its concentration of scientific education institutes.

2.       Transport

Anhui’s transportation infrastructure has been a popular target for investment and the province is now considered a sophisticated and diverse transportation and logistical hub. The province has six airports, providing passenger services to major Chinese destinations and some overseas cities such as Bangkok, Osaka and Singapore. Anhui also has nearly 400 berths along the Yangtze River with a carrying capacity of over 1,000-tonnes, the most in China’s central or western regions. Perhaps most significantly, Anhui is a major railway terminus, connecting China’s key north-south and east-west routes such as the Jinghu (Beijing-Shanghai) and Ningxi (Nanjing-Xian) lines. Fast trains from the capital Hefei reach Nanjing in only one hour, Wuhan in two hours, Shanghai in three hours and Beijing in less than four hours. There is currently nowhere else in China with such a dense concentration of high-speed railways either completed or under construction.

3.       Tourism

Anhui is a major tourist destination in China and its tourism industry accounts for a major proportion of its services sector’s revenue. Anhui boasts some of China’s most famous scenic areas, including the Yellow Mountain (Huangshan黃山) and Tianzhu Mountain (天柱山). Over the three-day May Day Holiday in 2014, over 20 million tourists travelled to Anhui. The Yellow Mountain alone attracted around 70,000 tourists. The tourism bureau also observed that more tourists were visiting natural and rural sites, rather than urban areas. However, much like China’s tourism industry as a whole, Anhui lacks the quality services it needs to cope with the sheer volume of tourists. The Yellow Mountain, in particular, has been identified as a site needing more sophisticated, streamlined and modern services as more and more tourists visit each year.

The opportunities

In China’s 12th Five-Year Plan, tourism and technology have been identified as target sectors requiring significant development and improvement and China is looking outside of its borders to source foreign talent, knowledge and investment to bolster their own capabilities. Perhaps what is most exciting about Anhui is its geographical location. Everyone knows the unprecedented pace at which China’s eastern seaboard was developed and how the central and western regions were largely neglected and overlooked. However, as part of the government’s “Go West” policy, there has been an enormous push to build up China’s underdeveloped western and central regions, encourage foreign companies to do business in these areas and transform many of these areas into important and specialised industry clusters. As these areas grow and develop, Anhui is poised to be the link between China’s east and west and will undoubtedly benefit from the increasing levels of trade, business and activity.  

China Export Forum 2015 - Key Takeaways

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On 15 July 2015, I was MC for the China Export Forum, hosted by the Australia China Business Council and Export Council of Australia. The Forum was designed to explore the opportunities and challenges of exporting to China from the perspective of leading Australian and global exporters. Through case studies and interactive panel sessions, the audience had the opportunity to not only learn from success stories, but also the unique challenges when exporting to China. The Forum’s first two sessions explored how successful companies entered into the China market utilising traditional export channels and e-commerce platforms. The last session explored some of the challenges exporters typically face and some strategies to overcome them.

Here are some of my key takeaways from the day:

Session I: Traditional Distribution Channels

  1. Exporting to China takes longer than you think and also costs more – you will need to “double your budget, and halve your expectations”.
  2. The “Three Cups of Tea” of relationship building: from stranger to friend to family. In all business dealings, build the trust and relationship first. If dealings start to go wrong, go back to the first step to relationship and trust building.
  3. All the stars are aligned for Australian exporters in China:
  • We now have ChAFTA
  • There is an increasing demand for our products due to China’s changing diet and tastes, the growth of the middle class consumer and more consumers coming from 2nd, 3rd and 4th tier cities
  • Food safety is a major issue and concern in China
  • Australian products are highly regarded as clean, green and safe

Session II: E-commerce for Australian exporters

  1. E-commerce is a whole new language and alphabet soup for us of names, brands, online and offline stores, search engines and social media.
  2. With 640 million internet users and 332 million online consumers, e-commerce is a fast growing opportunity and everyone has to be involved.
  3. E-commerce is complex. Building your brand in the China market is not straightforward so leverage Alibaba and Auspost who are already promoting Australia in China.
  4. 2nd, 3rd and 4th tier Chinese cities do not have the same opportunities and access to products that 1st tier cities do. They are therefore hungrier for imported products and rely on e-commerce to get their hands on these products.

Session III: Challenges for exporters

  1. China is not one market, it is many. Exporters not only need knowledge about China, but specific knowledge about its regions, cities and provinces.
  2. Small and nimble service providers can fulfil a niche market in China.
  3. Being “flexible, flat, fast and fun” are key success factors to doing business in China.
  4. Don’t cut corners – get your brand and trademark registered and protected early, organise and translate contracts and do your due diligence.
  5. The Chinese are not that much different to us – we laugh at the same things, value our families and friends and don’t take ourselves too seriously.

From Mining to Dining


According to the World Bank, the global population is expected to reach 8.2 billion by 2030, a significant increase from its current level of 7 billion. Even more remarkable is the exponential growth in the global middle class, most of which will emerge from Asia.   

There are currently around 2 billion people in the global middle class, half of which live in Europe and North America, and only one-third in Asia. But by 2030, according to Reuters, the global middle class will grow to 4.9 billion – with two thirds living in Asia.

There is no doubt that the Asian middle class will be the key driver of future global consumption, for a host of products like cars, food and housing, and services like education, healthcare and tourism.  It is predicted that by 2030, Asia will account for 54% of the world’s total consumer spending.

Driving this growth is the world’s fastest growing and most highly populated country – China. By 2030, China’s middle class will reach one billion, nearly 70% of its projected population. Increasing wealth will also match this exponential growth of the middle class – it is predicted that by 2020, the disposable income level of China’s urban consumers will nearly reach that of South Korea’s level.

From bicycles to BMWs

With rising incomes, increasing private wealth and a higher standard of living, the Chinese middle class consumer will spend increasingly more by indulging in what they want rather than what they need. During the Communist years, people wished to own sanshengyixiang (三转一响) ‘three rounds and sound’- a wristwatch, bicycle, sewing machine and a radio. Today, China’s middle class aspire to own a Prada handbag, a BMW and a holiday overseas. To illustrate this, a study found that the number of Chinese households earning more than US$35,000 (considered to be the threshold to afford overseas travel) will nearly treble to 63 million by 2023.

As well as being wealthy, they are both aspirational and health conscious. Their tastes are evolving, demanding more variety in their diets and becoming increasingly aware of the importance of protein.

Everyone knows that rice has been a staple in Asian diets for centuries. Currently, 90% of the world’s rice is produced and consumed in Asia. However, recent studies confirm that as income levels rise in Asian countries, the consumption of rice (on a per capita basis) declines at a similar pace. Trends have shown that Chinese middle class consumers are now eating more foods derived from livestock and wheat, imported fresh fruits and vegetables and others which are higher in protein and energy. For example, Chinese beef-meat consumption is expected to increase from 5.13 million tonnes in 2000 to 7.96 million tonnes by 2020.

Changes in diet patterns can be attributed to a variety of factors. One of the fundamental backbones of Chinese culture is the importance of health. Food safety and best practices in production are becoming more transparent in China with many high profile food safety cases attracting damning media coverage. Chinese consumers are now becoming more and more anxious about the cleanliness and quality of their food and are looking overseas to purchase ‘safer’ food products.

The burgeoning Asian middle class is more willing than ever to pay top dollar for premium products for a combination of health, safety and lifestyle reasons. In addition, the status attached to eating imported foreign foods (particularly dining out) is a huge motivator to display their growing wealth and influence. According to a recent study, people in China spent more on average when eating out than Australians.

The changing face of Chinese consumers

The Chinese middle class is also defined by the emergence of two powerful groups of consumers - Generation 2 (G2) consumers and those from 2nd and 3rd tier cities. G2 consumers are typically born after the mid-80s, after Deng Xiaoping’s ‘opening up’ policies and are a product of China’s one-child policy. Their parents, having lived through economic austerity and years of shortage during the Cultural Revolution, have become dedicated to raise their children in relative abundance.  As a result, McKinsey research has found that G2 consumers are spending more than their predecessors and consider expensive products as better quality. Many of those who have spent time studying overseas have developed a taste for western-cuisines and products. Like previous generations, they still define success in terms of money, power and social status.

McKinsey also predicts that middle-class growth rates in tier 2 and 3 cities will be far greater than in tier 1 cities. By 2022, the share of the middle class population living in 2nd and 3rd tier cities is expected to double by 2022. Growth in tier 3 cities is set to be the most surprising, reaching a 30% share of the upper-middle-class population. These consumers are hungrier for imported products than their counterparts in Beijing and Shanghai because they do not have the same opportunities and avenues of access. Austrade research has found that online consumer spending in these cities is growing rapidly and in some cases, faster than in tier 1 cities.

By 2030, Australia will have nearly 4 billion people in our regional neighbourhood, with more money to pay for better quality healthcare services, tourism, housing, education and most importantly, food. Estimates suggest that, by 2050, Australia is poised to capture over A$1 trillion in food exports which, if managed properly, suggests that the agricultural sector represents the next boom for Australia’s economy. However, Australia faces enormous challenges in mobilising, energising and expanding an agricultural sector which has been neglected in recent times and which suffers from fragmentation, parochialism and a lack of investment. Also, simply relying on our ‘clean, green and safe’ reputation is not enough. Australia is increasingly transitioning from the ‘food bowl of Asia’ to the provider of premium products to China’s middle class. Understanding the new Chinese consumer and their changing diets and lifestyle is crucial if Australia wants to maintain their position as the ‘delicatessen of Asia’.