Inflation is the top economic concern of the Chinese government, said Kok-Chi Tsim, Managing Director and Senior Relationship Executive at JPMorgan Chase Bank, Chicago. He spoke March 30 at the monthly luncheon of the Economic Development Council of Chicago on “China’s Economic and Business Environment.”
The concern for inflation flows from one underlying economic fact: “China is a rich country with still a lot of very poor people,” with large differences between the coastal and the western inner provinces. Inflation is a concern because the hyperinflation of the 1940s led, in part to the ousting of Chaing Kai-shek in 1949 in favor of Mao Zedong and the communist state. The current government does not want to risk creating the same situation, especially when a portion of the population would suffer greatly should its income be eroded by inflation.
Inflation is running at 11% annually. Labor costs are also increasing. The minimum wage will increase by 15% this year. Last year, wages in major cities increased by 21%.
“That raised a lot of red flags among the Chinese government,” Mr. Tsim said. “Fighting inflation is the Chinese government’s top priority.”
To combat inflation, the Chinese government has allowed its currency, the renminbi (RMB), typically referred to as the yuan, to appreciate. This makes exports more expensive, which is a risk for the Chinese because the economy is driven by inexpensive exports.
For details and information on China’s desire to see the RMB become a global trade and reserve currency like the dollar, see Mr. Tsim’s webinar, “China: Internationalization of Renminbi (RMB).” This development is good for U.S. companies doing business in China, as it opens other payment options, given that RMB denominated accounts are now available in Hong Kong.
Other interesting facts and analysis from Mr. Tsim included:
- The Chinese government does not have many tools for monetary control. The major method the government uses to control the money supply is putting quotas on bank loans. It’s difficult, however, because bank loans are the only source of financing in the country. Chinese do not invest in local stock because Chinese companies do not follow standards of corporate governance like western companies and are riskier investments as a result. Instead, they invest in real estate, with its boom-and-bust bubbles.
- The largest pollution problem in China is not air pollution, as you may expect from the reports and reality of poor air quality in Beijing. It’s water pollution. The Chinese government is expected to spend hundreds of billions on water infrastructure in the coming years.
- Overseas direct investments by China are increasing. “Access to natural resources, including agriculture, is the biggest challenge facing Chinese growth,” Mr. Tsim said.
- The major hindrance to Chinese investments here is the U.S. government’s restrictions on the import of high-performance computer technologies. Given rising labor costs in China, productivity increases are critical, as they have been in every major industrial country. “Automation is absolutely necessary. That’s where U.S. companies can help.”
- In response to a question on Chicago Mayor Daley’s trips to China and their influence, Mr. Tsim smiled and said, “You want me to be quite honest? I don’t think there’s much impact.”
China and India remain high on the financial and banking agenda, with attendees at SWIFT’s Sibos 2010 conference packing the room for a session called “India and China: How Do You Choose?” The rise of China especially, in both currency and trade, played as a theme through Sibos, the annual financial and banking conference held in Amsterdam this October.
Many U.S. and Europeans are not aware of how significant both countries and their rapidly growing economies are, said Gerard Lyons, chief economist and group head of research, Standard Chartered Bank. China is looking to move into emerging markets and plans to do the kind of business development that corporations in the United States and Western Europe generally consider their purview.
That means developing and marketing new products as well as providing inexpensive manufacturing facilities for other companies. As Lyons explained the Chinese expansion imperative, “You can’t rely on selling cheap goods to Westerners up to their eyeballs in debt.”
Chinese banks are planning to expand and were exhibiting with the best of them at Sibos 2010. The Bank of China plans to open a few branches in Europe next year. “We are going global,” said Hong Zhong, Director, strategic development, Bank of China.
For their part, the Indian panelists acknowledged that they and their banks are busy on their home turf, which is difficult for U.S. and European banks to enter. The Central Bank of India now has more than 28 million retail customers across 5,400 branches, with 57% growth in the small and medium business sector last year, said S. Sridhar, the bank’s chairman and managing director.
“In our growth strategy for the bank, the domestic economy plays a huge role,” said Om Prakash Bhatt, chairman of both the Indian Banks’ Association and the State Bank of India, in a Sibos session focused on the regulatory environment. Indian banks will go abroad as their customer do business abroad, and they will need to restructure in order to meet the needs of international corporations.
Session moderator Emmanuel Daniel, CEO and founder of The Asian Banker asked the Indian panelists about another serious issue: the income disparity between the rich and the poor, with little acknowledgement of the problem. “The inability of India to distill its wealth throughout its economy remains a problem,” Daniel said, “and its capacity to address this issue remains to be seen.”
The growth of both emerging and established industrial economies in Asia may depend on it.
Indeed, one Japanese attendee suggested that the so-called “lost decade” in Japan—a reference to low growth, high debt, and deflation after the country’s real estate bubble burst in the 1990s—may become a lost 20 years. He hoped it would not be a beacon of things to come for the United States economy, as Japan’s quality-based manufacturing techniques were in the 1980s.
The Japanese appear to be looking toward increased trade within Asia for growth. “Intra-regional trade is mainly intermediary goods,” said Shinichi Hayashida, director and deputy head of the international banking unit at Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation. Increasing income and consumption within the rising Asian economies would be a welcome change.
Read Going Global, the version of the article posted on ChinaForum.com
For other recent news on China, see:
China’s ‘Quality Not Quantity’ Strategy Yields Results
The Economist: A Special Report on China’s Place in the World