Cryptocurrency Cat-and-Mouse games in China

btcc voucherSeveral updates to this ongoing cryptocurrency story in China and elsewhere (each subheading below is a slightly different topic).

Yesterday Bill Bishop linked to a story posted at Sina, “虚拟货币本质上不是货币” written by Sheng Songcheng.  Mr. Sheng is the head official of investigation and statistics at the PBOC (the central bank).

Bishop’s quick comment of the article was that, “No reason the belie[f] there will be any positive news from PRC regulators about bitcoin, or that somehow the recent crackdown was good, as some of the bitcoin bulls have been trying to spin.”

Too long; didn’t read

In addition to Bishop’s nutshell, another tl;dr comment that I would add is this, because Mr. Sheng works for the PBOC, his essay pretty much encapsulates what that important organ of the government thinks. Based on his essay, they do not recognize Bitcoin’s legality (although there is no clear indicator that they see a difference between protocol and token) and according to his own words, without government oversight or backing by any country, the token itself has no value.  Mr. Sheng uses the example of the recent 60% price drop of the bitcoin token on BTCChina last month as proof that without government approval, it has little value (a correlation-causation fallacy).  Furthermore, he thinks that if there is a developing country (such as China) that does begin using it, the deflationary aspect (the fixed ‘money’ / token supply) would actually present an obstacle and hinder the country’s economy to grow.  In fact, he says that Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies will never become a country’s major currency and as a consequence, will not be a “real” currency.  And that it could only become so in the “utopian view of technocrats and libertarians” (技术至上主义和绝对自由主义者的乌托邦).  Yes, he uses the Chinese word for idyllic libertarian  (绝对自由主义者).

From a technical viewpoint, he states all cryptocurrencies do not have a unique origin, nor are its token generation, exchange and storage methods particularly special.  Any currency that has Bitcoin’s features could replace it such as Litecoin, which the public has become familiar with.  And continuing, he states that Bitcoin does not have any physical attributes found in gold and silver nor exclusivity enforced by the law so it will be really easy to replace.  Therefore it cannot replace the role of general currency which is the medium of trading. Thus his overall attitude (and that of the PBOC) is that the central government does not recognize any specific values of the token; that it is illegal to use (though he does not specifically say who or what timeframe) and it doesn’t justify its own existence.

Again, while we can argue over the epistemological, economic and technical problems with this essay (e.g., why do economies grow, deflation versus inflation [pdf], the economics of Bitcoin [pdf], what utility cryptocurrencies have, how the protocol works, etc.) all of which have been discussed elsewhere, as Bishop noted above, this essay is hardly a positive sign for the crytpocurrency segment in China.  Thus, while speculative, after reading the article the impression readers are left with is that the PBOC will crack down on cryptocurrencies on the mainland for the foreseeable future.


There have been discussions over the past weeks as to how mainland exchanges could bypass the current hurdles.  One idea was to create yet another type of virtual token that could then be exchanged on exchanges.

Over the past couple of hours on reddit, users have posted a new method that BTCChina is using to get around the current depository predicament the mainland industry is currently in (e.g., all payment processors are barred from providing fiat liquidity to crypto exchanges).  However, the small stop-gap solution is for BTCChina customers internally (this is not the same thing as the online vouchers like BTCe has).  BTCC code is to allow one customer with CNY on the site to sell the CNY to another customer.  The medium is the BTCC code which is in two parts: one is for the customer the other is for the site.

Imaginary Capital Markets has a few more details and screenshots, but let me just emphasize once more that this is not a complete workaround (yet) but just a way for BTCC users to exchange CNY with one another.  My speculation: if the CEO role as sole depositor is still active, perhaps this could be a way for him/her to distribute funds to friends & family who can then exchange the fund to the wider customer base.  If this is the case, perhaps other exchanges will follow suit (assuming that the CEO can still deposit funds into the exchange through their personal account, see the explanation here for more).

[Update: Taobao has a new rule (Chinese) that will ban the buying and selling of crypto coins.  Thus it will purportedly impact vouchers such as those being offered by BTCChina]

Also regarding the CEO bank accounts I discussed the past two weeks, Eric Meng, an American attorney friend of mine currently in China explained to me that the use of personal bank accounts to do business is a huge red flag in general.   It does not mean that anything is being done illegally, but it’s something that investigators watch out for.1

Bots again

Regarding the purported fudged numbers on Chinese exchanges (discussed here), another friend (in Europe) recently wrote to me explaining that someone could easily write a bot and test the liquidity to see whether it is real or not.  It could be that some exchanges on the global stage act as a market maker (similar to the NYSE which employs “specialists” [pdf explanation] who always make sure that there is a reasonable bid and ask available and who take short term positions in order to provide liquidity).

This same friend who has both mined and then built proprietary HFT arb software on BTCe is reasonably sure that BTCe runs their own arbitrage bots with zero fees but sometimes turns them off (or they have certain limits, he is not sure).  Again, arbitrage is not bad per se and basically makes sure that you can execute your orders at a ‘fair price’ all time.  Of course it would be better if the exchanges are more forthcoming about what they do behind the scenes but as long as there are no regulations they can do whatever they want and earn some extra money.  Yet again, no one is forced to use a particular exchange so people can easily vote with their feet or open their own (transparent) exchange.

Notes in the margin

One last comment I received is from Mark DeWeaver (author of Animal Spirits with Chinese Characteristics and GWON’s Foreword) is that,

It occurred to me that the argument about bitcoin having a big “carbon footprint” is really poorly thought out.  Is the footprint really bigger than that of paper currency, which has to be transported from countless businesses to bank’s safe deposit boxes at the end of each day.  And think of all the gas people must burn on trips to ATM’s!

This is in response to my explanation of Charles Stross’ contention that cryptocurrencies are more of a burden on the environment than fiat currencies are (they are not).  Mark’s comments are empirically valid because these up-armored vehicles (typically Ford 550 chassis or similar classes from competitors) are frequently used to move fiat currencies to and from distribution centers to branch banks and ATMs.  For example, The Armored Group currently lists many used armor transportation cars for sale.  And a quick search on Fuelly gives you an idea of how much fuel the average F550 consumes in the city (~9 mpg).  This also ignores the supply chain needed to build the vehicles in the first place which is an entire logistical segment that cryptocurrencies do not need.  Nor does it include the carbon consumption of the driver and guards ferried around in the vehicles (e.g., eating, sleeping, shelter, etc.).  One can only imagine the sheer number of vehicles in developing countries where digital fiat are not nearly as common and thus paper/metal is transported more frequently.

Again, this is not to say that cryptocurrencies are mana from heaven, that they won’t be replaced or will somehow axiomatically usher in a world of milk and honey.  But these specific claims by detractors need to be backed up with real numbers as they are positive claims (e.g., burden of proof).  If you do think that the Bitcoin transaction network (the most computationally powerful, public distributed system currently)2 consumes more carbon than all ~200 fiat currencies right now, you need to prove that.  And from my quick research I detailed in my article, that does not seem to be the case (today).

Also, for other occasional commentary on crypto in China I recommend visiting my friend’s site, Aha Moments (specifically this recent post).  Drop him a note and tell him to update more.

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  1. Eric also suggested I link to the following guide that potential investors conducting due diligence pay attention to in the aftermath of Madoff: Six Red Flags and Tips for Investment Risks from CAMICO. []
  2. See Global Bitcoin Computing Power Now 256 Times Faster Than Top 500 Supercomputers, Combined! from Forbes []

What happened with the “cash crunch” in China two weeks ago?

While there have been many explanations for why the People’s Bank of China (temporarily) allowed (easy) credit to dry up, I think Mark DeWeaver has a very plausible and well-reasoned explanation.  Mark wrote the foreword to my book and is the author of Animals Spirits with Chinese Characteristics.

Below is his op-ed published two days ago in The Wall Street Journal.  Be sure to check out his predictions for why this solution probably will not stick:

Beijing’s War on Shadow Banking

China’s central bank cracks down on credit that is not under the government’s control.

On June 20, China’s central bank precipitated a major credit crisis by withholding funds from the nation’s cash-starved banking system. The People’s Bank of China’s refusal to act as liquidity provider of last resort froze lending in the interbank market. Overnight rates, which had been as low as 2.1% in early May, exploded, closing at a record 13.4%.

As rumors swirled about the solvency of China’s state-owned banks, some commentators began talking about a Chinese “Lehman moment.” But the crisis passed and the overnight interbank lending rate quickly came back to earth. By July 4, it had fallen to 3.4%.

Trouble in the interbank market had been brewing since early June, when Beijing began a crackdown on illicit inflows of foreign exchange, previously a major source of growth in the local money supply. The demand for yuan also began rising, as Chinese banks prepared for their June 30 book closings and their customers for their first-half tax payments.

The result was a growing imbalance between the supply of and demand for credit. As rumored large-scale interventions by the People’s Bank of China repeatedly failed to materialize, commercial banks realized they would have to fend for themselves. Lenders hoarded cash to guard against potential counterparty defaults, and the normal flow of funds among financial institutions quickly dried up.

The central bank’s immediate objective seems to have been to rein in China’s “shadow banking” system, which has grown rapidly in recent years and now accounts for a significant share of total Chinese credit. Shadow banking in China involves lightly regulated products that allow savers to earn more than the official deposit rate while providing financing for “subprime” borrowers.

Generally the funding is relatively short-term, which makes the business highly sensitive to liquidity conditions. Shadow lenders require inflows of new money to pay off maturing obligations. These typically come either directly from the banks—for example, via their “wealth management products”—or from entities with access to bank financing such as state-owned enterprises.

There may be a larger political game going on. The People’s Bank of China is not an independent central bank, so the order to turn off the credit spigot must have come directly from the Politburo. The central bank’s surprise attack on bank credit must therefore be understood in the context of the leadership’s current focus on improving economic efficiency. This objective will be impossible to achieve unless the central government can overcome resistance from the powerful local interests that benefit from the status quo. The Politburo’s goal may have been to starve opponents of reform into submission.

Local governments appear to be the central bank’s real targets, because they rely heavily on shadow financing to subvert Beijing’s reform initiatives. Shadow funds flow directly into local government projects that the central government views as wasteful, and the funds benefit localities indirectly by pushing up land prices. As long as this money keeps flowing, over-investment in infrastructure, heavy industry and real estate will continue unchecked and Beijing’s vision of a new economy driven mainly by consumer demand and productivity growth will be impossible to realize.

The credit crunch occurred a few days after the launch of the Communist Party’s new “mass line” campaign, which seeks to make the party more sensitive to the needs of the people by circumventing official government and party hierarchies. This idea goes back to Mao Zedong, for whom the goal was to realize “democratic centralism” and bypass bureaucratic factions that threatened his agenda. Going directly to the “masses” was a way to attack the opposition from the outside—to “bombard the headquarters” in a famous slogan of the Cultural Revolution era.

In Mao’s time, bombarding the headquarters meant unleashing a reign of terror. Today the leadership has turned to less violent means. The central bank’s strike against shadow banking will undermine today’s vested interests in a way that Mao could scarcely have imagined—simply by cutting off their financing.

There are two problems with this approach. First, the central bank’s policy will result in considerable collateral damage. Small- and medium-size private firms will be particularly hard hit. They tend to be ineligible for bank loans and often depend on shadow financing to make ends meet.

Second, attacking anti-reform factions will not be enough to generate real reform. Without radical changes in the economic role of local governments, they will quickly return to business as usual once the fallout has cleared.

The People’s Bank of China may have won a battle, but the Politburo is far from winning the war.

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A friend discusses alternative wealth management products (WMPs)

In Chapter 5 and 17 I briefly mention that due to the current legal and financial system on the mainland there are very few financial alternatives and investment vehicles to park funds.

As a consequence, wealth management products (WMPs) such as trust companies are a new type of wealth management service that collectively amounts to more than $1 trillion and is considered to be an integral part of a “shadow” banking system (e.g. off-balance sheet transactions).  According to Xiao Gang, chairman of Bank of China, there are 20,000 WMPs in circulation currently.

It should be pointed out that the term “shadow” has been hyped up and distorted by many analysts to mean the equivalent of “shady” and “fraudulent.”  In economic terms, while there may be illicit or fraudulent activity taking place (e.g., money laundering), all the “shadow” activity technically forms part of the larger informal economy.

That is to say, given continued financial reforms, some of these 20,000 WMPs could eventually integrate and become part of the formal economy.  While there may be any number of pyramid and Ponzi schemes in this segment, this is not to say that the entire $1 trillion under management will all collapse into nothingness (it could, but you cannot say it a priori).

How does it work?

I asked a Chinese friend, Kevin C, to briefly explain how he manages his assets in this alternative system.  Here is his response:

I began my first “shadow” investment in the early part of December 2012.  The “shadow” bank system offers different deposit terms ranging from 1 month to 6 months and sometimes up to12 months (which is the longest).  Most companies originally offered interest rates from 17% per year last year, however this has been reduced to 13-14% per year now.

There are more than ten public companies operating this kind of private investment path and promote it via their websites.  In order to open an account, you need to register a user ID and mobile number.  In addition, you need a Chinese National ID Number, plus your personal bank account number which will be used to transfer money back to your account.  In practice, I have placed 80% of my capital in the 1 month term,15% in a 3 month term and 5% for longer terms.

I try to choose the company carefully before make my own investment and of course there is no single website can guarantee 100% safety.  However, if it doesn’t look like a short term business for those companies which I believe, as long as they offer a one month product, I think it will be relatively safe to me.

As far as trying to fund it through debt like credit cards, I looked into taking out a simple loan and found out that the monthly interest rate that I would owe actually outpaces what I would receive in return from one of these private investment plans.  So I am actually using my own money to try this out.  So far so good.  And even though I still worry about the risk, as I said before, the one month term is the most attractive to me for this reason.

Again, I am not endorsing this service.  In fact, it is really hard to see how this particular service can provide these high rate of returns in the long term and may in fact be powered solely through speculation and exuberance.

Perhaps these 10+ firms Kevin mentions do not even reinvest the capital into actual productive projects but merely recycle the money to other customers cashing out each month.

Or perhaps other customers do fund a lot of their investments through debt (e.g., borrowing to reinvest it into one of these 10 firms) and have a great deal to lose in the event one of the companies goes bankrupt.  Either way, this was just an example to give you an idea of what the process is like.

For more on this topic see:

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Chapter 5 – Financial services

[Note: below is Chapter 5 from Great Wall of Numbers]

Since Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern tour” in 1992, China has consistently been one of the top recipients of foreign direct investment (FDI), totaling $85 billion in 2010 and $574 billion overall.  In contrast, up until recently the US still led in both annually received FDI ($194 billion in 2010) and $2.58 trillion overall.  Even though its full year FDI received fell from the year before – a decline that continued through February 2013 – in the first half of 2012 China actually overtook the US for received FDI ($59.1 billion versus $57.4 billion).1

And while US firms and institutions currently invest more FDI within China than Chinese firms invest in the US (in 2011, Chinese companies invested $6.3 billion in the US representing 0.15% of total foreign investment in the US) this will probably change – despite a closed capital account (discussed in Chapter 10).234 For example, among other deals, a Chinese firm was recently granted approval in December 2012 to purchase bankrupt Massachusetts-based battery maker A123 Systems for $256.6 million.5 As a consequence Chinese outbound investment in 2012 such as mergers and acquisitions reached $8 billion for the first time in the US, globally increased to $93.09 billion (compared to $13.58 billion in 2007) and its outbound direct investment (ODI) is expected to reach $150 billion by 2015 due to deals such as A123 Systems.678 One example of continued investment is from ENN Group, one of the largest private companies in China.  Through a joint venture with CH4, a Utah-based energy company, ENN plans to open a network of 50 natural gas stations across the US this year.  Each station costs about $1 million to build and the joint venture has a goal of building 500 stations altogether.9 For comparison, the EU collectively receives twice as much FDI from China than the US currently does (due in part to political trepidation).10

Where are the potential investments that Chinese firms have looked at in the US?  For example, during the build-out of the enormous Haynesville natural gas fields in the Texarkana region, one of the investors courted by local energy companies was CNOOC (the 3rd largest oil company in China), which at the time reportedly wanted to invest $750 billion into the North American energy business.11 It is unclear as to how much they did end up investing (or if they returned a profit) but several Chinese energy companies have now moved up to Canada and invested $3 billion in a new pipeline project in the tar sands as well as put together a “$15.1 billion deal to acquire Nexen.”1213 In February 2013 the deal closed marking the completion of the largest overseas acquisition by a Chinese company.  And depending on regulatory conditions North American energy firms may or may not continue to do business with Chinese firms, yet there is one area that foreign experts can provide inside of China right now.

So what opportunities are there for foreign financial professionals?

While it has become almost cliché to say, finance is one of the industries that is undergoing “reform and opening up.”  This involves building institutions, physical infrastructure and a legal structure – all of which is thoroughly discussed in both Mark DeWeaver’s new book as well as a Brookings Institute report in June 2012.14 Yet reforms in general are always just around the corner.15

For example, because of pent up savings due to relatively few investment vehicle choices on the mainland, once larger liberalizations begin, there will be opportunities that can come from not just asset management and private equity (PE) markets but through the large expertise requirements in the relevant fields that currently do not exist (e.g., debt structuring).  As part of the once-in-a-decade leadership transition that began in November 2012, one expectation was and is that there will be a “big bang” of reforms in the coming months.1617 One immediate, visible reform was the creation of super-ministries referred throughout this book (e.g., Ministry of Health dissolving to become National Health and Family Planning Commission).18 Another case in point, on November 19, 2012 the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) announced that it “ended 35 foreign-exchange approval rules and simplified others.”19 By reducing paperwork and shortening approval processes, such liberalizations are done with the intention of attracting FDI.  On December 12, 2012 the Shanghai stock index surged to its highest daily gains since October 2009 due to policy changes in the Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor program (QFII合格境外機構投资者).20 As a consequence sovereign wealth funds such as Qatar Holdings and central banks are now allowed to raise more than the $1 billion previously permitted for investing in the securities market.21

Another instance is on December 17, 2012, where a number of new liberalizations were implemented such as reducing regulatory approval and remittance of profits for foreign-owned companies.  Continuing this trend, on February 28, 2013, the government expanded its short-selling program which will now enable select brokerages to borrow shares from preapproved publicly traded companies.22 And on March 15, the China Securities Regulator Commission announced that effective immediately, brokerages could convert loans and other assets into securities, paving the way for securitized business.23 On a provincial level, financier Harry Ding (see below) explained to me, that pilot regions throughout China are also enacting reforms to make it easier for entrepreneurs to begin operating.  Shenzhen and Zhuhai in Guangdong announced that effective March 1st they have streamlined 18 different business licenses, created a new version of business licenses which no longer requires lengthy documentation procedures and removed some of the registered capital restrictions.24

Another specific area you and your firm may be able to literally capitalize on shortly is building a local bond market in structured debt.  Over the past several years there have been attempts to roll out local government bond markets on the mainland.  In November 2011, Shanghai issued China’s first local bond issuance yet eight months later, all of the programs were scrapped.25  Yet a year later, in November 2012, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) approved a plan from ICBC (the largest commercial bank in China and in the world) to start a pilot program of selling bonds known as asset-backed securities (ASB) beginning in 6 months.26 The local market of this local debt, based on several estimates of over 10,000 local-government financing vehicles (entities that were set up to bypass these kinds of bans) is between $1.7 trillion and perhaps up to $5.4 trillion, which I discuss later in Chapter 17.27

Foreign firms specializing in managing distressed loans have already capitalized on opportunities on the mainland (with mixed results), including Shoreline Capital Management who raised $300 million for a new fund last year specifically to invest in distressed Chinese debt.28 DAC Capital is also in the process of raising $300 million for a new Chinese-focused fund.  The gamble is while investors in such debt may receive returns if and when a borrower repays portions of the loan, local government policies and a nebulous court system can make returns lower than they would have otherwise would have been (e.g., transaction costs and opportunity costs).

In October 2012 I spoke with Shawn Mesaros, CEO of Pamria an asset management firm located in the financial district in downtown Shanghai.29 Despite these setbacks above, in his view SOE banks will “eventually become facilitators, that they will offload debt which can then be restructured.  As a consequence there will then be a bigger market for sovereign debt.”  In addition, even though public capital (through SOEs) is currently cheaper than private capital Mesaros thinks that private equity (PE) is still a relatively good business, “it is not as easy as you think because domestic companies typically would rather not share equity in exchange for your capital.”  For perspective, according to the consultancy Bain, “the total value of mainland private equity investments jumped from US$3.7 billion in 2005 to US$15.2 billion in 2011.”30 And nearly $230 billion worth of deals were collectively completed between 2001 and 2012.31

Yet to give you an idea of the soft PE market today in China, according to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal, both foreign and domestic PE firms have been struggling over the past two years.32 The value of PE deals in 2012 declined 27% to $21.9 billion in part because of the domestic stock market performance.33 Between 2010 and 2012 the Shanghai Stock market declined roughly 37%.  Fortunes however, may continue to fluctuate in the future as the main benchmark index regained about 9% in the first six weeks of 2013 then lost 7% over the following month through mid-March.34 However because many investors cash-out of their positions through the securities exchange, fewer firms have wanted to go public.

Subsequently, private-equity firms which provide this junction have been affected as well.  In fact, in 2012 there was a 70% drop in initial public offerings (IPOs) – in the first half of 2012 alone there was a 37% drop in IPOs, from 218 during the same time last year to 138.35 PE deals as a whole “fell an unprecedented” 43% last year.36 Furthermore, of the 10,000 PE deals conducted between 2001 and 2012, 7,500 remain “unexited” as the firms cannot go public on Chinese exchanges.  And whereas PE firms in China raised 75 yuan-denominated funds in 2011 and raised another 52 yuan-denominated funds last year, only 2 new funds have been raised in 2013 (both focused on real-estate investment).37 This is in part because there has been an across the board red light from Chinese regulators since last summer (as of January 31, 2013, a record 873 companies have filed for IPOs in China yet have to wait) and Chinese firms trying to list on American credit markets are essentially persona non grata due to regulatory oversight from the SEC and disagreements with Chinese auditing regulators.383940

However despite these drops, there is still an active set of foreign and domestic PE activity, including Jiuding (the top domestic PE firm) who has averaged an internal rate of return of 30% since 2010 (an IRR is one gauge of how profitable investments are).41 Furthermore, this “softness” in the PE market may have a silver lining as well.  For example, according to Peter Plakidis of Deutsche Bank, “[a] softer equities capital market has meant that private equity is not competing as much with public money, and depressed public valuations have improved the returns for private-equity firms.  Hence, private-equity firms now have more companies on their radars as attractive investment opportunities.”42

In addition to PE, according to Mesaros, one large SOE bank on the mainland is already filling an office floor just for fixed-equity investments.  And if they are doing it, then perhaps other SOEs are close behind.  What this means to Mesaros is that eventually the big spreads “that can roll over price takers will become smaller.”  This also means that there is potential for foreign experts in this field to also train and get involved at a variety of levels within the periphery of this investment field.

Human capital

And in both the long and short-term, irrespective of growth trends on the macro side (which I discuss in later chapters), expertise in these two areas is in short supply.  At the same time, as noted above one challenge in this type of training is retention.  I was told by an another American source that a very large US bank (top 3) has trained numerous local financial experts in some of these sub fields (like forfaiting and futures) yet was unable to retain them due to an insatiable demand for such experts at mainland institutions.  Or in short, since talented human capital in certain areas is scarce, training may be a risky endeavor.43

Natalia Shuman, the new COO of Kelly Services’ in China recently explained the labor supply issues of financial experts in this region,

[…] the lack of supply and high demand is reflected in compensation.  If you look at Shanghai’s market today it’s not only financial analysts.  There are multiple positions and multiple functions where salaries are very competitive compared with global.  People are getting the same salary, maybe even higher, particularly in Shanghai and Beijing, compared to New York or London nowadays.44

And recruiting local talent for financial positions is also a seller’s market in Shuman’s view “Chinese with Western experience who are coming back here; they could easily get more money here than they would get in New York or London.”45 Further human resource constraints including retention issues are discussed later in Chapter 15.

For perspective in December 2012 I spoke with a Chinese financial manager at Fosun International (复星国际有限公司) in its Hong Kong corporate subsidiary.  Fosun is the largest privately held company in China, generating 25.73 billion RMB ($4.12 billion) in the first half of 2012.46 According to him, “I have colleagues who have a lot of career experience in the financial industry on the mainland but they currently do not have a competitive edge over their international counterparts when applying for finance positions in Hong Kong or elsewhere.  Yet simultaneously, if they want to further their career they would prefer working outside the mainland because both the experience gained and the compensation in the international marketplace is significantly higher than anywhere on the mainland.  And since the financial infrastructure and investment instruments in Shanghai still have not reached ‘critical mass’ it is basically more of a regional financial center compared with Hong Kong, which itself is filled with experienced staff in dozens of specialties that do not exist yet on the mainland.  Concurrently, because there are more and more banks in China and more and more people that have financial backgrounds and overseas educations they also want to pursue careers in this industry making it very competitive in certain specialties compared with previous years.”47

On the other hand, he still sees opportunities as “the mainland industry needs experts to train local people how to work in all areas in this growing market because there are relatively few providers doing it today.  Not just in debt markets, M&A, private equity or IPOs, but also in all forms of international trade such as letter of credit, trade finance, arbitrage and export finance.  Since there is a lot of overseas businesses that want to do business in China these banks will continually need to hire people capable of not just fulfilling relatively basic financial services today, but also the more advanced investment instruments and complex transactions in the future.  And since nearly all of corporate finance on the mainland still depends on bank loans for credit, banks typically provide most finance and capital for nearly all companies.  Thus foreign service providers can potentially bring their knowledge to our young industry for a mutually beneficial exchange.”

What are these salaries like?  A recent Bloomberg report similarly noted the demand for qualified financial professionals and experts for China, yet also found that managing directors now earn less than they would in the US and roughly “on par with those in Europe and the U.K.”48 For example, managing directors in Beijing and Hong Kong earned between $900,000 and $1.3 million in salary, bonus and stock options last year – while their counterparts in the US earned $1.2 – 2.01 million and their peers in the UK and Europe earned $850,000 – $1.77 million.

Wealth management

In November 2012 I spoke with Richard Johnsson who was the President & CEO of Soderberg & Partners in Beijing.  Soderberg & Partners is an independent financial advisory targeting high-net worth Chinese citizens since 2007.  According to Johnsson, “one of the challenges early-on was to establish a business in a field that didn’t exist in China, and few could see the benefits of independent advice.  The competition was all about returns, as opposed to for example tax planning; and the commissions were very low.  But lately, the industry has expanded very fast.  And one of the opportunities is of course that it is highly likely that the tax system and regulatory setup will look more and more like in the West.  This will mean complicated tax systems and tax deductions will make planning hard for people, thus driving sales.  On the other hand, other parts of government will try to control the industry, driving extensive compliance.49 But the former will likely come before the latter.”  All of the Big Four auditing firms and Big Three management consulting firms have long ago established mainland offices; can your firm provide similar services?

In January 2013 I also spoke with Harry Ding, a native of Guangdong who has worked as a manager in the finance industry on the mainland for the past five years.  According to him, “one of the opportunities for activities like day-trading and forex trading is that you do not need to have a PhD in finance to understand and be successful or even profitable in these segments.  As a consequence, the companies I have worked with over the past several years usually involves training new college graduates with finance backgrounds how to use econometric models and computing technology to conduct their trades.  While there are licensing and training fees as well as a learning curve, in the long-run their relatively lower labor costs usually acts as a profitable form of arbitrage.  That is to say, that because they can effectively trade on exchanges like the Toronto Stock Exchange, they are usually several times cheaper to hire and manage than local talent in Canada.”  Forex means ‘foreign exchange’ and typically involves the buying, selling and trading of foreign currencies (e.g., JPY, USD, GBP).

Ding also sees a few challenges in that, “because of the numerous restrictions on the financial industry and because of its overall developmental status, there are not as many investment tools and instruments available and those that exist can be difficult to trade profitably at large volumes.  As a result, many individuals and institutions have turned to overseas investment.  And by virtue of the fact that much of a firm’s activities are conducted overseas, it normally requires investors to transfer money out of China which oftentimes makes domestic clients feel uncertain as their assets are not physically close by, creating a psychological insecure feeling (e.g., uncertainty) especially in recent years as Western countries have had numerous financial scandals that have shaken investor trust and confidence.  In addition, China has a capital transfer restriction that strictly prevents citizens from transferring assets to a broker or investment firm outside the mainland over an annual limit of $50,000 USD.  Thus any amount beyond that requires other legal ways to process and transact it.”  These capital restrictions are discussed in Chapter 11.  Furthermore, can you or your company utilize local talent like Ding’s firms have?

Ding’s point regarding a dearth of investment instruments was recently echoed by Nick Yim head of Goldman Sachs China Market.  According to Boston Consulting Group, the total value of private investible assets in China reached $12 trillion in 2012 (a 14% increase year over year).50 Where are these assets?  According to Yim, most of his high-network clients only have “have 20% to 30% of the funds parked offshore, the rest remains onshore.”51 And because of the global financial crisis and relatively slower domestic growth, these clients “have become more conservative and now behave more like U.S. clients.”  This means they are looking for safe, conservative lower yield products.  While there are a limited number of investment products and a scarcity for seasoned bankers, which he considers to be the two biggest challenges, Yim sees a lot of growth potential due to improving legal and regulatory frameworks.  And ultimately, because China also has a single culture, currency, language and regulator, he thinks that there are a lot of opportunities for Western private banks to provide diversification, risk management and retirement planning services in what may become the world’s largest economy in the next decade.

Takeaway: With more than 57 million inbound tourists that spent $48 billion last year, the domestic Chinese tourism industries is one of the largest in the world.  Training staff and putting together a brand positioning campaign are just two areas of many that foreign expertise can bring to the growing industry (which may grow from 2 million hotels today, to 5 million in the next four years).  In addition, financial service companies may be able to find opportunities to not only to train local financial firms on bond technicalities but also provide ancillary services to fixed-equity investment programs.  And in addition to conducting your due diligence it is also recommended that you read through Chapter 10 regarding legal and regulatory risks and uncertainties.


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  1. See China’s Foreign Direct Investment Declines for Eighth Month from Bloomberg, China 2012 FDI suffers first annual fall in three years from Reuters and China Overtook US as main Destination for FDI in First-half 2012 –UNCTAD from The Wall Street Journal []
  2. Investment from China in US reaches record high from China Daily []
  3. According to the World Bank total overseas investment by Chinese firms reached $21.4 billion in Q1 2012.  This is substantially higher than $17.8 billion in all of 2009.  See China Buys Overseas Assets from The Wall Street Journal and China’s overseas direct investment strategy from finfacts []
  4. The Shift from East to West: Chinese Investment in North America from Firmex []
  5. See Chinese company buys battery maker that got recovery funds from The Washington Post and Investment from China rises amid concern from The Washington Post []
  6. See Chinese Investment to the U.S. Speeds Up from Caijing from Caijing, Chinese outbound investment accelerates from China Daily, Investment from China rises amid concern from The Washington Post and Make It for China to Buy U.S. Businesses from Bloomberg []
  7. Another area Chinese individuals and firms are now investing in is the US real estate and property market.  According to a recent report, “[b]uyers from China also invested almost $2 billion in commercial property in 2011, or quadruple what they spent several years ago.”  One of the recent deals was led by China’s Vanke (the largest real estate developer on the mainland) who agreed to a $620 million project in San Fransico in December 2012.  See Chinese buyers lead foreign investment in US housing market from Fox News, China Vanke Arrives in U.S. from The Wall Street Journal and Lennar Said to Get $1.7 Billion San Francisco Loan from Bloomberg []
  8. See A Gateway to the U.S. by Daniel Rosen and Thilo Hanemann, China’s outward FDI to reach US$150bn by 2015 from Want China Times and FDI with Chinese characteristics from The Economist []
  9. Chinese firm puts millions into U.S. natural gas stations from Reuters []
  10. Chinese Investment: Europe vs. the United States from Rhodium Group []
  11. After the Boom in Natural Gas from The New York Times []
  12. Another segment Chinese firms are expanding into in the US and Europe is construction equipment.  Sany is China’s largest heavy machinery manufacturer (e.g., excavators) and aims to become the largest globally in the world.  As a consequence it is looking abroad for mergers, acquisitions and joint-ventures.  Perhaps your firm could find a new partnership with them.  See Sany Tries to Gain Traction in the U.S. from The Wall Street Journal []
  13. China takes new step in oil sands from The Globe And Mail []
  14. See Animal Spirits with Chinese Characteristics by Mark DeWeaver and Achieving 2020 from the Brookings Institute []
  15. See Foreign capital rules eased from China Daily and China Capital Account Restrictions Loosened for Foreign Investors by Stan Abrams []
  16. China Big Bang Seen Like London in New Regime: Cutting Research from Bloomberg and Reins on Shanghai set to be loosened from South China Morning Post []
  17. In addition to QFII, a recent report suggests that citizens of Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau could invest directly into mainland stock exchanges.  See Mainland to allow overseas citizens in stock market from Xinhua []
  18. Graphics: Super Ministry from Caixin []
  19. SAFE Issues New Rules to Further Relax the Foreign Exchange Controls over Direct Investment from King & Wood Mallesons []
  20. See China Scraps QFII Limit on Sovereign Funds, Central Banks from Bloomberg, China’s Stocks Drop Below 2,000 from Bloomberg and China stocks fall below 2000 to 4-year low from South China Morning Post []
  21. See Qatar granted $1b QFII quota from Reuters, China’s Qualified Success In Attracting Qualified Foreign Investors from China Bystander, China pledges to expand QFII, RQFII programs from China Daily and 64 More Institutions Enter China via QFII, CSRC Official Says from Caixin []
  22. China to Expand Short-Selling Program as Part of Reform from Bloomberg []
  23. China Allows Brokerages to Conduct Securitization Business from Bloomberg []
  24. 深圳、珠海商事登记改革3月1日起正式实施国家工商总局支持两地启用新版营业执照from Guandong Province Administration for Industry & Commerce []
  25. See Shanghai makes China’s first direct local-bond issue from Reuters and China Scraps Trial of Local Government Bonds, Studies Risks from Bloomberg []
  26. Regulator Allows Bank Subsidiary to Sell Special Bonds from Caixin []
  27. According to Shang Fulin, chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, as of September 2012 the local government debt collectively amounted to $1.48 trillion.  See High local debt levels coming under control from China Daily and China averts local government defaults from Financial Times.  Other higher estimates can be found in China tells banks to roll over local govt loans: report from Reuters and Are Chinese Banks Hiding “The Mother of All Debt Bombs”? from The Diplomat []
  28. Back in Fashion: China’s Bad Debt from The Wall Street Journal []
  29. Pamria Asset Management []
  30. No exit from China Economic Review []
  31. Private Equity in China: Which Way Out? from The New York Times []
  32. Chinese Headwinds Beset Private-Equity Highfliers from The Wall Street Journal []
  33. China Private Equity Chilled by ’Old Days’ Asking Prices from Bloomberg []
  34. See China’s Stocks Slump to Two-Month Low on Property Curbs from Bloomberg, Finding Investment Opportunities in a Tough Market from The Wall Street Journal and China IPO Hiatus May Prompt Smaller Firms to Seek HK Listing from The Wall Street Journal []
  35. This decline in IPOs is not a new phenomenon; even Hong Kong has had difficulties this past year.  See Bankers See Fees Fade as China Era of Jumbo IPOs Draws to Close from Bloomberg and Hong Kong Has Tough IPO Road Ahead from The Wall Street Journal []
  36. China Private Equity Chilled by ’Old Days’ Asking Prices from Bloomberg []
  37. Doubts Over Returns Hit Fundraising in China from The Wall Street Journal []
  38. See China IPO Hiatus May Prompt Smaller Firms to Seek HK Listing from The Wall Street Journal, Private Equity in China: Which Way Out? from The New York Times, Auditing Spat Dividing U.S. and China Turns Ugly from Caixin and MNCs in China and PCAOB deregistration from China Accounting Blog []
  39. Foreign auditing firms such as the Big Four are stuck between the proverbial rock and hard place.  On the one hand the SEC requires that these firms hand over audit documents to be verified and audited by the government, yet due to Chinese laws, the same auditing firms sometimes cannot hand over some of the documents as the audit documents are considered “state secrets.”  See Deloitte sued over audits of ChinaCast Education from Reuters and MNCs in China and PCAOB deregistration from China Accounting Blog []
  40. The IPO process has been frozen for six months in China because the security regulators are currently reorganizing both the process and the personnel involved in the approval process.  See Finding IPO Alley from Caixin []
  41. The private equity (PE) market has also been directly affected by other policies recently discussed in With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility from Peterson Institute for International Economics.  On the other side of the Pacific, PE and Chinese firms were recently discussed in Chinese Firms Take Lonely Buyout from The Wall Street Journal []
  42. In China IPOs, the Upside of Scarcity for Private Equity from The Wall Street Journal []
  43. Another short term area for opportunities may be as an auditor due to the large dispute between the US and China over potential delistings of Chinese firms from US credit markets.  See What U.S.-China Auditing Dispute Means for Chinese Business Culture from The Wall Street Journal, U.S. audit watchdog chief hopeful on China dispute from Reuters, Auditing Spat Dividing U.S. and China Turns Ugly from Caixin and MNCs in China and PCAOB deregistration from China Accounting Blog []
  44. Developing a Competitive Edge from Insight []
  45. Ibid []
  46. Fosun International Announces 2012 Interim Results Revenue and Net Portfolio Value Continue to Grow from PRNewswire []
  47. For a detailed explanation of criteria and challenges regarding Shanghai’s push to become an international financial center see Achieving 2020 from the Brookings Institute. []
  48. China Bankers Earn Less Than New York Peers as Pay Dives from Bloomberg []
  49. See Starting a business in China from the World Bank and New Path for Trade: Selling in China from The New York Times []
  50. Private Banks Enter ‘Golden Period’ in China from The Wall Street Journal []
  51. Ibid []