The rail economics of East Coast Rail Link (ECRL)


Rail link seen as game changer but cost is a concern.

TOK Bali, a fishing village in Kelantan with its beautiful sandy beaches and pristine blue waters has long been a hidden gem among well-travelled backpackers. But that may soon change. The idyllic town is one that is touted to potentially become a tourist hotspot, as it sits along the alignment of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL), a multi-billion infrastructure project that promises many economic spin-offs.

After almost a decade in planning, ECRL was launched with great pomp this week.

Touted as a key game-changer for the east coast states of Peninsular Malaysia, the interstate ECRL is expected to help the economy of the four states that it covers by an additional 1.5% per year over the next 50 years.

On a micro level, more employment opportunities, particularly skilled jobs, will be made available to Malaysians. Domestic industry players especially in the construction sector, can now anticipate construction contracts to the tune of RM16bil, at least.

Another milstone:Najib checking out a train model at the ground-breaking ceremony this week.He called ECRL ‘another milestore in the country’s land public transport history”.

The ECRL is expected to benefit freight transport because it would link key economic and industrial areas within the East Coast Economic Region such as the Malaysia-China Kuantan Industrial Park, Gambang Halal Park, Kertih Biopolymer Park and Tok Bali Integrated Fisheries Park to both Kuantan Port and Port Klang.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak called it “another milestone in the country’s land public transport history”.

Despite the much highlighted economic benefits from the rail network, the venture is attracting its own share of controversies from the way the contract was awarded to the price of contract.

For one, China’s state-owned China Communications Construction Company (CCCC) has been appointed for the construction of ECRL via a direct negotiation method.

Detractors have labelled ECRL – at a cost of RM80mil per kilometre – as the world’s costliest rail project. Note that, the Gemas-Johor Baru double-tracking stretch costs RM45mil per km.

ECRL, however, will go over hilly terrain and has several tunnels to be built.

There are questions on whether the 688km rail venture, at RM55bil, will be financially feasible.

Sources say the price tag is unlikely to have included land acquisition costs.

They indicate that close to half of the land plots required for the rail link sit on private land and would require land acquisition. At this point, the total land acquisition cost is unknown.

No money in rail

The concerns of the critics are understandable, given the fact that public infrastructure projects, namely rail projects are usually not commercially viable.

A quick check on the finances of Malaysia’s very own Keretapi Tanah Melayu Bhd (KTMB) and a number of major rail operators abroad, affirms the fact that rail projects do not promise easy money.

The loss-making KTMB which was corporatised in 1992, has not been able to financially sustain itself, resulting in the deterioration of its level of service despite attempts to turn around the company.

According to the railway service operator’s latest publicly available audited report for financial year 2013, the group registered a total net loss of RM128.2mil. However, note that, the net loss had narrowed by 46% from RM238.5mil in the previous year.

Had it not been for the government’s subsidy which kept it afloat, KTMB would find it difficult to continue its operations without a further raise of its fare.

In India, where railway is a favoured mode of transportation, the Indian Railways has been incurring losses on passenger operations every year. Earlier this year, the lower chamber of the Indian parliament was told that the state-owned rail operator recorded a loss of Rs359.18bil (RM24.04bil) in the period of 2015 to 2016.

This was slightly higher than its loss of Rs334.91bil (RM22.42bil) in the period of 2014-2015.

On the other hand, China’s state-owned rail operator, China Railway Corp, was reported to have recorded a 58% increase in earnings last year despite huge losses in the first nine months. However, a zoom into its finances reveals that the high profit made was only possible due to a significant annual government subsidy.

Similarly, Singapore’s SMRT Corp which manages the city-state’s rail operations posted a profit of S$7.4mil (RM23.33mil) in its financial year of 2016. This was on the back of a revenue of S$681mil (RM2.15bil), which rose by 4.1% year-on-year.

While the rail operations saw higher ridership in that year, SMRT Corp would have registered a loss of S$9.6mil (RM30.26mil) for its rail business, if not for the net property tax refund of S$17.1mil (RM53.9mil).

Considering the lack of commercial viability in such rail projects, ECRL would ultimately require assistance from the government in ensuring smooth operations, while maintaining an affordable service for its users. This is akin a crucial trade-off, to complement the government’s move to provide an integrated transportation system in Malaysia, which is long overdue.

AmBank Group’s chief economist Anthony Dass tells StarBizWeek that for every ringgit spent on capital projects such as transportation, it generates a return or multiplier effect of around 5% to 20%.

In his estimation, he says the ECRL should create around RM50-55bil in terms of gross domestic product.

“The impact of this project to the economy will be multilevel. Impact on the respective states’ GDP and national GDP will be evident, though the magnitude of the impact on the respective states is poised to vary.

“On a longer term, once the entire project is completed, we expect strong benefits seeping into services related activities. Properties in the major towns is likely to enjoy more especially the port-connected towns, driven by logistics- and trade-related businesses.

“Other areas would benefit from the movement of tourism. As for the smaller towns, they are more likely to enjoy from the spillovers of this connectivity through movement of people commuting to work and new areas of business growth especially in areas like the small and medium businesses,” says Anthony.

High cargo projections

By the year 2040, an estimated 8 million passengers and 53 million tonnes of cargo are expected to use the ECRL service annually as the primary transport between the east coast and west coast.

By 2040, ECRL is projected to support a freight density of 19 million tonnes.

The freight cargo projections of the rail network stands in stark contrast to the total cargo volume running through the entire Malaysian railways today.

As of 2015, the entire Malaysian railways operations handled a sum of 6.21 million tons of cargo, according to a study related to the ECRL.

To note, the revenue from the operation of the venture is projected to be obtained through a transportation ratio of 30% passengers and 70% freight.

If the projections of ECRL are anything to go by, the planners are anticipating a ballistic growth in volume of cargo being moved along the tracks.

Is this realistic?

Socio Economic Research Centre executive director Lee Heng Guie remains concerned on the details of the project financing, albeit the expected trickle-down benefits of ECRL.

“While ECRL has been identified as a high impact public transport project that will connect east coast states with the west coast, especially Greater KL and Klang Valley, the high cost of RM55bil requires further justification. More clarity on the cost structure and terms and conditions of the loan is needed to ease public genuine concerns.

“It must be noted that the high costs, low profits and long gestation periods of transportation projects do not always make them financially viable. The financial viability of the ECRL would depend on the revenue generated to cover operating cash flow, including interest expenses.

“As the loan will have a seven year moratorium, the bunching of loan repayment together with interest payment will be substantial in the remaining 13 years,” he says.

Lowering cost the key

In terms of funding, 85% of the total project value of RM55bil would be to be funded by Exim Bank of China’s through a soft loan at a 3.25% interest.

The balance 15% would be financed through a sukuk programme by local banks.

There is no payment for the first seven years, and the government starts paying after the seventh year over a 13-year period.

At 3.25% interest per annum, the interest servicing bill for the project is huge.

“Hence the main challenge to this project will be to bring down cost as low as possible. The lower the cost, the lesser it would be the burden on the government’s balance sheet,” says an industry player.

Echoing a similar view, Lee noted the ERCL project loan is expected to be treated as “contingent liability” as it will be taken by Malaysia Rail Link Sdn Bhd, a special purpose vehicle owned by the Ministry of Finance.

This is also to ensure that the Federal Government will not breach the self-imposed debt to GDP ratio of 55%.

As at end-March 2017, the Federal Government’s debt stood at RM664.5bil or 50.2% of GDP.

At the end of the day, despite the concerns on the possible cost overrun in the ECRL project, proper management and efficiency in project delivery could lead to cost savings and ultimately lower overall expenditure for ECRL.

History has shown that Malaysian companies can lower the cost, especially on rail projects compared to foreign players.

In the late 1990s, a consortium of India and China state-owned companies were awarded the contract to build a double track electrified railway system from Padang Besar to Johor Baru. The cost was estimated at RM44bil and paid through crude palm oil.

However, an MMC Corp Bhd-Gamuda Bhd joint venture managed to win the job in 2003 with a RM14.3bil proposal. However this project was shelved and subsequently continued after a lull of few years.

ECRL is a seven year project to be built in stages. Many factors can come into play in that period like delay in construction and rise in material costs.

However in the bigger picture, the infrastructure venture should not merely be seen from a commercial-viable lens alone. The trickle-down benefits on the economy and the Malaysian population should also be factored into the calculations.

The lower the cost, the higher the multiplier effect.

Source: The Star by ganeshwaran kanaandgurmeet kaur

Related Link:
Debate on ECRL

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little places that dot the route of the RM55bil East Coast Rail Link
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Building the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road

Reflections on Maritime Partnership

China Maritine Silk Road_ Asean

The “Silk Road” is a general term used to geographically describe ancient Chinese exchanges between Asia, Europe and Africa in the areas of politics, economics and culture. Starting on land and developing on sea, the “Silk Road” is a vehicle of historic importance for the dissemination of culture. The ancient maritime Silk Road was developed under political and economic backgrounds and was the result of cooperative efforts from ancestors of both the East and West. China’s proposal to build a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is aimed at exploring the unique values and concepts of the ancient road, enriching it with new meaning for the present era and actively developing economic partnerships with countries situated along the route. Specifically, the proposal seeks to further integrate current cooperation in order to achieve positive effects.

The ocean is the foundation and vehicle necessary to build a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. It is China’s mission to understand the importance of building a Maritime Silk Road and take effective actions at present and for a certain period to come.

21st Century Maritime Silk Road from a Global Perspective

In the twenty-first century, countries have become more inter-connected by the ocean in conducting market, technological and information exchanges. The world is now in an era that values maritime cooperation and development. China’s proposal to build a Maritime Silk Road conforms with larger developments in economic globalization and taps into common interests that China shares with countries along the route. The goal is to forge a community of interest with political mutual trust, integrated economies, inclusive culture and inter-connectivity. The construction of a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road is a global ini-tiative that pursues win-win results through cross-border cooperation. It is thus of great importance to view it from the perspective of multi-polarization, economic globalization and the co-existence and ba-lancing of cooperation and competition.

Building a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will help stimulate all-round maritime opening-up and benefit ASEAN and relevant countries.

Oceans contain a treasure trove of resources for sustainable development. China is currently at a critical stage in its economic reform process and must pay more attention to the ocean. As mentioned in the resolution of the Third Plenum, “[China] needs to enhance opening-up in coastal regions and boost the connectivity construction with neighboring countries and regions to spur all-round opening-up.”

The Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century will further unite and expand common interests between China and other countries situated along the route, activate potential growth and achieve mutual benefits in wider areas. The Maritime Silk Road will extend southward from China’s ports, through the South China Sea, the Straits of Malacca, Lombok and Sunda and then along the north Indian Ocean to the Persian Gulf, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. In other words, the Road will extend from Asia to the Middle East, East Africa and Europe, and it will mainly rely on ASEAN countries. Building the Maritime Silk Road will connect China’s ports with other countries through maritime connectivity, intercity cooperation and economic cooperation. On the one hand, the Road will strengthen the economic basis for China to cooperate with countries along the route and better connect Europe and Asia. On the other hand, the Road will facilitate the development of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), bringing benefits to China, ASEAN and other countries along the road.

The Maritime Silk Road will increase trust and regional peace and stability.

As the world’s economic and political center shifts towards the Asia Pacific, the region has stepped into a stage of geopolitics characterized by intersecting, overlapping and conflicting interests. By facilitating communication between countries along the road, the Maritime Silk Road will help build a community that represents the common concerns, interests and expectations of all countries. The community is expected to guide and support a peaceful and stable Asia Pacific landscape.

Moreover, the Maritime Silk Road will further bring together the “Silk Road Economic Belt,” the “Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor” and the “China-Pakistan Economic Corridor” that together connect Europe and Asia. Such connections will greatly enhance China and other countries’ abilities to develop economically while limiting external risks. The Maritime Silk Road will also enhance cooperation in non-traditional security areas while maintaining maritime security.

Maritime Partnerships Are the Key to Building the Maritime Silk Road

At a speech before the Indonesian parliament in 2013, President Xi Jinping stated that Southeast Asia has become an important hub for the maritime silk road and that China is willing to enhance maritime cooperation with ASEAN countries, boost maritime partnerships and build a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. President Xi’s speech set forth a clear path for developing road. Enhancing maritime cooperation will be a priority task in building the Maritime Silk Road. The first step will involve China and countries along the route promoting pragmatic maritime cooperation.

Connecting multiple regions and uniting wide areas of co-operation, the tasks put forth in the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will not be achieved in the immediate future. Instead, these tasks call for China and relevant countries to work in a step-by-step and practical manner. Building the Maritime Silk road will require diverse forms of cooperation. With a focus on economic cooperation, the Road will give consideration to all parties involved. It will be based on the existing cooperation mechanisms and platforms and be promoted by China and other countries along the route.

The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will cover more than 20 countries and regions that share a broad consensus on enhancing exchanges, friendship, promoting development, safety and stability within the region and beyond. The Silk Road has already received positive responses and support from many relevant countries. Greek Prime Minister Antonidis Samaras, for example, made it clear that Greece will “support and actively participate in building the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road proposed by China.” The Road runs through a region that is sensitive to international strategy and has complex geopolitics. The countries in the region differ in size, development, history, religion, language and culture. Therefore, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will accommodate various countries’ demands and apply suitable policies to each country. Meanwhile, the Road must change and consolidate new patterns of cooperation.

China has been building friendships and partnerships with nei-ghboring countries and developing maritime partnerships with its ocean neighbors, providing a solid foundation for cooperation with ASEAN and countries in the region. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road requires the following efforts: First, consensus must be reached between major countries along the route to enhance maritime cooperation. During high-level dialogues in recent years, the Chinese leadership made maritime cooperation an important topic of bilateral discussions and established the China-ASEAN and China-Indonesia Maritime Cooperation Fund. At the same time, China has actively promoted maritime cooperation between Southeast Asia, South Asia and African countries and established high-level mechanisms between various national maritime departments.

Second, countries must engage in pragmatic cooperation along the route in the areas of trade, the economy, culture and infrastructure. In 2012, the trade volume of countries along the route accounted for 17.9 percent of China’s total trade. The contracted turnover in countries along the route accounted for 37.9 percent of China’s overseas contracted turnover. People-to-people exchanges between China and ASEAN recently topped 15 million, while two-way students reached more than 170,000.

Third, countries along the route must engage in effective cooperation on ocean and climate change, marine disaster prevention and mitigation, biodiversity preservation and other areas of maritime policy. In 2010, the Indonesia-China Center for Ocean & Climate (ICCOC) was established. In 2013, the China-Thailand Climate and Marine Ecosystem Joint Lab were both launched. In 2012, the Chinese government set up a Marine Scholarship, and from that year onward, the scholarship will sponsor young people from developing countries in Southeast Asia, Africa and Latin America to obtain a master’s degree or doctorate in China to enhance the marine capabilities of their own countries.

Focusing on Developing Partnerships Along the Maritime Silk Road

The Maritime Silk Road is in line with the development of national economies and the improvement of welfare. China must follow the new perspectives on value, cooperation and development featuring equality, cooperation, mutual benefits, win-win results, inclusiveness and harmony. Guided by President Xi’s desire to “expand the scale of cooperation and gradually foster regional cooperation,” China must make use of its comparative advantages and promote communication, connectivity, trade flow, currency circulation and consensus among people. China needs to target common interests between countries along the road and map out long-term plans and execute its plans in a step by step manner.

The Road will connect the Pacific and Indian Oceans. China will focus on upgrading the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area and extending it to the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden. By virtue of connecting the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the “Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Economic Corridor” and the “Silk Road Economic Belt,” China will build an open, safe and effective maritime road that can facilitate trade, transportation, economic development and the dissemination of culture.

The Road will also make good use of the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund and enhance pragmatic maritime cooperation. By prioritizing cooperation in inter-connectivity, the maritime economy, marine environmental protection and disaster prevention and mitigation, China aims to improve the welfare of countries along the route and share the benefits of the Maritime Silk Road.

The Road will also make use of existing bilateral and multilateral marine cooperation mechanisms and frameworks. By making use of the existing and effective marine cooperation platforms, China will improve the area’s marine partnership network, forge closer ties between countries along the route and finally create a cooperation landscape in which marine resources, industries and culture are all reasonably distributed and mutually reinforcing.

The construction of a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road the development of marine partnerships call for the following measures:

First, it will call for better marine connectivity. Infrastructure connectivity is the priority of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Countries need to focus on building key pathways, points and major projects, and China needs to work with countries along the road to build marine infrastructure, improve law enforcement abilities, provide public goods of marine security and guarantee the security of marine pathways. China needs to support the construction of ports, wharves and information networks to ensure the open flow of goods and information. It must also enhance communication on marine cooperation policies to facilitate marine investment and trade.

Sea lane safety is the key to sustaining the development of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, while ports are the foundation of sea lane safety. Like posts along the ancient Silk Road, ports along the new Maritime Silk Road will act as “posts on sea” that handle cargo and resupply ships and people. Such “sea posts” also must provide safe and convenient sea lanes for all countries to make use of. These posts can either be built by individual countries or built with the help of China and other countries, or even be leased in other counties. The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will thus able to cover and drive more countries to create “sea posts.”

Second, it will call for strong cooperation on marine economy and industry. Many countries along the route strategically exploit the ocean, develop their maritime economies and sustain marine development. Strengthening cooperation on marine economics and industry will help push forward modernization and promote the upgrading and optimization of industry. Such cooperation will better integrate China’s economy with those of countries along the route.

Closer cooperation in the marine industry will require domestic industrial restructuring according to market demands, require prioritized cooperation in marine fishery, tourism, desalination and marine renewable resources and require Chinese enterprises in this industry to go global. China encourages enterprises with intellectual property and sophisticated desalination technology, marine renewable resources and marine bio-pharmaceutical technology to invest and build their own businesses in countries along the route.

Relying on existing Economic and Trade Cooperation Zones between China and other countries, as well as marine demonstration zones in Tianjin, Shandong, Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong, the government will play a leading role in the initial stages, guide enterprises with mature technologies in iron and steel, shipbuilding, fishery and aq-uaculture to establish production bases and extend industrial chains to countries with rich resources and huge demand.

China needs to work with countries along the route to facilitate regional cooperation, building industrial parks, enhancing investment and cooperation in the marine industry, building marine economic demonstration zones, marine technology parks, economic and trade cooperation zones and marine training bases. Through such industrial cooperation, China will forge an investment cooperation platform in which Chinese enterprises can gain international competitiveness and participate at a higher level of the industrial echelon.

China needs to build a cooperation belt to enhance the marine industry and set up cooperation networks to facilitate marine tourism. A sustainable Maritime Silk Road will not be achieved without the help of port economic zones. As a result, China must develop its port economic zones and free trade zones to provide a platform for the Maritime Silk Road. China will focus on eliminating systematic and mechanistic barriers, lowering market thresholds and facilitating the opening-up of major areas.

Third, it will call for all-round cooperation in marine fields. In recent years, non-traditional security issues such as piracy, maritime terrorism, cross-border crimes and maritime disasters have loomed large. Countries along the route share a common interest in addressing these problems. Naturally, fighting against non-traditional security challenges will become an important part of the Maritime Silk Road. As such, China must promote exchanges and cooperation between countries along the route in the areas of marine technology, environmental protection, marine forecasting and rescue, disaster prevention and the mitigation and climate change.

Putting the “Marine Technology Partnership Plan” into practice. Based on existing marine cooperation centers and observation platforms, China will focus on promoting marine technology cooperation networks and building the China-ASEAN Marine Cooperation Center, the Indonesia and China Center for Ocean and Climate, the China-Thailand Climate and Marine Ecosystem Joint Lab, the China-Pakistan Joint Marine Center, the China-Sri Lanka Marine and Coastal Zone Joint Research Center and other ocean stations.

Building “marine ecological partnerships.” By paying more atten-tion to an ecological civilization, China needs to enhance cooperate with countries along the route to build a green Silk Road that addresses the marine ecological environment and climate change. China must set up an effective dialogue mechanism, map out major projects in which all parties can get involved and make comprehensive plans for regional ecological and environmental protection. China must work more closely with Southeast Asia and South Asia to protect biodiversity, build a cross-border bio-diversity corridor and establish marine conservation areas.

Conducting the regional marine research. By building cooperation networks for marine disaster preparedness, providing marine forecasting products and releasing marine disaster warnings, China will increase marine benefits for relevant countries.

Fourth, it will call for expanding cooperation in marine culture. Marine culture is the foundation of building a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. When talking about the Silk Road Economic Belt, President Xi has stated that “amity between people holds the key to sound relations between states.” He also highlighted the importance of “common aspirations,” given that the Silk Road will be supported by countries only if it is able to benefit people. China will inherit and pro-mote friendly cooperation along the Maritime Silk Road and develop a proposal with international consensus so that marine cooperation and partnerships will be firmly supported.

The plan will also call on countries to increase marine awareness and achieve common aspirations. China needs to make full use of the geopolitics and culture of Maritime Silk Road to promote exchanges in marine culture, tourism and education to make the Road a key link for friendly exchanges. By “going global” and “going local” at the same time, China needs to carry out exchanges and cooperation in marine culture, in areas such as cultural or art exchanges, archaeological exchanges, marine tourism cooperation, education and training.

China will guide and encourage the community to conduct various cultural exchanges and offer tours and products with distinct Silk Road features. In such a way, China will be able to expand the cultural influence of the Maritime Silk Road, push the Road into the new century and promote general marine cultural diversity.


On June 20, 2014, Premier Li Keqiang spoke at the China-Greece Marine Cooperation Forum, stating, “We stand ready to work with other countries to boost economic growth, deepen international cooperation and promote world peace through developing the ocean, and we strive to build a peaceful, cooperative and harmonious ocean.” China’s proposal to build a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road suits the current era and is characterized by peace, development, cooperation, innovation and opening-up. With the goal of building a harmonious ocean, the proposal rests on opening-up and innovation and aims to achieve “harmony between humans and the ocean, peaceful development, safety and convenience, cooperation and win-win results.” A 21st Century Maritime Silk Road will enhance cooperation between China and other countries, increase mutual trust, create a stable environment for cooperation and bring new opportunities for regional stability and prosperity.

by Liu Cigui

China Institute of International Studies


China’s Initiatives of Building Silk Road Economic Belt and

Xi suggests China, C. Asia build Silk Road economic belt · Chinese President Xi Jinping … China, Maldives share dream of 21st Century Maritime Silk Road.

An American-Made Business Model Has Less Success Overseas

American model_Harry Campbell For years, the titans of finance have held out the promise that they could export their business model overseas and mint billions in the process. Yet, there are increasing signs that global deal-making was always a myth.

If you’ve been anywhere near a Wall Street conference in the last five years, you know the drill. Deal makers bemoan the United States as a mature and overregulated economy. They talk about heading abroad, as emerging market economies leave us far behind. To listen to them, one might think the rest of the world was a paradise out of “Atlas Shrugged,” where capital flows and where private equity, investment banks and other investors can freely seek opportunities.

So what country is No. 1 in initial public offerings so far this year? Yes, it is the United States, according to Renaissance Capital, with 75 I.P.O.’s raising $39 billion in total. Compare this activity with China, where 41 I.P.O.’s raised just $8.1 billion.


And in mergers and acquisitions? Again, it is the United States, with 53 percent of the worldwide deal volume, up from 51 percent from last year, according to Dealogic. For investment banks, this means that the United States has a 46 percent share of the $63 billion in worldwide investment banking revenue, up from 34.6 percent in 2009.

With the slowdown in once-hot emerging markets, the tide is going out, baring all of the problems and issues associated with global deal-making.

China is a prime example. Huge amounts of foreign and state investment produced an economic miracle. And in that time, wealth was there to be had.

But let’s be clear about where that wealth came from. In the United States, deal makers make money primarily by buying underperforming assets, adding some financial wizardry and riding any improvements in the stock market. Sometimes, they get lucky by making a quick profit, but often private equity works to squeeze out inefficiencies and make operating improvements in companies and then takes them public a few years later.

China’s situation

In China, what increasingly appears to have been a stock market and asset bubble spurred by hundreds of billions in direct investment has created some spectacular early profits for deal makers. The private equity firm Carlyle Group, for example, has made an estimated $4.4 billion on an investment in China Pacific Insurance, which it took public on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

But now, with the Chinese I.P.O. market at a virtual standstill and the Shanghai market down more than 30 percent from its high last year, that avenue to riches is over. People are starting to say that investment in China resembles a “No Exit” sign.

Deal makers are left with a back-to-basics approach that looks to make money from companies through economic growth or improving their performance. Yet most of these investments are made with state actors and minority positions, meaning that there may be little opportunity to actually do anything more than sit and wait and hope. And you know what they say about hope as a strategy.

It appears that deal makers are starting to realize the problem. Foreign direct investment in China was down 3.67 percent from last year to $9.6 billion, and it is likely to remain on a downward trend.

And China has been among the friendliest places for deal makers. Other emerging markets have been less accommodating. Take India, which has been criticized for excessive regulation, high taxes and ownership prohibitions. David Bonderman, the head of the private equity giant TPG Capital, recently said that “we stay away from places that have impossible governments and impossible tax regimes, which means sayonara to India.”

Foreign issues

The comment about India highlights another problem with foreign deal-making: it’s foreign. Sometimes, the political winds change and local governments that initially welcomed investment change their minds.

South Korea, for example, invited foreign capital to invest in its battered financial sector after the Asian currency crisis. But when Lone Star Investments was about to reap billions in profits on an investment in Korea Exchange Bank, a legal battle almost a decade long erupted as Korean government officials accused the fund of vulture investing.

And the political problems are sometimes not directed at foreign investors. South Africa, for example, is undergoing the kind of political turmoil that can stop all foreign investment in its tracks over treatment of its workers and continuing income inequality. Things are not much better in the more mature economies.

Economic doldrums

Europe is in the economic doldrums, and its governments are increasingly protectionist of both jobs and industry. France, for example, recently threatened to nationalize a factory owned by ArcelorMittal, which sought to shut down two furnaces.

The national minister said the company was “not welcome.” It’s hard to see a deal maker profiting from buying an inefficient enterprise that it can’t clean up without risking national censure.

Buying at a low is the lifeblood of any investment strategy — but this assumes that there will be an uptick, and on the Continent, that is uncertain given the state of Greece and the other indebted economies in Southern Europe.

This is all a far cry from the oratory vision-making at conferences. Now that the global gold rush has ended, the belief that the American way of doing deals is portable is being upended.

Fragmented world

We are left with a fragmented world where capital moves not so freely, the problems of politics and regulation are more prominent and investing in emerging markets becomes what it always has been: the province of more specialized investors who are in tune with the political and regulatory requirements. Regardless, the easy riches that many thought these countries would bring are now far out of sight.

And the winner in all of this is likely to be the much-maligned United States, where the economic conditions and regulatory environment first gave birth to these deal makers.

This is not to say that there will still not be global deal-making or that American multinationals will not continue to expand abroad. Of course, there will still be profits in deals overseas. But the vision that deal-making will instantly and seamlessly go global is increasingly exposed as one that was more a fairy tale than reality.- IHT/NYT

Steven M. Davidoff, a professor at the Michael E. Moritz College of Law at Ohio State University, is the author of “Gods at War: Shotgun Takeovers, Government by Deal and the Private Equity Implosion.” E-mail: | Twitter: @StevenDavidoff

Malaysia’s minimum wage and its implications

Dramatic rise in wages poses upside risk to inflation


RECENT news suggests that Prime Minister Najib is likely to announce setting a minimum wage on Labour Day (May 1). This is authorised under the National Wages Consultative Council Act of 2011 passed by parliament in July last year.

Because of the looming general elections, the announcement is likely to be construed as politically motivated, but there are also important economic consequences of a legislated minimum wage requirement.

The minimum wage is likely to be set anywhere between RM800 to RM1,000 per month. If we assume RM1,000, this would imply a significant 17% rise in the wages of unskilled workers, which according to Malaysia’s Employers Federation 2010 Salary Survey, are earning an average RM852 a month.

To put this in perspective, it compares with the average increase of wages in the manufacturing sector of only 6% per year.

This poses an upside risk to inflation, in our view. First, overall labour productivity growth, which has been slowing in the last few years to an average of 2.7% (versus 5.3% pre-1998), is likely to substantially lag the potential increase in minimum wages, resulting in a rise in unit labour costs.

Second, while one could argue that the legislation only affects a certain segment of the employed sector, in 2010 the share of private wage earners earning RM1,000 or below comprise nearly 50% of total employment, according to the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research.

Given the significant share, this is also likely to affect wage negotiations among higher skilled workers, and could stoke higher wage expectations.

As is common in other countries (e.g. Indonesia), minimum wages can be perceived as a wage-setting mechanism (which sets a floor to actual wages) rather than just a safety net for low-wage workers.

Finally, given the current strength in domestic demand (indeed Bank Negara‘s annual report suggests that domestic demand “will continue to be the anchor for growth,”) firms are likely to pass on rising input costs, fueling CPI inflation.

There are also longer-term concerns:

Minimum wages could introduce rigidities into the labour market that may ultimately structurally raise unemployment rates. We think part of the reason Malaysian unemployment rates recovered quickly during the 2008/09 global financial crisis is that wage flexibility allowed downward adjustment in wages rather than employment losses during the downturn. Indeed, wages fell more sharply in 2008/09 than in the previous recession, and the unemployment rate recovered to pre-crisis levels more quickly and stayed there until now. The legislated minimum wages could reduce some of that flexibility.

● This could also hurt external competitiveness, which, as we have argued before, is facing some pressures that are not due to an appreciating real exchange rate. If a minimum wage of RM1,000 is set, Malaysia’s labour costs will be nearly twice the regional average and will be the highest in South-East Asia except Singapore.

We understand that the Government is fully aware of these concerns and has pledged to address them by a broader set of structural reforms under Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak ‘s New Economic Model and the 10th Malaysia Plan unveiled in 2010.

The problem, however, is implementation has been slow so far and without more meaningful progress, these concerns will likely persist. One key argument of the proponents of the minimum wage is that this is supposed to complement these reforms by imposing a hard constraint on firms to improve productivity and reduce their reliance on low-skilled, low-wage foreign workers.

The risk is the reforms lag the minimum wage implementation, and hence the argument fails to hold, while external competitiveness could suffer.

The extent of the impact will still depend on the level of the minimum wage set, and the enforcement among firms.

While the latter remains to be seen, for the former, we can draw on some findings from academic literature to gauge the optimal level of the minimum wage, i.e. whether it is high enough to improve living standards of wage workers but low enough to keep competitive pressures under control.

A study by the World Bank suggests that a useful rule of thumb for developing economies is that the minimum wage at the national level should be no more than 40% of average wages.

By this benchmark, a minimum wage set at RM1,000 for Malaysia seems appropriate on average, though there is considerable variation across sectors. For instance, it is around 41% of the current average in the manufacturing sector, but about 75% of the rubber sector.

In terms of the near-term monetary policy implications, although headline inflation eased for the fourth consecutive month in February to 2.2% year-on-year from 2.7% in January, we see risks to our current policy rate forecast of a total 50 basis points cut in the second half of 2012.

We think the risk of Bank Negara remaining on hold for the rest of 2012 has already increased given that in its recently released annual report, the central bank continued to assess that “at the current level (3%) of the overnight policy rate, monetary conditions remain supportive of economic activity.”

Minimum wages implemented in May could provide additional upside risks to inflation, when fiscal policy is highly expansionary and commodity prices are elevated.

Related post:

Malaysia’s Minimum wage’s benefits and effects

Yuan or not to Yuan? Yuan way to new monetary order

A ‘grown-up’ yuan means a more stable world economy


CHINESE New Year has come and will soon go. The eurozone debt crisis is well past two years. Yet uncertainty persists. The World Bank‘s January 2012 Global Economic Prospects reports:

“World economy has entered a very difficult phase characterised by significant downside risks and fragility and as a result, forecasts have been significantly downgraded. However, even achieving these much weaker outturns is very uncertain Overall, global economic conditions are fragile.”

This week’s IMF World Economic Outlook says more of the same: “The global recovery is threatened by intensifying strains in the euro area and fragilities elsewhere.” China, India, South Africa and Brazil have entered a slowing phase.

No country and no region can escape the consequences of a serious downturn. Nevertheless, growth in the East Asia and Pacific region (excluding Japan) is expected to slowdown to about 7.8% in 2012 (8.4% in 2011) and stabilise in 2013.

This reflects continuing strong domestic demand (evident in third quarter or 3Q 2011 GDP) while exports will slow to about 2% due to Europe heading towards recession and sluggish rich “Organisation For Economic Coercion And Direction (OECD)” demand.

The middle-income nations are, I think, in a good position to weather the global slowdown, with significant space available for fiscal relaxation, adequate room for interest rate easing, ample high reserves and rather strong underpinning for domestic demand to rise.

I see the modest easing in China’s growth being counterbalanced by a pick-up in GDP gains in 2013 over the rest of the region. Outside China, growth has slackened sharply to 4.8% in 2011 (6.9% in 2010), but is expected to strengthen in 2012, reaching 5.8% in 2013.


GDP growth in China, which accounts for 80% of the region, had eased to about 9.1% in 2011 (10.4% in 2010) and is expected to slacken further to a still robust 8.2%-8.4% in 2012.

The World Bank projections point to growth moderating at 8.3% in 2013, in line with its longer-term potential GDP. Expansion is expected to emanate from domestic demand, with private spending and fixed capital outlays contributing most of the growth in 2012.

For China, the health of the global economy and high-income Europe in particular, represents the key risk at this time. Domestic risks include property overheating, local government indebtedness, and bloating bank balance sheets.

The 4Q 2011 growth of 8.9% annoy investors who are looking for indications either weak enough to justify further policy easing or strong enough to allay fears of a hard landing. Bear in mind the forecast growth for 2012 will be the weakest in a decade, and may cool further as exports slump.

The Chinese economy is buffeted by two very different forces: (i) slow global growth will hurt Chinese exports (especially to its largest trading partner, European Union) which rose by 7% in December, and exporters foresee more trouble ahead; however, (ii) analysts point to strong retail sales (up 18% in December) reflecting rising wages and domestic spending which represented about 52% of GDP in the first quarter, higher than in 2009-11.

China is counting on its massive effort to build low-income “social housing” to provide enough demand to keep the real-estate market from collapsing.

It is unclear whether China can accelerate this program to build 36 million subsidised housing by 2015enough to house all of Germany’s households. But financial markets are anticipating worse news ahead. After all, the Shanghai Composite Index fell 21% in 2011. As the adage goes, stock analysts did forecast 10 of the past 3 recessions!

The yuan

Appreciation of the yuan (renmimbiRMB) against the US dollar in 2012 is expected to slow to about 3%, from +4.7% in 2011. The yuan closed at 6.3190 at end 2011, up about 8% compared with June 10 (when China effectively ended its 2-year long peg to the US dollar and has gained 30% since mid-2005 when it was last revalued.

The slowdown reflects growing demand for the US dollar amid uncertainty, lower growth, diminishing trade surplus, and growing US military presence in Asia, according to China’s Centre for Forecasting Science (of the Chinese Academy of Sciences) which reports directly to the State Council, China’s Cabinet.

Much of it will be in the latter year as China is likely to keep the yuan relatively stable in the first half to allow time to assess the impact of goings-on in the euro-zone. Dollars are pumped in via state banks, providing markets with a clear signal it will not allow the yuan to depreciate, while not in a hurry to let it appreciate either. The yuan has since moved sideways.

Off-shore yuan

To make the yuan a true reserve currency, China begun to liberalise currency controls and encourage an offshore yuan market in Hong Kong, creating an outlet for moving the currency across borders. However, foreign investors in China have been slow in using the yuan.

In practice, it is still difficult to buy & sell yuan because of paperwork & bureaucracy. It is still easier to settle in US dollar as it is the universal practice. Its convenience outweighs the potential costs of any unfavourable move in the US dollar-yuan rate. Nonetheless, China is encouraging more businesses to use the yuan and more US banks to step-up their yuan-settlement business.

This market will grow as China diligently moves to internationalise its currency. Encouraged by the authorities, a vibrant offshore yuan market has blossomed in Hong Kong. Beijing still controls the currency and how the yuan bought in Hong Kong can be brought back to China.

Yuan deposits in Hong Kong rose more than 4 times to 622.2b yuan (nearly US$100bil) at end September 2011 from a year earlier according to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, and now account for 10.4% of bank deposits.

Growth in offshore yuan stalled in late 2011 as China slowed its currency appreciation against the dollar. Given Beijing’s gradualist approach to reform, the market will soon revive.

An audience poll at the recent 2012 Asian Financial Forum in London indicated 63% believes full yuan convertibility is more than 5-years away.

The very fact that London wants to be a yuan-trading centre now says a lot. Only 10% of China’s international trade is settled in yuan, rising to 15% in 2012. It’s still a small market in the global context.

The yuan is used for just 0.29% of all global payments in November 2011 according to financial messaging network Swift. By comparison, the euro’s share is about 40%.

Dim-sum bonds

A booming business in dim-sum bonds (offshore yuan denominated bonds) followed, with companies including Caterpillar and McDonalds issuing such bonds. In September 2011, a spurt of capital flight towards “safe haven” assets in the US tied to the worsening debt crisis in Europe caused currencies of emerging nations to depreciate against the US dollar.

In East Asia, modest declines were recorded compared with South Africa (the rand fell 22%) and Brazil (the real dropped 18%). Only the Indonesia rupiah (down 5.8%) and the Malaysia ringgit (fell 5.4%) come under some pressure.

This event slowed the appreciation of the yuan and with it, trading in dim-sum bonds eased as investors were no longer in a hurry to invest. Over the medium-term, most analysts expect this yuan market to grow in the face of its massive US$3.18 trillion in reserves, as China moves to build its international status.

When dim-sum bonds started to hit the market in 2010, investors were enthusiastic, bidding up prices and driving down yields. But in the second half of 2011, the average price of investment grade dim-sum bonds fell 3.3%, amid a broad flight towards quality spooked by euro-zone turmoil and Chinese accounting scandals.

Bankers hope new entrants (private banks, commercial banks, mutual funds & life insurers) will give the market more stability this year. They would add depth & breath to the market, which tripled to 185b yuan (US$30bil) in dim-sum bonds issued in 2011. Expectations are for such bond issuance to reach 240 billion yuan this year, as new issuers (including more foreign companies) join early adopters such as government entities & state run banks.

This offshore bond market has developed well over the past year. Investor diversification in both types & geographics is still evolving, which is key to the healthy growth of the market. Equally important, investors look to the continuing appreciation of the yuan.

In addition, its average yield has risen to 3.8% (from 2.35% since mid 2011) and most now trade at higher yields than comparable US dollar bonds.

This rise in yields reflects expectation for (i) slower yuan appreciation; (ii) increase in supply; and (iii) investors desire for a higher liquidity premium during market downturns. Overall, the dim-sum market is turning into a buyer’s market.

Bilateral arrangements

China is forging ahead in laying the groundwork to internationalise the yuan via bilateral arrangements with foreign companies, nations & financial centers, particularly Hong Kong (mainly because it can fully control the terms of the market). More mainland-based financial institutions will be able to issue yuan denominated bonds in Hong Kong.

This is part of a broader effort, first started in July 2009 when it encouraged enterprises in Shanghai & Guangzhou province to use the yuan when settling trade with Hong Kong, Macau and some foreign companies (see my column “China: RMB Flexibility Not Enough” of July 3, 2010).

The post-X’mas direct yuan-yen trade deal forms part of a wide-ranging currency arrangement between China & Japan to give the use of the yuan a big boost. After all, China is Japan’s largest trading partner with 26.5 trillion yen in 2-way transactions last year. Encouraging direct settlement in bypassing the US dollar would reduce currency risks and trading costs. Also, Japan will buy up to US$10bil in yuan bonds for its reserves even though it represents no more than 1% of Japan’s US$1.3 trillion reserves. And, it is now easier for companies to convert Chinese and Japanese funds directly into each other without an intermediate conversion to US dollar. About 60% of China-Japan trade is settled in US dollar, a well-established practice.

The package allows Japan backed institutions to sell yuan bonds in the mainland (instead of Hong Kong) helping to open China’s capital market.

In recent weeks, China has taken new steps to promote the use of yuan overseas, including allowing foreign firms to invest yuan accumulated overseas in mainland China; widening the People’s Bank of China (its central bank) network of currency swaps with other central banks to enable their banks to supply yuan to their customers, including with Thailand, South Korea and New Zealand totalling 1.2 trillion yuan.

It already has completed arrangements with the big Asean counterparts. Berry Eichengreen (University of California at Berkeley) observed: “Japan appears to be acknowledging implicitly that there will be a single dominant Asian currency in the future and it won’t be the yen.”

But Harvard’s Jeffrey Frankel is more down to earth: “This hastens a multicurrency world, but this is just one of 100 steps along the way.”

China still has a way to go in: (i) getting the yuan fully convertible (ii) reducing exchange rate interventions (iii) liberalising interest rates, and (iv) reforming the banking system. In all, so the yuan can really trade freely.

What to do?

The China-Japan deal points the way, nudging the yuan towards the inevitable becoming a reserve currency alongside now discredited US dollar and the euro. This is to be welcomed by all.

China must realise a fully internationalised yuan should be free to float (and to appreciate) part of its overall reform. Over the longer term, though, avoiding huge imbalances is good for everyone, not least China. While it is understandable for its Prime Minister to label China today as “unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and ultimately unsustainable,” opportunities to take advantage of new openings don’t come often.

Alexander Gerschenkron, my professor at Harvard (in my view, the best economic historian of his time) points to economies like China as having “advantages in backwardness,” including China’s ability to weather shocks: high reserves, robust fiscal situation and comfortable external position.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet sums it up best: “If it be not now, yet it will come – the readiness is all.” A grown-up yuan is good for China’s welfare.

It also means a more stable world economy which benefits the United States. For China, there will never be enough cushion. Politicians need to seize the moment and act boldly.

Former banker, Dr Lin is a Harvard educated economist and a British Chartered Scientist who now spends time writing, teaching & promoting the public interest. Feedback is most welcome; email:

To Yuan or not to Yuan, that is the question  

The government of Zimbabwe is considering using China’s Yuan as their national currency.
China has reportedly been offered mining rights by Mugabe, despite protests [EPA]

Bulawayo, Zimbabwe – From downtown shops that stock cheap clothing and shoes that fall apart after one wear, to mining concessions in platinum, gold and diamonds – the Chinese finger is now in virtually every Zimbabwean pie.

From city sidewalks to low-income suburbs, the Chinese have become part of the local population, and if some senior government bureaucrats have their way, the country could soon find itself adopting the Chinese Yuan as its official currency.

For some influential monetary policy czars, the massive assailing of the Zimbabwean economy by the Chinese now only requires the Yuan to strengthen these economic reconstruction efforts.

Invited by President Robert Mugabe as part of his infamous 2004 “Look East” policy to help drive the economy and employment creation, after relations with former traditional investment partners the European Union and United States soured, China has been able to create its own little sphere of influence and establish an ubiquitous presence in Zimbabwe.

Zimbabwe looks to China for economic revival

This is despite being unpopular with Zimbabwe’s industrial and commercial players – and general members of the public who accuse the Chinese of poor labour practices and shoddy goods and services.

Late in 2011, Reserve Bank governor Gideon Gono, seen by many as a close ally of Mugabe, announced he was in favour of having the Chinese Yuan as the country’s official currency. After the Zimbabwean dollar was suspended in 2008, the country has been using a multi-currency regime, which includes the use of the US dollar, the South African rand and the Botswana pula.

According to Gono, the Chinese Yuan would be introduced alongside the Zimbabwean dollar. Mugabe’s political supporters have been calling for currency reforms to bring back the Zimbabwean dollar.

“With the continuous firming of the Chinese Yuan, the US dollar is fast ceasing to be the world’s reserve currency and the eurozone debt crisis has made things even worse,” Gono told state media in November.

“As a country, we still have the opportunity to avoid being caught napping, by adopting the Chinese Yuan as part of consolidating the country’s ‘Look East’ policy.

“It’s only recently when we had the startling revelations, with Angola offering to bail out her former colonial master Portugal from her debt crisis. This can also happen with Zimbabwe if we choose the right path,” Gono added.

He continued: “If we continue with our ‘Look East’ policy, it will not be long [until] we will also be volunteering to bail out Britain from her debt crisis, and I will not wait for my creator’s day before this happens. There is no doubt that the Yuan, with its ascendancy, will be the 21st century’s world reserve currency.”

‘Handing over’ the country?

Officials from Mugabe’s Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front see huge potential in using the Yuan, citing the growth of the Chinese economy under BRICS, which brings together emerging global economic powerhouses Brazil, India, China and South Africa.

But not everyone is as upbeat about such prospects.

There are concerns that this could mean “handing over” the country to the Chinese, who already have been offered huge mining rights by Mugabe – despite protests from his coalition government partners. The country’s finance minister, Tendai Biti, has said that Mugabe was forfeiting state resources to China, whom critics are calling “Africa’s new coloniser”.

Economist Eric Bloch said “it is not practical” for Zimbabwe to adopt the Chinese Yuan.

“Zimbabwe won’t have any interaction with international markets, as the US dollar remains the standard currency in international trade,” Bloch explained.

With China increasingly being touted to overtake the US as the world’s largest economy, the temptation to embrace all things Chinese has proven too much to resist for poor economies across the globe, contends Tafara Zivanayi, an economics lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe.

“There has been false hope given to Chinese economic growth, with many African countries imagining they can transfer this growth to their own economies,” Zivanayi said.

“Such decisions (to adopt a foreign currency) as usually based on international trade indices and monetary policies of the country where the currency is domiciled. Even if there have been projections that the Chinese economy will surpass the US economy, this won’t happen overnight,” Zivanayi said.

“There are still concerns about Chinese penetration of international, especially low income, markets and creating wealth for itself and not host countries,” Zivanayi said.

Even traders who have long ridiculed cheap Chinese products and have no grasp of international trade intricacies find themselves offering opinions about the prospects of adopting the Chinese Yuan.

“As long as things have worked fine for us using the American dollar, why change that formula?” asked Thabani Moyo, a commuter omnibus driver. His colleagues, who are struggling to handle giving change in the basket of currencies they receive, nodded in agreement.

Gono and other opponents of US currency cited this lack of change in coins as a reason why Zimbabwe needed to adopt a single currency or revert to its own, previously useless, dollar.

However, during the presentation of the national budget for the 2012 fiscal year, Biti told parliament that Zimbabwe would continue using US currency until the economy stabilised.

Not everyone supports the introduction of the Chinese Yuan. “We want real money, not zhing-zhong,” taxi driver Jourbet Buthelezi said, referring to the pejorative term Zimbabweans use for sub-standard Chinese goods.

A version of this article was first published on Inter Press Service.
Source: IPS

Challenging the State-Capitalism?

Clash of capitalist systems


The Year of the Dragon may symbolise the struggle for prosperity for some, but others may use this year to challenge what they call state-capitalism being practised by developing countries, especially in Asia.

IT’S the first day of the Year of the Dragon. Like others around the world, Malaysians hope it will be an auspicious year.

Certainly it will be an interesting one. Perhaps that’s the only certainty about this coming year of uncertainty.

The new Dragon Year will usher in even more intense debate about the role and the rise of China and of other “emerging economies”.

As the Western countries face gloomy economic prospects, some of their political elite and intellectuals seem to be seized by fears that some developing countries, especially China, will be steaming ahead.

Used to centuries of global economic dominance, these advanced countries are fearful that their leadership will be challenged and even overturned.

This may be the reason for the obsession about China. These days, there are new books almost every month about the rise of China. Some deal with its high growth and prospects or with its complex political developments.

Quite a number, like the book Death by China: Confronting the Dragon, are of the view that China is destroying not only the American economy but the whole world and its environment.

But the fears go beyond China, and incorporate other emerging countries as well, as seen in the latest issue of The Economist, with its cover stories on “The rise of state capitalism: the emerging world’s new model.”

The magazine describes the 88-storey Petronas Towers soaring above Kuala Lumpur, as well as the China Central TV building in Beijing and the VTB bank office in Moscow, as monuments to the new hybrid corporation – backed by the state but behaving like private-sector multinationals.

The Economist’s editorial admits that for emerging countries wanting to make their mark on the world, state capitalism has an obvious appeal, giving them the clout that private-sector companies would take years to build.

But its dangers outweigh its advantages, says the magazine. For their own sake and in the interests of world trade, the huge holdings should be unwound and handed over to private investors.

The Economist however also admits that this hybrid form of “state-directed capitalism” company is not new, and cites the East India Company.

This was the huge conglomeration that took over many Asian countries’ economies, while the English government made use of its gunboats and colonial rule to back up the EIC but other British companies.

The magazine also cites the United States after its war of independence, Germany in the 1870s, and Japan and South Korea in the 1950s as examples of rising powers using the state to kick-start growth.

There is thus recognition that the rise of today’s advanced countries was based on the state’s strong support in their companies’ emergence.

These companies have dominated the global economy for decades and in some cases centuries, backed up not only by subsidies, cheap credit and other policy measures but also by their governments’ political and military force.

In the past three decades, most developing countries have been told, through IMF-World Bank structural adjustment programmes, to give up the role of the state to direct their economies and instead rely entirely on the private sector.

These policies did not succeed as the domestic private sector is weak or even non-existent in many countries. In poor countries, foreign companies were not interested in coming in except in the mining or plantation sectors.

However, several other developing countries, mostly in Asia, took on a different model. Their governments believed in playing an important or even dominant role in the development process.

At first these governments owned companies that they ran like government departments, and this was not efficient. This model was changed in some countries to one where the state can own or partly own companies that are then run on a commercial basis. The state can also assist private companies to grow.

Government investment holding institutions like Khazanah and PNB in Malaysia or Temasek in Singapore have been set up as crucial components of this framework.

The increasing criticism by Western intellectuals and politicians of “state capitalism” is not confined to academic observations.

The US administration and Congress are contemplating legislation and action to place extra tariffs on Chinese products not only on anti-dumping grounds but also that they have been subsidised and that China is not a market economy.

The Congress is also discussing whether to slap tariffs on Chinese products on the ground that China’s currency is manipulated and under-valued.

While the focus now may be on China, other developing countries may be faced with the same actions based on the same reasoning, that these countries are unfairly helping their companies through policy measures that represent state-capitalism and industrial policy.

Moreover, the US and Europe and now negotiating free trade agreements with developing countries that contain clauses or even chapters that seek to prohibit or restrict the practices of government-linked companies, or the provision of subsidies and preferences by government to local companies.

Korean economist Ha Joon-chang wrote a famous book Kicking Away the Ladder to describe how developed countries made use of policies that made them rich, and now want to prevent developing countries from doing the same and thus are seeking to prohibit these same policies.

The clash of capitalist systems and the clash between developed and developing countries over what policies are legitimate and which should be banned will intensify in this Year of the Dragon.

Related articles
The Rise of State Capitalism. (

The natural evolution of markets


Man is a social animal. The 19th century sociologist and philosopher Georg Simmel argued that trade and exchange is “one of the purest and most primitive forms of human socialisation.” Last month, while travelling through remote parts of West Timor, in Indonesia, I was able to study first-hand how rural markets operate. I could not help wondering why so-called primitive markets such as these work so well when complex financial markets can be so dysfunctional?

Rural markets in East Timor are wonders of trade. Men and women in tribal costume converge on different villages on different days of the week. Everyone knows when to go to which village for these markets, which typically start at dawn when produce is fresh and often finish by 11am. Economists would surely call this scene of bustling rural commerce a “concentration of liquidity.”

As the late Stanford economist John McMillan argued, the market is a human construction- a tool. The market has features to make it work smoothly: mechanisms to organise buying and selling; channels for information flow; laws that define property rights, and self-regulating rules that govern behaviour.

Most rural markets are much more complex than they appear. They sell everything needed for daily life and have their own hierarchies. The stalls of wealthier, established traders are sheltered and in the best locations, while poorer traders just spread their wares on the ground. Specialisation is evident even in this basic setting there are designated places to buy textiles, fresh meat or fish, vegetables or household goods. These markets also function efficiently as information exchanges. Prices differ depending on who you are and what you know. Tourists pay more because they do not know the local language or rules, while locals bargain vigorously.

Market change: A general view of ebay headquarters in San Jose, California. Websites like ebay and Alibaba has eliminated geographical space by allowing transactions in rural markets to be done online. —Reuters

In these basic markets, you can observe the entire range of business evolution, from simple production, to wholesaling to final sale. Everything is designed for convenience and to reduce transaction costs. For instance, there are no roadside petrol pumps. Instead, petrol is sold in small bottles because the most common transport are motorbike taxis that carry as many as three passengers plus the occasional chicken or bag of rice.

The permeation of technologies like mobile phones and the internet even into these remote rural areas has accelerated the speed at which information travels through these markets. This means even lower transaction costs between business, between consumers, and from businesses to consumers. In some instances, use of websites like eBay and Alibaba have eliminated geographical space by allowing transactions in such markets to be done online.

With technology ending the isolation of rural markets and linking them to global markets, the production and marketing game is changing beyond recognition. A similar phenomenon occurred in the airline industry. Budget airlines use the internet to sell forward excess capacity at below average cost, thus filling their planes to capacity and maximising profits. This created a new market because before, many people could not afford to fly.

You see the effect of high transportation costs clearly in rural markets. Here, locally produced goods are ludicrously cheap, but imported good are very expensive.

The study of modern, sophisticated supply chains enables us to appreciate the fact that producers do not necessarily make most of their money in the product-to-consumer chain. The rule of thumb is that if a product costs US$1 to make, the distribution and transportation costs may account for US$3 of the US$4 final sale price to the consumer. Common conceptions of innovation still focus largely on creating new products, whereas services or process innovation are probably much more profitable and add more value than is generally understood.

To illustrate, the global trade regime still has a “hardware” focus, concentrating on physical trade rather than the more complex and less measured services trade. Apple innovated not in manufacturing, but in design and lifestyle. This means that it can sell a product at much higher prices than its competitors. Once it has captured a market, value creation comes from downloading new apps for the iPhone and iPad.

Financial services have emerged as one of the most profitable businesses, certainly until the last financial crisis. For a time before the 2007 crisis, the turn on capital in the financial sector was 20% per annum, significantly higher than for manufacturing and other real sector businesses.

With the benefit of hindsight, we now know there were two major reasons for the large profits in finance. The first is that the physical cost of creation of a financial derivative is almost zero, as it is an abstract product of its creator’s imagination. For many, the reason to buy a derivative is to hedge and reduce risk. If a buyer believes that the hedge is useful, which it can be under specific circumstances then he or she will be willing to pay a premium for that hedge. A second reason is leverage. The greater the leverage, the larger the profits are for both lender and borrower. But there is a catch it adds systemic risk to the entire market and can be fatal to the over-leveraged borrower.

The FX Accummulator is a good example. It is a financial product that looks and feels like a wonderful foreign exchange hedge that yields good profits for the speculator. However, many were not aware that at certain price levels, the amount of margin called by the lender could be greater than the total assets held by the speculator. Thus, what appears to be a “safe” hedge can turn out to be toxic, particularly when markets are volatile.

This raises the question whether financial markets have evolved beyond the limits of social safety. University of Southampton Professor Richard Werner is one of the first to point out that there are two aspects of credit creation one that contributes to real value creation and one that does not. Financial markets have evolved into highly complex systems that consumers, financial experts or regulators do not fully understand. Increasingly, they contribute less to social utility and become systemically fragile.

As McMillan presciently pointed out, “markets are not miraculous. There are problems they cannot address. Left to themselves, markets can fail. Viewed as tools, markets need be neither revered nor reviled just allowed to operate where they are useful.”

Rural markets arise from communities that have organised their commerce in such a way that reinforces social utility and stability. The Holy Grail of financial theory and practice in the world’s advanced economies is to identify at what level of complexity financial markets exceed the limits of social stability.

Andrew Sheng is President of Fung Global Institute.

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