Philip Saunders, Portfolio Manager at Investec Asset Management, discusses China’s ‘Second Great Transformation’ which, if successful, promises to shape the world order in ways the West has only begun to appreciate.
Lindsay Williams: As always on a Tuesday, it’s the Big Picture. This week we speak to Philip Saunders, who is the Co-Head of Multi-Asset Growth at Investec Asset Management in London, and we are going to talk about China now. Philip, you have co-authored or authored a piece called “The Second Great Transformation” pertaining to China and there’s an awful lot of nonsense spoken about China from what I can gather. It’s all to do with the transition from China of old to China of new and to reducing their debt, which is perceived to be by the west as unsustainable. There’s an aging population and the general feeling is that the party is over but you have a different view on China, having been originally a sceptic yourself. What is the new view and maybe we should start with leadership?
Philip Saunders: Okay. So I think that in the past obviously the China macro story has been extraordinary. Deng Xiaoping sort of, basically having taken over from Mao – Mao died and he initiated reforms in the late 70’s to open up China, which was very successful and it was a simpler economic model. It was basically about sort of building the system, building infrastructure and the macro story, as it unfolded in the 2000’s, was extraordinary. The growth rate was incredible, the number of people lifted out of poverty and all that kind of stuff and that suddenly meant that China had become effectively the sort of second largest economy in the world over a 30 year period, an incredible achievement.
However, that model had begun to go well past its sell-by date from about sort of 2005/2006 and required more and more debt to sustain it. So you ended up in a situation where you had to borrow five units of debt to actually create one unit of GDP, obviously unsustainable.
So China basically had to sort of change course in a fairly major way and the previous administration was collectively too sort of busy engaging in corporate corruption and so forth and sort of getting rich rather than serving the people and the interesting thing is that along comes this guy, President Xi, who spent seven years during the cultural revolution living in a cave in rural China, having previously grown up as a member of the elite back in Beijing, and he has now risen to the top of the Chinese Communist Party and one of his first acts as president was to unleash an anti-corruption campaign. Most people at the time thought right, well, this is just, you know, shoot a few people to improve party legitimacy. 900,000 people later, literally, clearly, the clean-up has gone far further than anybody remotely expected and this is really an indication of seriousness, the seriousness of the person involved.
So the second great transformation is really a significant change, of course, of Chinese economic development and China needs to basically – it can’t borrow much more. It has got to basically use the existing debt much more productively and it has got to go up the value chain in terms of technological self-sufficiency and so on and so forth.
So looking at the past, actually if you had understood the macro story, i.e. rapid growth and emergence and increasing importance on the global stage, that was fine but you made no money unless you invested in Tencent or [Naspers] by actually investing in Chinese assets unless you’re an insider. Yeah?
Philip Saunders:Now, looking forward, it’s not about building out the system and putting sort of volume over profitability. It’s about a fundamental change of course in terms of capital productivity and more general productivity and also at the same time moving from a bank finance model to a bank plus capital markets finance model, actually a much more sophisticated modern economy. That means that, although growth rates, headline growth rates, are going to come down, it means that actually that growth is much more investible. So now it’s basically about investing in Chinese assets rather than international proxies such as resource stocks.
Lindsay Williams: And also his personality has impressed many people in the way that he handles himself on the international stage, as an aside, because he was recently at a meeting, the name of which has briefly escaped me but essentially the report that I read said that he said that the western culture says that if someone strikes you on the cheek, you turn the other cheek and forget about it. He says: our culture says that we punch you back or slap you back, and I think he was referring to Mr Trump and I think the way he stood up in a fairly dignified manner to what has been thrown at him by the west and also his performance at Davos really shows that he is a force to be reckoned with and clearly you are quite impressed with him yourself.
Philip Saunders: Yeah. I am going to still give you a quotation from Lee Kuan Yew, who was the first Prime Minister of Singapore. You know, this is a guy who took Singapore from a position of marginalisation with no natural resources and sort of created the Singapore that we see today and he actually met Xi back in the 1990’s when he was in a sort of provincial post and his impression, he said: he has iron in his soul, hence the sort of tough guy thing. I would put him in Nelson Mandela’s class of persons, i.e. a statesman of that order, a person with enormous emotional stability. He does not allow his personal misfortunes or sufferings to affect his judgment. In other words, he’s impressive – yes?
Lindsay Williams: Yes.
Philip Saunders:You don’t get somebody like Lee Kuan Yew actually saying that about you unless basically you are pretty impressive.
Philip Saunders: - which I think he is.
Lindsay Williams: Yeah, which comes from a man who turned Singapore from a small fishing village essentially, riddled with crime, to one of the great economic success stories of the region. Okay, so we have got a reform programme that’s being rolled out that is broad and far-reaching as you say in your piece. Do we really understand how broad and far-reaching it is in the west?
Philip Saunders: I don’t think we get it at all. We see bits of it but very few people actually – in fact, what the paper sets out to do is to try and actually sort of help people see the wood for the trees and not get buried in the detail and it’s everything from rural poverty to China addressing technological deficiencies in semiconductors.
It’s basically about a complete change to China’s environment, which, of course, has been trashed and China now is emerging as basically the leading power in renewables. So it’s extraordinary. It’s also basically about China playing an increasing role as an international citizen and, as you alluded to earlier on, I mean it’s extraordinary that basically China sort of appears to be the sort of responsible international citizen at a time when Xi’s US counterpart is trying to tear the system apart.
So we are witnessing an extraordinary shift in terms of what China now is emerging as, which actually I think is pretty constructive for the world but it’s also highly disruptive. You have got a multipolar system sort of beginning to unfold here and we have got so used to US hegemony, which I think is clearly going to change.
Lindsay Williams:Yes, indeed, and something that has happened since you published this piece, which is called “The Second Great Transformation”, is the sudden and sort of marked devaluation or rather revaluation or weakness – let’s put it that way – the weakness in the Chinese currency and it is almost as though, the way I look at it is that Xi said: well, I can’t really fight back and I don’t really want to fight back in such a bombastic fashion with the trade tariffs and continue this absurd mini trade war with the United States of America. All I will do is let our currency just weaken a bit and make our exports a little bit more competitive worldwide or am I being fanciful?
Philip Saunders:I think that clearly China – you know, because previously the renminbi was effectively pegged to the dollar and then they shifted to managing it against a basket, actually just like Singapore, but they basically allowed it to appreciate and it has actually been a pretty strong currency and recently, obviously, it has weakened sharply and I think that is partly about sending a message, you know effectively trade wars are a sort of – well, it’s not even a zero sum game; it’s a zero minus sum game.
Lindsay Williams: Yeah, fascinating analysis. I’m looking forward to reading for a second time your piece of work, Philip Saunders. Thank you so much for your time. That is Co-Head of Multi-Asset Growth, Philip Saunders, from Investec Asset Management in London.
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