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Don`t underestimate China: Government support will allow increased market share.

The first days of 2016 showed that China hasn’t escaped its 2015 woes. On January 4, new data showed that manufacturing activity slowed for the tenth consecutive month in December, and the ensuing sell-off in the stock market forced Chinese officials to halt trading mid-day. Global markets sank, and another bout of volatility on January 7 forced Chinese officials had to halt trading once again. But all the recent talk of China’s troubles has obscured the fact that the country’s companies still pose a formidable competitive threat to many Western multinationals.



The first concern for multinationals is that after a long period of overinvestment, Chinese manufacturers have been slashing prices. Capital investment still makes up a disproportionately large share of Chinese GDP – 44 percent, higher than in Japan (36 percent) or South Korea (38 percent) when those countries were building industrial capacity in the 1970s and early 1990s, respectively. All that investment has created enormous excess capacity in multiple sectors – 94.5 percent of Chinese steel production is produced below cost, for example. That means Western steelmakers will have to weather downward pressure on prices from Chinese firms that are willing to incur losses to move product.



China’s National Development and Reform Commission estimates that $6.8 trillion worth of projects – equivalent to 70 percent of China’s GDP – are making “highly ineffective” returns. Net profit margins, long lower than in the developed world, currently stand at just 2.5 percent, compared to 9.6 percent in the U.S., 6.4 percent in the U.K., 5.8 percent in Germany, and 5.1 percent in Japan.



Cheap, readily available capital has helped sustain investment levels and should continue doing so, despite corporations’ thin profit margins. Chinese banks offer favorable financing to state-owned and formerly state-owned enterprises, bankroll unprofitable projects, and roll over non-performing loans rather than force firms into default. Banks fund these subsidies to borrowers by paying depositors very little interest – 1.75 percent in a country growing some 7 percent a year. They also lend a relatively small percentage of their deposits. The loan-to-deposit ratio in China is just 67 percent. Credit Suisse analysts believe Chinese banks will continue rolling over non-performing loans until the loan-to-deposit rate reaches 100 percent, at which point the central bank could simply print money to prop up loans.



Chinese officials rarely intervene aggressively to reduce excess capacity by forcing state-owned enterprises to slow production or allowing more companies to go bankrupt. Instead, they step in to help them when they run into trouble, because they’re loath to stir up unrest or jeopardize economic growth. “We think that China…is operating a policy of employment maximization at the expense of profit maximization,” Credit Suisse’s equities analysts wrote in their 2016 outlook. Instead, companies have been trying to export their excess production, slashing prices to lure buyers. In December, China’s producer price index fell 5.9 percent from the previous year.



The competitive threat goes beyond prices, as Chinese companies are increasingly producing high-quality goods. Chinese automakers, for one, are quickly closing the quality gap with the West. (See chart) Domestic companies have learned quickly from foreign partners, many of which were forced to form joint ventures to do business in China. Sometimes, officials require multinationals to develop some technology in China or allow Chinese firms to own or have exclusive license to intellectual property. Not all partnerships are official – or consensual – either. China has very weak enforcement mechanisms for intellectual property rights, despite official pledges to crack down on IP theft.



Evidence suggests that the quality of Chinese production will keep improving. China has more than doubled spending on research and development from 0.6 percent of GDP 10 years ago to 2 percent. Chinese innovators apply for 45 percent more patents a year than those in the U.S., though fewer applications are successful. China produces 15 times more college graduates a year than it did in the 1990s, and many have the kinds of skills that can be put to good use in the technical, industrial sectors that China has flagged as strategically important. Out of 7.5 million Chinese graduates in 2015 (compared to 3.3 million in the U.S.), 1.3 million received degrees in science and engineering, compared to 500,000 in the U.S.



In addition, officials have indicated that they will directly subsidize companies in strategic industries. In its most recent five-year plan, the government prioritized creating “national champions” – companies that can become global leaders – in 10 industries, including information technology, robotics, and aerospace equipment. Domestic robotics companies, for example, are expected to take significant market share from foreign firms over the next decade. Such government support will allow companies to rise faster up the value chain and continue taking market share.



Official policies already give domestic companies preferential treatment in China, including high barriers to entry in certain industries. Google, Twitter, and YouTube are blocked, for example, allowing Baidu, Sina Weibo, and Youku to thrive without foreign rivals. The Ministry of Commerce has also been criticized for antitrust rulings that appear designed to benefit Chinese companies rather than prevent monopolies. Many of its most important firms are quickly catching up to those in the West in terms of quality, and the government has no intention of letting major manufacturers fail or forcing them to make dramatic cuts in production to deal with an excess supply problem. Quite the contrary, officials are doing a great deal to push Chinese firms to global prominence. Investors in vulnerable Western companies shouldn’t discount the idea that they will succeed.


Source: Credit Suisse



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