Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Financial crisis with Chinese characteristics

Observing the process of rolling jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) is an interesting experience. A long and thick strand is extracted from the pile of dough, broken into little pieces, each piece rolled into a thin pancake skin and stuffed with ground meat, chopped green vegetables, or egg. These little parcels are finally steamed, boiled or fried and served steaming hot with a dip of vinegar and optional chillies and mashed garlic. While observing the process and enjoying a portion of jiaozi and last week in a small roadside shop near Xizang Road in Shanghai, I was somehow reminded of the packaging of sub-prime loans into delicious looking structured investment vehicles, which were steamed into respectability by the credit agencies and picked up by the financial community with as much relish as I was raising the jiaozi to my mouth.

As if reading my thoughts, the restaurant owner who was rolling jiaozi, broke my reverie with a sudden question, “How is the financial crisis affecting India?” Given the universality of basic education in China, the level of general awareness (though not necessarily the degree of appreciation of the issues) tends to be high. It was not a surprise, therefore, that the dumpling roller from a village in Shandong province seem familiar with the global meltdown and curious about how it is affecting the world. His dumpling business in downtown Shanghai, however, he felt was not particularly vulnerable to the global crisis of confidence.

The mood elsewhere in China, however, is somber and in fact had been since the beginning of this year. According to a newspaper report, the number of people seeking psychological counseling in Beijing has doubled since the beginning of the year, and 85% of these are worried about possible job loss.

The stock prices started tumbling earlier this year and wiped out over half the value of most large companies listed on the Shanghai stock exchange and the savings of many who were enticed to the market by its heady ascent. Once a favorite pastime of the urban Chinese, including retired government workers and grizzled grandmothers, betting on the stock market has turned out be a regrettable indulgence.

The first Chinese victims of the current global financial crisis are the migrant workers who power the exports of cheap toys, garments, shoes and other such products to the Western world. Toy factories in Guangdong province of China are already closing and workers forced to go back to the villages they came from and again face the subsistence existence based on a tiny plot of land. Many, however, are likely to come back to the cities and seek employment in more export-proof industries of China.

Among the general Chinese population, the consumer confidence index is down from a high of 100.8 in October 2007 to 91 in September 2008 (a moderate decline when compared to the plunge in the US consumer confidence from 61.4 to 38 in just a month as reported by the Conference Board). Thrifty by nature and not afflicted by the profligate habits of their American counterparts, the confidence dip in China has not so far translated into a drastic tightening of purse strings or a cataclysmic reduction in consumption. However, the Chinese brow is also writ with worries about the future, queues outside popular and premium restaurants are getting shorter, and the shopping bags carried around luxury shopping malls seem lighter.

According to the latest data, the Chinese economy grew 9% in the third quarter of 2008, a dazzling performance compared to a 0.5% decline in Britain but a poor fizzle as compared to a blistering 11.9% growth in the same period of 2007 in China. When it did grow at this scorching pace, the talk was often of “overheating” and the government often voiced concern and attempted to rein the economic horse on steroids. But this strain has made a sudden reversal, and the People’s Bank of China cut interest rate for a second time in three weeks to reinvigorate the economy.

While not fully immune to the global virus of uncertainty and anxiety, the Chinese definitely show a higher resistance and resilience. While a relatively healthy and vibrant economy still growing at a 8%+ clip definitely helps, it is the Chinese psyche which possibly also contributes strongly to this feeling. As my colleague Eric Tai remarked “The Chinese have a saying –“Weiji jiu shi zhuanji” or “opportunity arises from crisis”. This positive thinking will definitely help the Chinese tide over the crisis with greater aplomb and the Chinese resilience should help cushion some the pain caused by unrestrained greed and excesses of the Western financial establishment.

Written by Ashok Sethi, TNS China