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Moneylife » Investing » Investor Interest » Doing business in China: The pros and cons

Doing business in China: The pros and cons

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William Gamble | 03/10/2011 07:58 AM | 

The regulatory framework in emerging markets is either bad or nonexistent. In the World Bank’s annual report on the ease of doing business the highest BRIC is China which barely makes it into the top half of countries. Brazil is the only BRIC that makes it into the top half of Transparency International’s corruption index

We often expect leaders, professionals, and experts to know and understand the facts. The truth as to what is and what isn’t. Otherwise how could we expect them to make wise decisions? It is then both disturbing and profoundly unsettling to realize that they just accept the most common of assumptions as reality without question.
 
For example, Muhtar Kent, Coke’s chief executive spoke to the Financial Times about China. According to the article Mr Kent said that said “in many respects” it was easier doing business in China, which he likened to a well-managed company. “You have a one-stop-shop in terms of the Chinese foreign investment agency and local governments are fighting for investment with each other.” Fascinating.
 
What seems to have escaped Mr Kent is a process known to every con artist. In order to convince your mark to open their wallet, you have to gain their trust. You can do this by letting them win a few hands, by making it easy to play the game or promising large quick rewards. What the mark does not understand is that the game is not being played by the normal rules, but by ones that suit the con artist.
 
Mr Kent feels certain that Coke will make money in China because it is easy to do business. This has been true. In first half of this year, Coke sold more than one billion cases of its products in China which is double its sales five years ago. From Mr Kent’s perspective this market has great potential. What he seems to have ignored is that it has great risks.
 
Mr Kent’s entire product rests on a brand. Cola-flavoured sugar water is not hard to imitate. So without protection for his intellectual property his product becomes a commodity and the margins disappear.

In China they pirate intellectual property on a massive scale. Not just high-end Gucci bags, but just about anything that has a brand is being counterfeited. These include Michelin tyres, John Deere combines, Bubble Wrap, Tiffany jewellery, Nike and Timberland footwear, Marlboro cigarettes, Viagra, Colgate toothpaste, Kit Kat chocolates, Tide detergent, GM, Nissan, Ford, Mercedes car parts, mobile telephones, toys, clothing, industrial adhesives and even batteries.

Mr Kent also seems unconcerned about a country that routinely slanders foreign firms. Dell, General Mills, Lipton Teas, Colgate-Palmolive, and Sony all have been targeted. In one case China banned importing foods made by Schweppes, Unilever and Coke itself. These foods were tainted by an ingredient produced by a Chinese company that was only identified by foreigners.

It is not just Mr Kent who is making the mistake, but US Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke as well. Mr Bernanke suggested that the United States could learn from emerging markets. He pointed out that emerging market growth shows “the importance of disciplined fiscal policies, the benefits of open trade, the need to encourage private capital formation while undertaking necessary public investments, the high returns to education and to promoting technological advances, and the importance of a regulatory framework that encourages entrepreneurship and innovation while maintaining financial stability.” The question is exactly which emerging market did he have in mind?
 
The regulatory framework in emerging markets is either bad or nonexistent. In the World Bank’s annual report on the ease of doing business the highest BRIC is China which barely makes it into the top half of countries. Brazil is the only BRIC that makes it into the top half of Transparency International’s corruption index.
 
As to public investment, perhaps only China can be said to make any of those. Brazil has the world’s third-largest road network, but 88% of it is dirt. Traffic is a mess in almost any large city in an emerging market.
 
As to capital formation and entrepreneurship, senior executives are so unhappy about the Indian government’s painfully slow or inconsistent decision-making that they are focusing their investments on Africa or Latin America. China has consistently starved private firms of capital. Russian prime minister Putin suggested that anyone who starts a new business should be rewarded with a medal for bravery because of their willingness to take on the mass of paper work, poor rules and corrupt bureaucrats.
 
As to education, India’s vaunted outsourcing industry cannot find enough graduates with sufficient skills. As a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP), China spends less on education than Uganda. The once great Russian education system has been totally corrupted. Anything from school places to university degrees are available for a price.
 
Both Mr Kent and Mr Bernanke are powerful men. Perhaps what they really admire about some emerging markets is that decisions can be carried out without messy debate. But the point of the debate is to find truth, and that is the one thing that they themselves have ignored. Fortunately for investors, stupidity can be very profitable.

(The writer is president of Emerging Market Strategies and can be contacted at william@emergingmarketstrategies.com or w.gamble@alrroya.com).


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