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China Roundup: A stimulus package to beat the slowdown; Alibaba’s offline investment and Huawei’s results

by Major Tian

April 4, 2014

Neon Light at Hong Kong

This week that was: China releases a moderate stimulus package; Alibaba picks up a stake in Intime Retail; Huawei scores a profit surge in 2013; and minimum wages in major Chinese cities rise.

New stimulus for a slowing China

China’s economy hasn’t bounced back as much after the Chinese New Year in February. On Tuesday, China’s official Purchasing Mangers’ Index (PMI) for March stood at 50.3, a slight advance from last month’s 50.2. On the other hand, another important gauge for the Chinese economy—HSBC China PMI, slid to 48.0 (lowest since Nov, 2011, according to the Financial Times), signaling a contraction in industrial production.

The slow start for the Chinese economy this year has prompted analysts to predict more action from Beijing, and they are right this time. On Wednesday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced a stimulus package that includes a railway construction plan, tax-cutting policies for small and medium-sized enterprises and upgrades of low-income housing in urban areas.

Well known short-seller Jim Chanos (who’s betting against China’s growth) called the action a result of “panicking”, according to CNBC. But HSBC economists argue that the stimulus is only moderate, and “should buy time (for Beijing) to implement reform measures”.  They also suggest that China is experimenting with new financing measures for those infrastructure projects, using bonds and special funds instead of local government debt.

For those who fear that China is going back to the old way of growth, another index may provide some comfort: the Markit/HSBC Services PMI for China increased to 51.9 in March from 51.0 in February, indicating improvement in business activities and employment, according to Reuters.

Alibaba makes an offline move

China’s no.1 e-commerce company is investing big money, at least by the average Joe’s standard, in brick-and-mortar retail stores.

On Tuesday, South China Morning Post reported that the Hangzhou-based group has spent $692 million in acquiring a 9.9% stake in Hong Kong-listed Intime Retail, one of China’s largest department store operators.

Intime runs 28 department stores and eight shopping malls, with 1.5 million registered members, according to the Chinese media. The deal includes establishing a joint venture that operates independently, which analysts believe can be extended to an industry model of unifying online and offline merchants, payment services and big data analysis.

 It’s not the first time the two companies have tied up—Intime participated in several promotion campaigns of Alibaba’s Tmall platform, including the “Single’s Day” sale on November 11, 2013. Intime is also one of the partners in Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma’s Cainiao Network Technology (Cainiao means rookie in mandarin), a logistics company that aims at building warehouses and transportation networks across the country. The CEO of Cianiao is Shen Guojun, President of Intime.

Huawei is bouncing back

Chinese telecoms giant Huawei logged a 34% surge in profits in 2013, BBC reported. The net margin was $3.38 billion and the company attributes the growth to strong demand from China, which accounted for one-third of Huawei’s total revenue.

The company expects a 10% revenue growth in 2014 and its global sales to reach $70 billion by 2018, almost double of $35.4 billion in 2013. In retrospect, the company suffered a 53% fall in profit in 2012, clocked in only about $2 billion.

Except for the numbers, an interesting statement from Huawei’s annual report also made it to the press. Its founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei made a bizarre analogy between Huawei and luxury auto maker BMW, the Wall Street Journal reported. “Huawei is like BMW, in that we are also a big company. We live in an information society that is fast-changing with lots of disruptive innovations… Can we continue to survive? Admit it or not, this is a question right in front of us.”

He also highlighted Tesla , the American electric car maker, as the new competitor to BMW and also a symbol of American innovation. “They (the US) have advanced systems, flexible mechanisms, clear property rights, and respect and protection of individual rights,” the 70-year-old Huawei chief executive said in the report—a quite upbeat tone given that the US bans Huawei and hacks their devices.

Chinese banks wrote off more bad loans

In 2013, the top five banks in China removed $9.5 billion from their balance sheets because the debts were no longer collectable, said the Financial Times earlier this week. Those five banks lend half of all loans in China.

The amount more than doubled from that of 2012 (127%), an indication of acceleration of defaulting debts—a worrisome risk for the Chinese economy. Writing off of such loans is also making the bad-loan ratio lower appear lower for the banks; in addition, shadow banking practices may shift some debts to third parties, and some investors believe that the real percentage of bad loans in Chinese banks is as much as five times the official one.

For example, Citi analysts suspect that the non-performing-loan ratio of Minsheng Bank, a mid-sized lender, can be 135% higher than its current 0.85%, had it not been for intensive write-offs.

The entire banking sector’s current bad loan ratio stands at only 1%, and the biggest five’s profits rose 7% to 15% in 2013.

People’s Bank of China, while trying to curb excessive credit growth, also hesitates to tighten its grip. In a statement on Thursday, Reuters reported, the central bank reiterated its intention to keep appropriate liquidity to support the economic growth. It also assured that PBOC will continue financial reforms such as interest rate and exchange rate liberalization.

Minimum wage up in Beijing, Shanghai and Tianjin

No matter how loosely it’s enforced, China does have minimum wage laws. According to Reuters, the lowest monthly salary in Shanghai, Beijing and Tianjin will be increased by 12.3% (to RMB 1,820), 12% (to RMB 1,680) and 11.4% (to RMB 1,560) respectively. Minimum hourly wages in those three cities will also go up.

This goes in line with the central government’s five-year-plan, according to which the minimum wage in China is expected to increase by 13% a year on an average. Different provinces are entitled to make their own minimum wage standards, and Chongqing, Shanxi, Shenzhen and Shandong have also raised their standards this year.

While RMB 1,820 a month in Shanghai (about $294, highest in China) may only allow one to live in a dump, the average wage is actually much higher. In 2013, employees working in China’s economic capital earned about $757 a month on average, and their peers in Beijing made roughly $842.

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