Is China a Bubble?
A friend of mine who does just about all of his business providing a very specific service to selling to companies who do business with China. (And yes, that is as specific as I am willing to be, except to say that right at this moment, the service he provides is extremely tailored toward China.) My friend tells me he believes “China is a bubble” which very much resembles the dot com bubble and the housing bubble. According to him, this is the resemblance – there is no due diligence to speak of on any deal involving China, not from the Chinese and not from the Westerners dealing with them, and all the deals are being done with “other people’s money” and heavily leveraged.
In most instances, on the Chinese side, everyone is in some way connected – that is to say, they are connected to one of a few key organizations, or more likely, key people in the government. The more such people involved in the deal, the more people there are who are used to big payoffs and have the juice to make sure they will get paid. The Chinese government ends up providing its “blessing” to all sorts of crazy operations based on the simple principle that once enough people who have to get paid are involved,a project cannot be stopped. And its not merely that connected people have leverage; in China there is a feeling that this is China’s time, so its not like something can go wrong. Throw in the unlimited pot of money trying to do business in China, and you end up with big projects – half a billion dollars and up – happening simply because they have to happen for the sake of the parties that put them together.
The Westerners also have the sense that it is China’s time. So if you ask them about a particular deal they’re doing and why they’re doing it, if you scratch hard enough, it comes to because “its China.” That includes the very biggest private equity funds in the world.
The end result is that a lot of things are happening that make no financial sense and wouldn’t pass the laugh test if the magic word “China” wasn’t there. Deep down everyone knows it, but nobody cares.
So is my friend planning to get out? Heck no. He simply makes sure on every contract that he gets paid early. Everyone he’s dealing with is very happy to comply since the expectation is that China is going to grow forever. Being shortsighted as far as everyone else is concerned has had some big benefits, and so far he’s done very, very well. Of course, if he’s wrong, he’ll lose out on the gravy that comes in the back end. If he’s right, he’ll move on to servicing the operators of the next bubble when this one bursts, no worse for the wear.
I don’t know enough about doing business with China to say much other than I trust my friend’s judgement, and if he tells me he’s seeing no due diligence on multi-billion dollar projects, it means there are multi-billion dollar projects with no due diligence happening. I do that the demographics are going to get very interesting in China over the coming decade. With my limited knowledge, I’m leaning toward agreeing with my friend. So waddaya think? Is China a bubble?