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Forget The Election News: Keep Your Eye On Tim Geithner And The Love Trapezoid

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David Kotok, Cumberland Advisors 
Jan. 10, 2012, 11:50 AM

If you can take your eyes off the primary election coverage, watch GeithnerThe US is engaged in a love trapezoid.  The four corners are Beijing, Tehran, Tokyo, and Washington.  Treasury Secretary Geithner is the Obama Administration’s front person.  Track the news for the names of the other agents.

This is a very serious time.  The pieces are linked.  Some bullets as you watch the news flow.

1. The US faces the pressure of follow-through on Iran sanctions.  Iran is an exporter of oil to Asia.  Japan is dependent on imported oil.  China is not self-sufficient.  One part of this trapezoidal geometry is about oil.

2. Iran is feeling the heat from sanctions.  The US wants to tighten them.  It cannot do so without help from Asian “friends.”

3. China and Japan are each buyers of US Treasury securities.  They each help finance the American fiscal deficit and the ongoing current-account deficits.  They each want to diversify their reserves.  They are not sellers, but they are reluctant additional buyers.  This is truer for China than for Japan, but it is true in both cases.

4. China is glacially proceeding toward world reserve-currency status.  It gradually allows its currency to strengthen against the dollar.  It follows a policy that is fully rational for the Beijing oligarchs.  It shrugs off political threats from Washington politicians (Schumer, Graham) who love to bash China while talking to their American constituents.  China understands our political processes and our weaknesses.  However, China also understands “realpolitik” and uses it.  They learned US use of realpolitik from Nixon and Kissinger.  Expect them to smile publicly but put some very intense private heat on Geithner.

5. Japan faces enormous economic pressure and sees the yen strength as now threatening.  In order to weaken the yen, it must acquire other currency holdings in large quantity.  (See the Cumberland website, www.cumber.com, for G4 central bank charts, and flip to those on the Bank of Japan.  You will be able to observe how Japan expanded its balance sheet several years ago and subsequently contracted it.  We expect them to expand it in 2012 as they seek to arrest yen strength.)

6. Japan is negotiating with China so that it may acquire reserve debt instruments denominated in Chinese currency.  Beijing likes this because it is a step toward achieving world reserve-currency status.  Geithner now worries, because the trend points toward a gradual and long-term weakening of the US position, as the world’s second (China) and third (Japan) largest economies maneuver their global positions.

7. Our Asian friends know that the US election cycle creates maximum vulnerability for the United States.  That also makes circumstances more dangerous and raises risk profiles.  Europe is of no help to us, given its internal crises.

We recall that a three-legged stool is a stable form.  A four-legged stool is less stable.  A four-legged stool with a trapezoidal top is least stable.  Especially when one of the legs is Iran.

Watch Geithner in Asia and the news flow.  Read between the lines, since the public statements will all be scripted and self-serving.  Risk is high.  Also, stay overweight energy.  We are.

Read more: BI

Shadow Banks on Trial as China’s Rich Sister Faces Death

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By Bloomberg News – Apr 11, 2012 2:24 AM CT

When a Chinese court sentenced 28- year-old Wu Ying, known as “Rich Sister,” to death for taking $55.7 million from investors without paying them back, it sparked an unexpected firestorm that has drawn in China’s top leadership.

Her crime involved a common, illegal practice in China: raising money from the public with promises to pay back high interest rates. Known as shadow banking, these underground lending and investing networks are estimated to total $1.3 trillion, according to Ren Xianfang, an economist with IHS Global Insight Ltd. (IHS) in Beijing. That’s the size of the 2011 U.S. government deficit.

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Chinese businesswoman Wu Ying who was accused of illegally raising funds and defrauding investors weeps during a trial at the Intermediate Peoples Court of Jinhua in Jinhua city, east Chinas Zhejiang province, 16 April 2009. Photograph: Imaginechina via AP Images

Operating outside the banking system or government regulation, the informal networks provide an important source of economic growth, capital for private companies and return for investors seeking to beat inflation. Premier Wen Jiabao, in an unusual move, weighed in on the Wu case at a March 14 news conference. His comments highlighted a public debate over the importance of shadow banking to the Chinese economy, government efforts to bring it under control — and whether capital punishment is an effective means to do so.

“Chinese companies, especially small ones, need access to funds,” Wen said when asked about Wu’s case. “Banks have yet to be able to meet those companies’ needs, and there is a massive amount of idle private capital. We need to bring private finance out into the open.”

Unfairly Singled Out

Wu’s lawyer says his client, now 30, was unfairly singled out and is no different from the estimated 42 million Chinese business owners who rely on the shadow-banking system for financing when they cannot get loans from state-owned banks. The Supreme People’s Court is reviewing the 2009 verdict and will decide as early as this month whether Wu Ying lives or dies.

“Entrepreneurs are paying attention to it because today’s Wu Ying could be any of them tomorrow,” the lawyer, Yang Zhaodong, said in an interview in Beijing last month. “There are so many of them doing the same thing Wu Ying did. This case not only relates to Wu’s life, but to whether China’s legal and judicial system is fair.”

Shadow banking has been fueled by a two-year credit squeeze in China and by large, state-owned banks’ preference for lending to government-run companies rather than small businesses. Private entrepreneurs account for 60 percent of China’s total economic activity and provide jobs for 80 percent of its urban population, according to China’s National Development and Reform Commission.

Meteoric Rise

“Underground banking filled the hole left by China’s state-owned banks, which have this long-term bias toward big enterprises,” said IHS’s Ren. “Even though it is an extremely opaque market and has a lot of hidden problems, the government needs it to meet the basic financing needs of small businesses.”

Wu’s rise and fall have been meteoric. The daughter of a farmer in Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai, Wu dropped out of technical school as a teenager to work at her aunt’s beauty salon and later opened two of her own, according to the state- run Global Times newspaper. She branched out into a foot-massage parlor and bought 10 cars which she rented out. An entertainment center and a boutique featuring Korean clothes followed, as did investments in real estate and copper, the report said.

Wu collected 770 million yuan ($122 million) from private investors between May 2005 and February 2007, according to government prosecutors. She also accumulated more than 100 properties and 40 cars, including a $500,000 Ferrari, the Global Times said.

Knowing the Risks

Wu borrowed money to fund her businesses and didn’t lie to anyone, her lawyer said. She never committed fraud, Yang said, adding that her investors, like anyone who took part in the private-banking business, knew the risks involved.

“Even her biggest creditor who she owed 320 million yuan doesn’t think Wu was lying to her,” said Yang. “These were real projects.”

The court in Wu’s home province of Zhejiang said she “brought huge losses to the nation and people with her severe crimes and should therefore be severely punished” when it upheld her death sentence in January, according to the Xinhua News Agency.

Nicknamed “Fu Jie,” or “Rich Sister,” in the media, Wu and her case were discussed at the annual legislative session in Beijing in March, where delegates debated the larger issues of shadow banking.

“You cannot try to stop this just by killing people,” Wang Yongzheng, a delegate to China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference and owner of a textile company, told a small group session at the meetings.

‘Public Outrage’

In a country where public criticism of government policy is rarely sanctioned, state-run media outlets such as Xinhua and the People’s Daily, both Communist Party mouthpieces, have run stories, editorials and online chat sessions airing public sympathy for Wu.

On Feb. 8, the China Daily newspaper ran an article noting “public outrage” and the “wide sympathy and pleas for the fair-skinned woman with a short haircut.” It quoted a legal expert as saying the government’s seizure and sell-off of her assets was illegal.

On the Defensive

As the public outcry surrounding Wu’s case began to swell, court officials and police took the rare step of publicly defending their verdict. The presiding judge in her case, Shen Xiaoming, appeared in a Feb. 7 Internet chat to explain that Wu Ying was sentenced to death because the court found she intended to defraud investors.

“This was more than just illegal fundraising,” Shen said in the chat.

China’s entire shadow-banking system is bigger than just underground borrowing and lending, totaling about $2.4 trillion, a third the size of China’s official loan market, according to Societe Generale SA economist Yao Wei. In addition to informal lending, it includes the off-balance-sheet activities of banks, trust companies, and businesses lending to each other, Yao said. The amount is almost the size of U.S. consumer debt, which exceeded $2.5 trillion as of January, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve.

Ordinary Chinese savers also fuel the country’s shadow- banking system. They have few legal options if they want to earn a return that beats inflation, which hit 5.4 percent in 2011. The government sets China’s current ceiling for savings account interest rates at 3.5 percent, a figure that has trailed inflation for two straight years as of January. Wu offered interest rates of as much as 0.5 percent a day to attract investors, according to Xinhua.

Bankruptcies and Suicides

Zhejiang province, where Wu’s home village of Dongyang is located, has been at the heart of private lending activity. Between April and September last year, more than 80 indebted businessmen committed suicide or declared bankruptcy in its boomtown manufacturing city of Wenzhou because they couldn’t repay informal lenders, according to Xinhua.

Bankruptcies and arrests continue to be reported almost daily. Today, the China Securities Journal reported that Hangzhou Glory Real Estate Co., also located in Zhejiang, had filed for bankruptcy after borrowing 2.5 billion yuan from individuals.

Pilot Program

The government has stepped in to deal with the troubles and bring some aspects of shadow banking under government control. In October, Premier Wen traveled to Wenzhou, a city of 9.1 million people 230 miles (370 kilometers) south of Shanghai, pledging help for troubled businesses. Then, on March 28, China’s State Council approved a pilot program for Wenzhou that would ease some restrictions on private lending.

Private capital will be encouraged to participate in “innovative financial organizations” such as credit unions, and banks will be encouraged to lend money to small enterprises, the State Council said.

“The Wenzhou trial program has started us on the right track,” Zhou Dewen, president of the Wenzhou Small and Medium Sized Enterprises Development Association, said by phone the day after the announcement. “The trial program is a step forward toward making private lending a practice that’s legal.”

By the time Wu was in her mid-twenties, she had founded the Bense Holding Group — the name means “original color” — and established 12 companies, according to a profile in the Guangzhou-based Southern Weekly before her arrest.

Drawing Attention

Wu’s success drew the attention of the Chinese media. In its Feb. 1, 2007 profile, the Southern Weekly said she drove to the interview in a BMW and couldn’t explain where her wealth had come from.

“I don’t launder money,” Wu said, according to the newspaper. “My money is clean.”

According to the article, Wu had a tattoo of a rose on her chest and once donated 6.3 million yuan to charity. Less than two weeks after the article was published, authorities announced that Wu had been arrested on suspicion of illegal fundraising.

Prosecutors later upgraded the charges against her to financial fraud, a crime punishable by death in the most severe cases, for losing 380 million yuan of investors’ money. Two years later, she was sentenced to die.

The court found that Wu raised her money by “fabricating facts, deliberately hiding the truth, and promising high returns as an incentive,” according to Xinhua.

Photographs of Wu in court show her sobbing as she stands at the dock, clad in a yellow prison jacket, her tattoo peeking from the neckline. She has been in prison appealing her conviction since her arrest in 2007. Xinhua reported in April 2011 that Wu was writing a book called “Black Swan,” a fictional account of her life, while in prison.

Not the First

Wu wouldn’t be the first shadow banker to be put to death in China. On Aug. 5, 2009, the Supreme Court approved the execution of two female entrepreneurs in separate cases. Si Chaxian, age unreported, was charged with defrauding 300 people of 167 million yuan over five years and promising returns of as much as 108 percent annually, while Du Yimin — who was 44 at the time her death sentence was upheld — was charged with defrauding 709 million yuan by promising to pay as much as 10 percent per month, the official CCTV reported. Both women were from Zhejiang province.

On Death Row

At least 17 people, including Wu, now sit on death row after being sentenced for illegally raising funds from individuals, according to Chinese media reports compiled by Bloomberg since 2009. Seven of them are women.

In the latest case, on April 6, 30-year-old Wang Caiping was sentenced to death for borrowing along with her brother more than 100 million yuan from 15 victims, according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Wang and her brother, who has fled, invested the money in gold and futures speculation and incurred losses, the report said. They had paid out 5.8 million yuan in interest as of the day Wang was arrested, with 94 million yuan unpaid, Xinhua added.

In Zhejiang, sentences handed out for various shadow- banking-related crimes rose to 75 last year, up from eight in 2007, the official Legal Daily reported, citing the provincial high court.

In Shanghai, police said March 29 they had arrested Gu Chunfang, a woman in her early forties who runs a trading company, for racking up 500 million yuan in underground-lending debts, China Daily reported. Her nickname: “Most Beautiful Businesswoman.”

Striking a Chord

Wu’s case, unlike the two executions, 16 other death sentences and numerous arrests, has struck a chord and spurred a broader national debate.

“She’s not some sort of privileged person who just had everything handed to her,” said Sarah Schafer, a Hong Kong- based researcher with Amnesty International. “People see her as someone who is closer to them than they care to admit.”

Amid the demands for change to China’s shadow-banking system, Wu’s case has also been taken up as part of a parallel debate about China’s death penalty.

Groups including Amnesty International that monitor capital punishment say attitudes toward it have begun to change in China — especially in cases of financial fraud. The government has allowed broader public debate on the death penalty, and government officials have talked more often of pushing China toward abolishing the practice, according to Schafer.

Accepting Abolition

“The argument from the Chinese government has always been that the public wouldn’t accept abolishing the death penalty,” Schafer said. “This case has shown that maybe the public isn’t ready for full abolition but we think they are ready for abolishing it for nonviolent crimes.”

The Chinese government does not release statistics on the number of executions it performs. Groups like Amnesty International, which track the cases in the media, say the reports may underestimate the total number of executions carried out, since the media tend to report only the most sensational crime and corruption cases.

Still, China has cut the number of executions it carries out every year from 8,000 in 2006 to 4,000 per year now, according to the San Francisco-based Dui Hua Foundation. Even so, it executes more people than every other government in the world put together. The next highest is Iran, with more than 360 in 2011, according to Amnesty International.

Starting in 2007, China’s Supreme Court decreed it must approve all the country’s executions. In a 2010 annual report, the court said it should “respect and protect citizens’ right to life, the most basic human right,” according to Xinhua.

Premier Wen’s remarks in March and the changes to the private banking system make Wu’s lawyer hopeful that the Supreme Court will commute her death sentence. On March 30, an editorial in the Financial News, a publication of the People’s Bank of China, said reforms in Wenzhou were a “turning point” for the development of private financing in China.

“Wu Ying’s case happened in a special time during China’s reform, where the financial system is hugely lagging behind economic development,” said Zhou, of the Wenzhou enterprise association. “Wu Ying won’t be executed now that the trial program has been announced. She can’t die before the dawn.”

To contact Bloomberg News staff for this story: Jun Luo in Shanghai at jluo6@bloomberg.net; Yidi Zhao in Beijing at yzhao7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Peter Hirschberg at phirschberg@bloomberg.net

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China paper defends Syria veto, doubts West’s intentions

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BEIJING | Sun Feb 5, 2012 9:07pm EST

(Reuters) – China’s top newspaper on Monday defended Beijing’s rejection of a U.N. resolution pressing Syria‘s President Bashar al-Assad to abandon power, saying Western campaigns in Libya, Afghanistan and Iraq showed the error of forced regime change.

The commentary in the People’s Daily, the top newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party, was Beijing’s clearest defence of its decision to join Moscow at the weekend in vetoing a draft United Nations resolution that would have backed an Arab plan urging Assad to quit after months of bloodshed.

The commentary suggested that Chinese distrust of Western intervention lay behind the veto, which was described by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a “travesty.”

“The situation in Syria continues to deteriorate and numbers of civilian casualties keep rising. Vetoing the draft Security Council resolution does not mean we are giving free rein to letting this heart-rending state of affairs continue,” said the commentary in the paper, which echoes government thinking.

China, not its Western critics, was acting “responsibly” for the sake of the Syrian people, it said. The author used the pen name “Zhong Sheng,” which can mean “voice of China” and is often used to give Beijing’s position on foreign policy.

“Currently, the situation in Syria is extremely complex. Simplistically supporting one side and suppressing the other might seem a helpful way of turning things around, but in fact it would be sowing fresh seeds of disaster,” said the paper.

China’s siding with Russia over Syria could add to irritants with the United States. Vice President Xi Jinping is due to visit there next week, burnishing his credentials as the Communist Party’s likely next top leader.

Beijing and Washington have also sparred over Iran, which faces tightened Western sanctions over its nuclear ambitions.

The commentary also laid bare broader Chinese concerns about Western-backed intervention in the Arab world and beyond.

China is one of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members that hold the power to veto resolutions.

In March, China abstained from a Council vote that authorised Western military intervention in Libya. That resolution became the basis for a NATO air campaign that led to the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, despite misgivings from Beijing and Moscow about the expanded campaign, which they said went beyond the resolution.

“Libya offers a negative case study. NATO abused the Security Council resolution about establishing a no-fly zone, and directly provided firepower assistance to one side in the Libyan war,” said the People’s Daily Commentary.

It also cited Iraq and Afghanistan in its case against the Syria resolution.

“The calamities of Iraq and Afghanistan should be ample to wipe clear the world’s eyes. Forceful prevention of a humanitarian disaster sounds filled with a sense of justice and responsibility,” said the paper.

“But are not the unstoppable attacks and explosions over a decade after regime change a humanitarian disaster?” it said.

(Reporting by Chris Buckley; Editing by Paul Tait)

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