What Could Happen in 2012 (and Beyond)

Byron Wien, the Election, the Economy, Immigration, China, India, South America, Education–surprises!

Byron Wien does the most thorough job of putting together thoughtful, provocative and useful ideas on possible surprises for each year. I have been fortunate enough to know Byron and to participate in the Third Thursday group on which he draws, in part, to test both conventional wisdom and real surprises. I could not attend the December lunch this year as I was in India. Below is the email I sent Byron in late November. I will use that as the start of my thoughts on surprising things that could happen in 2012 and will then toss out a few additional ideas. Here we go:

“Byron, Am heading to India on Friday. Sorry I will miss your pre-surprise lunch. Am attaching copies of the text and slides I will be using in India. I don’t think they say anything you don’t know, but you might find something in there…My big surprise is that Joe Biden will not be the VP candidate in the coming election. Second surprise would be that the US does better than expected in 2012 given the debacle in Europe. Neither China nor India do as well as currently expected and China steps up to do something in Europe–maybe buy a Greek Island? They need Europe. Brazil starts to look a bit like Argentina–I think they are way understating their inflation rate. Capital flows our way and the RU dips into the 7’s before the election. If so, Obama wins in a walk. The really big surprise would be Huntsman as the Republican candidate–or maybe Obama’s VP candidate? What a ticket that would make. Jack”

The idea of surprises is to get people thinking away from trendlines. I use Byron’s definition, which is a personal belief that there is greater than a 50% chance of something happening where conventional wisdom is less than that. Let’s continue:

1) It is hard to see us getting through the year without an energy crisis of some type where demand significantly exceeds supply and oil prices spike once again. This could stem from trouble in the Middle East, Africa or Asia. It could be brought about by some covert action by the US that has been in the works for some time and comes to fruition within the next 10 months. There are too many possibilities for this not to have greater than a 50% chance of occurring within this calendar year. The combination of a hydrocarbon energy crisis combined with a major climate disaster somewhere in the world will lead to policy actions on the part of the US to accelerate both natural gas development and alternative energy development as well.  Energy efficiency finally begins having its day. Talk of a carbon tax grows particularly as other countries implement implicit and explicit carbon pricing.

2) Contrary to a normally quiet year during a transition of leadership, to some extent forced by an “Asian Spring” throughout the region, China takes several bold steps in response to a more activist populace upset with corruption, the environment, and some areas of economic stress, combined with a desire by Hu and Wen to put more of their stamp on the future.  This includes major acquisitions in the developed countries as well as the opening of manufacturing and service facilities. At home, R&D is accelerated particularly in alternative energy, space and IT processing. Subsidies for hydrocarbons are reduced or eliminated and an explicit carbon tax is put in place. Following Australia’s lead and China’s moves, several Asian countries put in place mechanisms to reduce their use of conventional hydrocarbons for energy–although everyone finds that they have 200 million year-old hydrocarbons in shale formations and begins using the immature  production technologies developed in the US, creating even more environmental disasters.

3) As the US economy grows, corporations find qualified hires difficult to come by. Enlightened corporations, led by GE,  become educational institutions to provide skills and basic knowledge to a work force that has been idle and undereducated by the public systems which were supposed to do the job. Corporations become much more vocal about bringing illegal immigrants into the US system, expanding visa programs and finding other mechanisms to add talented labor to the pool domestically. It becomes clear that a controlled amnesty program for current illegals in the US will add significantly to GDP and to government revenues. The tide begins to shift on immigration issues.

4) The US labor situation is aggravated in the short term by decisions on the part of several US corporations to bring manufacturing operations back into the States.  Labor costs are rising elsewhere and the elements of control, rule of law, productivity and relative safety lead to better economics manufacturing locally. Caterpillar’s actions with its Canadian operations start the ball rolling. As stated above, US corporations take on a significant role in training and general education to meet their labor needs.

5) In spite of the demand for its natural resources, South America finds itself in much more turmoil politically and economically than one might expect. Natural disasters from climate change and it’s young mountain ranges compound economic issues from changes in export markets and a continuing misallocation of financial resources. Led, once again, by problems in Argentina, some degree of turmoil ripples north through the continent into Central America and requires more of the attention of the US than we have been willing to give thus far. Immigration to the US, both legal and illegal, accelerates as the US economy picks up steam.

6) India becomes a focal point. With an economy not growing adequately to provide jobs, upward mobility and political stability, India looks for diversions. Troops move north to “prepare” for confrontation with China, and west to confront Pakistan. Some elements internally are confronted as well. While the numbers show growth, the quality is somewhat problematic. Energy shortages push India toward even more aggressive alternative energy policies.

These aren’t all of the surprises we will find in 2012. I must say I continue to be optimistic about the US in spite of the crazies in Washington and the anger, bigotry and fear manifesting itself during the Republican primary battles. All of those who were planning on moving out of the country if Obama was re-elected–the ABO crowd– or any of the Republican choices–the ABAR crowd, might want to reconsider.

The Economy, The Environment, Lessons Learned, Opportunities Today

A speech given to venture capitalists & entrepreneurs in India in December 2011

I am very pleased to be here today.  I come to India regularly for pleasure and for business although it is always a pleasure. What I plan to do is provide an economic and market context on what has happened in the United States trying to draw some parallels and contrasts to Asia – India specifically – and Europe. I will start with some history, review where we are today and then venture some guesses about where we may be going. I will relate that to what happened in the venture world historically, again to compare and contrast with what is happening here in India. I will then turn to the opportunities this presents. Several of you here today are investors, and your allocation to potential investments is made in an economic context regarding returns relative to risks. So lets start with economics.

Some history:  I am not sure that recent history provides one with the right context, so it may be helpful to look at a longer time span, which could provide a better perspective. I will give a caveat that “perspective” is an overused word. (As is “caveat” for that matter.) Jane Smiley, a great writer, may have been right when she had one of her protagonists define perspective as actually believing that two parallel lines meet.  Maybe you have to be an engineer to appreciate that. At any rate, this is my point of view and my sorting of the data and my perspective—one that is US centric, partly because it would be presumptuous for me to tell you about your own country, and partly because it represents a model that may be useful to understand.

I am not going to present a comprehensive picture of the economy and the markets. Instead, I will highlight a few points that I think have some relevance to investing today. Let’s start with GDP growth in the United States since World War II.

The US has had 12 recessions since the Second World War.  What is most interesting to me about this recession are 1) the year over year decline has been greater than any of the post-War recessions, 2) the rate of recovery compared to earlier recessions has not been as high, and 3) the official recession exceeded both the 81-82 and 73-75 recessions by a few months. In addition, we haven’t seen a 5% year-over-year GDP gain since late 1999.  High oil prices and Central Bank tightening were the primary causes of the other two lengthy recessions.  This latest one is much more of a financial crisis like a quarter of the 47 recessions the US has had in the last 220 years. Several of those financial recessions were substantially longer and in many cases deeper than what we have experienced thus far. In almost all cases the crises extended globally or even originated elsewhere in the world, primarily England. This crisis is certainly global. And has manifested itself serially from the US to Europe and is now affecting Asia, including India.

However, in the US, which was first to see the downturn, away from the construction market and its impact on economic activity, the rest of the US economy is actually doing well and is growing. And importantly, in my view, it may be approaching self-sustainability.  Profits have more than doubled from their lows in 08 and are 20% above their peak in 06.  In some ways the US securities market reflects this off of its lows generated by the fallout from the Lehman bankruptcy.

I am referring to the S&P Technology Sector, which while still way below its peak in the dotcom bubble is at levels seen in 1998 before the 18-month blow-off produced that final peak in March 2000.

This index is a reasonably good proxy for what has happened to overall values in the venture capital world in the US.  A caveat I would add though, is that while values have tracked one still has to be somewhat concerned about valuations.

The overall valuation in the US, while down, is still above the lowest Price/Earnings ratios that have been hit in the longer cycles of valuation in the market. One can come up with a variety of reasons why valuations may not go to previous lows experienced, but I have to say there were always a set of reasons why valuations could not go lower.   I think it is useful to look at valuations in the public markets, as history shows that private equity valuations tend to track public market valuations overall and by sector going in and coming out.

Valuations in India are not low by historical standards. This does translate into private equity valuations and does raise some points of caution.  It goes without saying, but I would make the point that the valuation one gets going into an investment may be one of the best determinants of the ultimate return.

Historically, the US is bouncing closer to the bottom of a price channel waiting for earnings growth or possibly further market declines to bring down the multiples a bit more. We can review how the US got to this point and where we are likely to go from here. This pattern does relate to what is happening globally.

It is a fairly simple picture. We overleveraged the economy to support consumption, which in turn has led to a very significant trade deficit, about half from overconsumption and about half from dependence on others for our hydrocarbons.  This is a US and European problem for the most part, but to some degree it exists here and in other parts of Asia as well. As we work our way out of this problem it will likely result in lower overall growth in the Western world for a number of years. Europe is likely to show negative numbers next year—maybe even this quarter.  I would point out though, that in the US, there are some positive indications. If one looks at total debt outstanding, the number has actually flattened, with government debt replacing private debt. The ratio of debt to GDP has fallen as well-still high but falling. US corporations have significant enterprise capacity if they only had the confidence and the opportunities for investment. They ultimately have to do something with their cash.  I would also make the point that US banks, in contrast to other banks around the world, are accumulating cash. Deposits are up. The Federal Reserve has bought paper from the banks, and the Europeans, South Americans and others believe that their liquid assets may be safer in US banks than their own. In addition, if the dollar stays where it is or weakens particularly against the Asian currencies we would move closer to values we saw during the 90’s.  A point I am making is that part of the growth in the 90’s in the US was fueled by a lower dollar than we have today.  From its low in 1988 the dollar marched up doubling in value over the next ten years and today is still 50% above that trough but in a recent decline.

However, China’s currency has been rising. On balance, I believe other Asian currencies will track China’s over the long run.

India’s currency tracked China’s earlier this decade but I think internal issues and some concern about the impact of the European problems have affected values more recently. I do believe in the long run, based on economics, the Rupee is likely to strengthen against the dollar. Internal issues, for example allowing for Foreign Direct Investment, could affect the timing and degree of strengthening as trade balances shift.

Looking at High Tech trade, which is a good proxy for some of the venture activity, aided to a measurable extent by the lower dollar and Moore’s law, the US had a positive trade balance annually in High Technology Products through the 90’s. Lots of factors have affected the numbers over time, but the net of it is the US went from roughly a $24 Billion annual surplus at the end of that decade to a $96 Billion annual deficit in 2010. I think the dollar has been an important factor. Looking at India specifically, overall, this year you will have about a $15 Billion annual trade surplus with the US. Actual exports have doubled in the last 5 years and will likely be $36 Billion this year. Venture-backed companies should be getting their piece of that.

I do believe in the long run, currency adjustment may be the most important factor in job growth in the US, and possibly Europe, reducing the labor arbitrage that now exists between the developing world and the developed world. This will require significant productivity improvement in the developing world to offset higher currency values.

It is unlikely the dollar gets back to the lower end of the 90’s level in a straight line any time soon, because, right now, given our relative growth and safety, we see capital continuing to flow in our direction adding some strength to the dollar. However, over the next decade or more, the dollar is likely to weaken, particularly against the Asian currencies.  As the dollar adjusts and the economy does show modest growth, the capital is there in the private sector to finance growth once there is some certainty about where it will come from and if the Europeans can deal with their deficits. Many of those dollars will make their way overseas seeking that growth and creating jobs, if local policies are supportive. Let’s also remember that while the US may be running a trade deficit in high tech products, it is exporting at a $288 Billion annual rate and importing at a $192 Billion rate.

And, in spite of its overall trade deficit with almost every country on the planet, the US still exported over $1.4 Trillion of goods. And not counting oil imports the US bought $1.8 Trillion of goods from the rest of the world. Indian corporations big and small, startups or established companies, can certainly take advantage of the demand that continues to exist in the US for products–and services as well.

While there is a risk that, given the political rhetoric, we could find ourselves aborting the recovery that is starting in the US and is likely to spread, logic or sanity should lead us to a different set of conclusions. This could set the stage for a very interesting investment environment. Globally, particularly in the faster growing developing world which I define as the BAICs not the BRICS—Brazil, Africa, India and China, infrastructure spend and total investment will continue to rise to meet the demands of the populace and the demands of the global marketplace for their products—both natural resources and manufactured goods and some services.  This is continuing to bring more individuals into the middle classes with their own set of demands and needs.

Brazil, India and China, as well as most of Africa have a long way to go before the mix of their economies comes anywhere close to the more mature world. But look at what is ahead.

If we look at a breakdown of GDP and employment by major sector—agriculture, industry, and services, for two developed world countries and three of the BAICs—I don’t have stats for all of Africa–, we will see that India, Brazil and china have a much higher percentage of GDP and employment in Agriculture. To make this a little clearer, let’s take Agriculture and compare the US, Germany and India. US agricultural output represents about 1.6% of GDP and employs 1% of the work force. Germany is at 1% of GDP and 2% of the workforce. India is at 18% of GDP but over 50% of the workforce is still employed in agriculture.  Today’s mix has some similarities to where the US was earlier in the 20th century, although with higher manufacturing and lower services.  China looks even more like the US at that time.  We are talking about large populations shifting from the agricultural sector to manufacturing and services over the next few decades. This carries with it some political risk and not necessarily a smooth transition. But, this also means on balance, growth. And I would make an important point: It is easier to innovate into growth than it is into replacement.

Growth requires a sense of urgency. Everything speeds up. One does not want to get left behind. There is also an opportunity to experiment and, of course, to fail. But growth covers up many sins and extends the runway to get it right. And, it usually results in multiple approaches to opportunities and problems. Let me elaborate further on this point–that it is easier to innovate into growth than replacement. The economics are different if, instead of simply taking away share from an established player, one is participating in an expanding market. Particularly, when it comes to plant and equipment, customers are making a different calculation if it is an expansion cost vs. a replacement cost. In any instance, replacement or expansion, I believe that most innovations relate to some form of productivity improvement. It is worth thinking about any venture investment in terms of productivity–whether in Social Media or cell phones where the productivity of connecting with others has been enhanced, diagnostics, medical outcomes, energy, agritech, measurement itself, or infrastructure.  When growth is uncertain or out on too far a horizon it becomes more difficult than it already is.  I think the best venture capitalists understand that, to some extent adding a vision that may see growth potential where others don’t. And, many of the best VC firms are on multiple continents having extended their reach to one or more of the BAICs, in particular, to take advantage of changing income levels and a growing consumer class; in other words investing into growth. Some would even say that innovation requires consumption growth. Successful innovation also requires the VC experience and a VC infrastructure as foundations.  I don’t totally accept what some are characterizing as the US exceptionalism, is that exceptional. And that other systems are not producing innovators. Not every engineering or science graduate–or dropout for that matter–in the US is an innovator. I have to believe that the distribution of potential innovators in any country is the same, and ultimately the infrastructure that permits that innovation will exist there as well. In some instances, it is already happening.

Asia and Europe combined are putting more venture capital to work than the US and have been since 2006. India and China are putting Rupees and Yuan to work at about 40% of the US rate. And the rest of Asia is quite vibrant as well.  What is lacking is both a long enough history of repeatable success, and the Tim Harford observation—Harford of the Financial Times–of the Galapagan Isolation vs. Corpocracy, as represented by Silicon Valley, Silicon Alley, the Silicon Wadi of Israel or the other pockets within the US and elsewhere that include investors with reach, experience and staying power; innovators with access; and flexible resources to execute. Harford’s analogy is that in the Galapagos, an ecosystem isolated from the rest of the world, different flora and fauna developed. He equates the ecosystems in parts of the venture world to this phenomenon.  You can go to the World Policy Institute website, www.worldpolicy.org, and look for the Journal issue entitled “Innovation,” to read more about this. This topic is included in an essay by Neal Stephenson, a great Science-Fiction writer and an unusual contributor to this kind of publication. He lays out some challenges for those of us who exist on the portal between the real world and those imagined. A fun and stimulating read.

Well, while Europe and Asia are increasing their venture investing, in the US the VC industry is going through a contraction, which is a good thing for returns—maybe not for the planet.

The number of funds raising capital is down and the number of investments being made is down. By the way, I want to thank my friends at Knightsbridge Advisers for several of the next slides. Knightsbridge is a fund of Venture Funds with a specific and very successful focus developed over a long period of time on the top quartile venture funds in the US, many of whom now reach into Asia specifically.

Historically, stronger returns have followed these contractions. Fund Raising is down to its historically low percentage of stock market capitalization and there is not a great inventory of what has been historically defined as early stage capital.  These are metrics that should be tracked in any market.

And, the top quartile, which has consisted of the same VC funds for many years with only few exceptions, has substantially outperformed the rest of the industry.  These firms are their own Galapagos.  There isn’t enough history here, in India, to determine all the entrants into that top quartile. Some firms are beginning to stand out, but we need a couple more cycles to really tell who has staying power. We may be hitting one of those cycles here right now.

This is an important point. As I said, growth can cover up many sins. To paraphrase Warren Buffet or Mark Twain–“you have to wait until the tide goes out to see who is not wearing a bathing suit.”

Having said that, this takes nothing away from the opportunity here in India, fueled by significant growth.

There is a very fertile environment here for Value Creation. I would highlight three sectors specifically for India. IT, Life Sciences and CleanTech, all in the context of infrastructure development and increasing awareness and demands from the populace for what they see elsewhere in the world.

It starts with the Internet and expands to mobile apps and cloud computing. And, it is driven by increasing processing speeds. We are still in early days regarding the ongoing impact of Moore’s Law. Three weeks ago I attended a three-day Intel Capital conference on the west coast. Duron, is in the Intel portfolio and I was fortunate enough to join our CEO, Ajay Awasthi, at the conference.  200 of Intel’s portfolio companies and 400 Intel managers and technologists attended the conference. Over half the companies were from outside the US. This was a very exciting and stimulating conference. Intel will invest in any company meeting its return criteria that will lead to more chips being sold—that covers the range from the technology around chips to social media.  The most important news though was when Paul Otellini, the CEO, stated that Intel has 10 years of clear visibility on Moore’s Law.  I think that means within 10 years, processing speeds on a single chip will be at least 64 times faster than they are today.  I am not sure we can imagine all the possibilities, but with a sense of certainty around that happening we get very close to Neal Stephenson’s and William Gibson’s worlds.

A big factor in India is bringing basic health care to a broader segment of the population. I think integrated delivery systems will be a part of the solution here. Ultimately, improving outcomes and taking advantage of the IT developments on the horizon will change the nature of health care and create real value for those who participate.

The need to drive both energy independence and cleaner renewable energy creates enormous opportunities. I don’t think India can wait for grid build-out to satisfy its needs. Much of the grid that does exist is aged and outmoded. A leap to models with distributed power and low power products offers many opportunities. This is my bias, but I truly believe that the need for innovation here is critical to the survival of the planet.

I think there are several other asset classes or sectors in which the venture community can participate that have growth characteristics.  Let me give you that broader characterization as we bring this to a close:

I start with Infrastructure. I think this could turn out to be a growth market in the US but will surely continue to be so here. And any innovation that contributes to the more productive movement of goods, services, people or information should find a market. Water also falls under infrastructure. There isn’t enough of it in the forms needed. Quality improvement and more efficient usage are two big opportunities. That leads us to Energy where there are enormous opportunities relating to the technologies being used and the productivity and efficiency of use, some of which I discussed already.

For India, we should include Agriculture or Agritech as its own category. This ties back into infrastructure, energy, water and life sciences, but should be listed here as its own. IT and Health Care are the two other big categories already discussed. Education is a difficult sector because of all the stakeholders who want a say in how the structure evolves, but one where technology can play a significant role and is very important in India. In some ways this sector also ties back into Energy as available and dependable clean power may be one of the most important factors in improving and broadening the educational map in this country. I put Financial Services and Hard Assets here as well as selectively attractive classes. . I list Global as a separate Asset Class, although every class listed can be considered global as well as domestic. The point this emphasizes is that the true growth opportunities involve solutions that extend beyond any domestic borders and truly allow one to be innovating into growth.  None of this is easy.  Persistent performance requires much more than capital and some smart people. It requires the ecosystems that in many cases have taken years to create. Investing beyond just getting Beta to getting real Alpha in any investment class requires patience and the full use of all the resources one can bring to bear. We are at an interesting stage where the nature of the venture industry may be returning to its previous core. I think it is a very exciting time for venture investing–not that it isn’t always exciting.

There are multiple opportunities across multiple sectors globally. Innovation is occurring and the pace is likely to accelerate. India is clearly innovating into a growth market in spite of near term concerns. Experienced Venture Capitalists can make a significant contribution. Smart capital can and should be choosy in this volatile global environment.    But maybe, if one is careful, the next decade may turn out to be a period of great investments with a great benefit to all humankind. Let us hope so.

Neuberger Berman’s Rivkin Discusses India Investments (Audio)

Jack Rivkin, director of the Neuberger Berman Mutual Funds, discusses investment and growth in technology in India. Rivkin talks to Bloomberg’s Kathleen Hays on “The Hays Advantage” on Bloomberg Radio.

Download the podcast

A Brief Look at the World—China, the US, Europe and the Lake Forest Investment Society

I am heading out to Chicago for one of the triannual meetings of the Lake Forest Investment Society.  We have been meeting three times a year (yes, triannual can mean three times a year) for many years to talk about the economy and the markets, including providing some specific stocks for a “portfolio.” The best performing security for the period between meetings gets its touter a free lunch. The portfolio, an unaudited, equally weighted hodge-podge of names is actually up  427% vs. the S&P at 130% over the 16 years this group has been meeting.  The Society originated as a group of ex-Mitchell Hutchins employees and some of their favorite clients who wanted an excuse to share some provocative ideas on stocks, the economy, the world and life, eat high cholesterol meals, and maybe play a little golf. Some of the members and their origins have changed over the years, but the dialogue continues. The following are some thoughts I expect to share at the meeting:

China’s Role

This global deficit crisis won’t really be resolved until China enters the picture. China needs an export market to provide sufficient jobs while it tries to move to a consumer economy. It cannot find itself with a slow-growth economy if it wants to avoid political disruption, particularly at a time of leadership change. The developed world, both the US and Europe, needs to be showing some growth in order to be consumers of Chinese goods. With new leadership coming in 2012 there is an opportunity for China to provide some form of quantitative easing through the purchase of longer-dated securities or other mechanisms.  This could be combined with the purchase of real assets and intellectual property as well in both the US and Europe. Until we see some movement by China, the developed world markets will face continued uncertainty, as the resources available to resolve the European crises, specifically, are just not adequate. However, I doubt China will move until both Europe and the US take stronger steps on their own to develop long-term deficit solutions and near-term stimuli.

The US’s Role

Contrary to what has been a continual reduction in GDP forecasts and increasing odds of a double dip by the pundits, I think the US could show decent growth in the second half of this year—not enough to create a lot of jobs, but decent. This does assume that the Super Committee or some variation thereof comes out with a long-term deficit reduction program combined with some near-term stimulus, and Congress actually supports this effort. I think the odds are greater than 60% that they will. This doesn’t necessarily provide a boost for the second half of the year, but it clears the air for next year and eliminates some elements of uncertainty in the minds of business and investors. My guess is we could have one more horrendous scare, probably coming out of Europe, before the world comes to its senses and responds to what could be a real crisis otherwise. What needs to happen long term is a whole ‘nother post, but one could read Friedman’ and Mandelbaum’s new book, “That Used to be Us,” to get a sense of some of what has to happen.

Europe

What a mess. It does not appear that the mechanisms exist to deal with the Greek deficits without putting the European banking system and maybe some other financial entities at grave capital risk. Whatever does come out of Europe as a solution—and I think it will take the Chinese to at least have the appearance of a solution—growth will be slow, as the European banks will not be in a position to lend for some time.  This is an opportunity for the Chinese probably to the detriment of the US, if they choose to pursue it.  China bashing in the US will likely drive China closer to Europe. China can also be more specific in its actions by dealing with individual countries and companies as opposed to the Union.

Other Topics

In spite of what most of the Republican primary candidates say—Jon Huntsman excluded–climate change is happening. We have no coherent policies in place and what was previously there is slowly being dismantled in Congress and by the Administration. Fiscally, we don’t seem to believe we have the resources to tackle this issue now, in spite of the long-term job creation possibilities.  And, the fascination with “fracking” and what that could do for energy independence is in the forefront with massive resources from the energy industry devoted to selling the story. In the meantime the failure of an over-funded science project, Solyndra, has raised issues about government involvement in clean tech.  These are their own topics, which I will deal with separately in other posts. In the meantime, back to the LFIS meeting, I will have a hard time coming up with a good stock idea. My personal portfolio is in cash and private illiquid companies. My compatriots will have some very interesting ideas, particularly at this moment in the market. I am not so sure the public market is as cheap as many opportunities in the private market today, particularly away from some of the frenzy around social media and other Internet related companies. Maybe one more crack in the public markets will get it there if it is combined with some stimulus in response.  In the meantime, real private companies are having a hard time finding funds from the traditional venture capital sources. We appear to be going back to the original sources of capital for venture companies, rich families either in the form of family offices or direct.  They can name their prices.  We are back to the old maxim that one makes the most money on a good price going in vs. the price going out.

China and the Economy, China and Innovation, China and Climate Change

The extra emphasis on China in the media culminates this week with the US visit by President Hu Jintao. Much has been written about the visit and much posturing has taken place to set a “proper” tone. It’s hard not to comment on some of what has been said before hitting on the important topics of Innovation and Climate Change.

Economy. Let’s start with the currency. I don’t quite get all the noise about China needing to increase the value of the Yuan relative to the dollar. Secretary Geithner says it will help them control their inflation and will be “fairer,” whatever that means. The prices of Chinese goods are already going up which is a result of wages rising and productivity, particularly in low value goods, not offsetting labor costs. A rise in the value of the Yuan would increase prices more and would also increase the buying power of the poorer segments of the Chinese population while doing just the opposite for that segment in the developed world.  It would have the effect of creating jobs outside of China—not in the US, but in Mexico, Vietnam and other countries that will have a labor cost advantage relative to China. The rate of inflation would likely fall in China, but, of course, it would rise in the developed world. The short-term effect on the relative trade balance would be negative for the US, as it would take time for US corporations to shift purchasing to other countries. Plus, commodity prices, particularly oil, would likely rise in dollar terms, increasing our trade deficit in energy. Anyone who really expects that such an action would create jobs or a significant enough cost advantage to stimulate US exports or US buying of US goods vs. creating exports for other low cost countries isn’t looking at what China exports and imports vs. what the US makes. Odds are the media and our wonderful congress will spend more time on the currency issues than anything else. I think President Hu is here to go shopping. By that I mean putting China in a position to buy US assets that will be of value to its growth plans, primarily access to technologies that can allow it to meet its objectives of being a leader in innovation over the next several decades. The tradeoff will likely be further access to Chinese companies and markets by the US.  I reach this conclusion from a thorough read of China’s Patent Policy put forth this past fall.

Innovation. China’s National Patent Development Strategy (2011-2020) is a scary read. China sets very high targets for patent filings over the next 5 years, dwarfing filings by the US and Japan (which already exceeds the US in patents in force). It establishes a budget for Patent services that could reach US$16 Billion annually at current exchange rates. It proposes to have ten model cities focused on utilizing the patent system and the incentives to create a vigorous intellectual property market. It will seek to acquire intellectual property from others. A couple of direct quotes from the Strategy are worth noting: “A large number of core patents will be acquired in some key fields of emerging industries and some key technological fields in traditional industries. …Encourage enterprises to acquire patent rights through innovation on the basis of digesting and absorbing imported patented technology. …Support and foster exports of patented technologies and increase the proportion of exported patent-intensive commodities and strengthen guidance on patent policies for enterprises in the process of overseas mergers and acquisitions.”  Implied in the budgets for patent services is a vigorous enforcement of patent rights. Once China has intellectual property rights (IPR) to defend, it will likely be one of the more aggressive enforcers of those rights. The number of patents in force today with their origin in the US and Japan are each almost 20 times those of China. When those numbers get closer to parity it may very well be the US that finds itself on the defensive for not respecting IPR.  This was last the case in the early days of the Industrial Revolution when the US was the upstart and more intellectual property resided in Europe, primarily the UK.

Climate Change.  China’s plans for Patent Development raise significant issues about where intellectual capital will ultimately reside. When it comes to capitalizing on two significant areas of expected (or should we say required) technological innovation and value over the next decades, China is explicit as to their importance:  “…Balance the relationship between the patent policies and some major public policies such as public health and climate change.” (My emphasis)  Others can hold forth on the health front. In the patent document and others, China continues to highlight Climate Change as a focus of its policies and its technological efforts. It is clear that China sees the requirement to respond to this threat as political as well as societal. We will ultimately be a buyer of what China and others produce unless we also look at what policies we can put in place to be competitive.  At the moment we have the intellectual leadership existing in a variety of our institutions. Shame on us if we let that leadership slip away.

China and Plastic Bags–Another Chip on the Table

Credit Suisse and the author, Henry Mo, have given me permission to paste some of Henry’s remarks on his recent visit to China in our blog. Dr. Mo is a member of the well regarded CS economics team based in New York. The observations he makes reinforce a view expressed earlier in this blog, that China, for many reasons, will be an active participant in the reduction of carbon usage.  The risk to the US is that China will make reductions that the US appears incapable of making and will leapfrog the US technologically, if and when it chooses.  We are getting many wake-up calls but seem to keep pushing that snooze button. Please read Henry’s remarks and go back and read “China and Electric Cars—The Stakes Have Been Raised.”

“I have visited China periodically over the past few years and have observed palpable buoyancy in the country every time. My recent trip is no exception, and the impression is even stronger with China being one of the few major economies that will likely expand this year. However, what impressed me the most this time was not the beautiful skyscrapers in Lu Jia Zui Financial Center in Shanghai, nor the stunningly gorgeous Olympic stadiums in Beijing, but the improvement in soft infrastructure, especially related to environment protection.

My first impression is the ban of super-thin plastic bags, introduced on June 1, 2008 to protect the environment and cut waste. Under the rules, the state forbade the production of ultra-thin plastic bags and banned supermarkets, shops, and open markets from supplying free bags to customers. Obviously, persuading 1.3 billion people to give up plastic bags is not an easy job. Equally, any success would make a big difference in protecting the environment when multiplied on a China scale.

One year after the ban, I observed a lot of changes in consumer behavior. Many shoppers now carry their own bags. Not being aware of this policy, I had to buy plastic bags at my first shopping trip during this visit. To save money, I brought bags with me when I went shopping next time. According to a survey released on May 20 by the China Chain Store and Franchise Association, plastic bags used in supermarkets have been reduced by 66% nationwide since the ban.

This means that about 40 billion plastic bags have been saved, or the equivalent of 1.6 million tons of petroleum. It is well known that the Chinese government is very good at building hard infrastructure, such as roads, airports, ports, etc. It strikes me that the government is equally efficient at building soft infrastructure, if it chooses and is willing to do so.

Despite the fact that all three cities that I visited still have massive construction sites, especially Shanghai, who will host the World Expo next year, I could smell the improvement in air quality. To be sure, air quality is still poor by western standards, but it has been better since my last visit. I also observed more blue sky and less smog, and noted that there were more “green zones” and rivers reserved or built among the newly constructed office and community buildings. 

In Beijing, the air quality improvement is also due to driving restrictions adopted for the Olympics and further extended after the Games.  To curb emissions from transport, cars are now banned from metro roads one day per working week, depending on the last digit of their license plates. From a micro point of view, the number plate-based measure may not be efficient, as it takes 930,000 of Beijing’s 3.6 million cars off the roads on a daily basis. But it is effective on a macro level. Indeed, daily emissions have been reduced by 10% since the ban, according to the China Daily. It has also been reported in the press that the city will ban all non-green vehicles from the city centre beginning in June. 

In Chengdu, the capital city of the Sichuan province in southwestern China, the air quality improvement appeared to be significant since my last visit in late 2007. As per my conversations with local officials, the primary reason for the improvement is that Chengdu has placed more emphasis on balancing environmental concerns with development after being selected by the Central government as one of the two pilot reform cities to deliver coordinated rural and urban development in June 2007 (the other city is Chongqing, also located in southwestern China). In addition, the wide use of CNG (compressed natural gas), an alternative energy that is virtually emission-free, also contributes to the improvement in air quality. It has been reported in the press that almost all taxis and buses, plus an increasing number of private cars are now using CNG as fuel. In addition to being environment friendly, CNG costs less than half the price of petrol, as a local taxi driver told me.

While China has made some progress in environment protection, there is still a long way to go for China to improve its soft infrastructure, such as legal, regulatory, and financial system, etc. The economic payoffs from building up soft infrastructure may not show up in the GDP figures in the short term, but will be reflected in the long-run growth, as well as the quality of growth, and eventually lead to more sustainable growth.”  Henry Mo  henry.mo@credit-suisse.com

China and Electric Cars: The Stakes Have Been Raised

Warren Buffett was ahead of the curve when Berkshire bought 10% of BYD, one of the leading Chinese battery companies, last September. Ironically, that was at the same time his Colbert-titled op-ed piece, “Buy American. I Am.,” appeared in the New York Times. Today, the Times had a front page article on China’s plan to become one of the leading producers of hybrid and all-electric vehicles within three years, and very quickly becoming the world leader in electric cars and buses soon thereafter. The article states the case very well, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/02/business/global/02electric.html?hp.

I don’t need to repeat it here.

 

China has the advantage of not having to replace a fleet—there are maybe 30 million vehicles on the road there—but selling into a first-time car-buyer market as its per capita income rises.  If China follows the rest of the world in automobile penetration vs. GDP per capita, that 30 million, or 21 cars per 1000 people, becomes 80 cars per 1000, or 123 million by 2020 and possibly 250 million by 2030.  At that point the penetration is still only about 150 cars per 1000.  The US is about 860 cars per 1000 today.  As I have been saying for a number of years, heaven help us if most of those vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines. It will be bad enough that the electricity to charge these cars still will come primarily from coal-fired plants. But my guess is that China will be ahead of us, as well, when it comes to clean coal production and alternative energy sources.

 

This raises the stakes on what will be the structure of the US auto industry after we come out of this economic downturn. In my view, a bankruptcy of GM, in particular, would 1) extend the economic downturn and 2) set back the US auto industry’s participation in the new world of non-fossil-fueled vehicles. It may come to that if the UAW and the bondholders don’t blink.  A blink by the UAW is likely even though it will be painful for real people.  I am not so sure about the bondholders, many of whom are traders who have bought these positions on a speculation that there won’t be a bankruptcy, probably hedged against the possibility of one, and won’t blink until the very last minute, if at all. The real bond investors would likely go along with any agreement that avoids bankruptcy since they are running other portfolios that would suffer dramatically from an extension of the downturn and the re-pricing of corporate fixed income paper reflecting the willingness of the administration to use bankruptcy as a part of its bag of tricks.

 

China’s plan is a wake-up call, but not just on the urgency of an aggressive plan for the auto industry. It is a loud alarm bell, showing China’s recognition that both energy independence and reduced emissions are important to political stability and economic growth. In addition, developing and owning the technology that goes along with a ContraCarbon world will enhance its economic and geopolitical future.