It is easy for the financial community in East Asia to plan around China, the growth of which continues to serve as nearly every firm's long-term strategic opportunity. Many are used to operating on the Mainland, seizing what chances it presents, and having a measured idea about its obstacles. But even for the most seasoned China hand, the sheer magnitude of its market revolution coupled with confusion and opaqueness still makes doing business there a tough call.
So for the bigwigs in New York, China is an ever deeper puzzle. Vincent Duhamel, principal and CEO at State Street Global Advisors in Hong Kong, has just returned from a conference on Chinese asset management hosted by New York's Asia Society. He says Wall Street's interest in the People's Republic is growing, but that in general the US community is more sceptical about business there than is commonly found in Asia.
"China is on their radar screen more these days, but if the government clamps down too hard or otherwise disappoints the foreign players doing business there now, the people in New York will turn their attention to other markets," he says.
One topic on which American investors and bankers remain doubtful is the ability for China's securities markets, particularly its stock markets, to provide a real financing role. "The audience felt China has too many structural issues for its capital markets to be truly useful."
On the plus side, Duhamel says there are a lot of New York firms that are keen to learn about China, but they often lack a true sense of how to do business there. "Few people were familiar with the actual challenges of doing business in China," he says. "On paper the market is attractive, but a lot of work has yet to be done, especially on state-owned enterprizes, which are sucking so much money from the capital markets. The huge amount of lending by state-owned banks tends to squeeze out capital-market finance."
The bottom line is that financiers in New York (and London) have more options than their counterparts in Asia. New York investors are looking to invest in Brazil, or European pension funds, or Canada. They can get better returns elsewhere, the visibility is better, and the regulators let them participate. Players in Asia have learned to accommodate themselves to the vagaries of a China business because it is their lodestar.
(He mentioned in his presentation that so far foreign fund managers trying to negotiate joint ventures with local partners have found domestic fund managers reluctant to sell a stake in their profitable businesses, while some securities companies are serious about providing up to 33% equity in a fund management JV, mainly to help them win the licence.)
New Yorkers also want more information about pension reform in China and how exactly the current, insolvent 'pay-as-you-go' system will be replaced by a fully funded one.
So until more changes take place in China, Wall Street will remain somewhat aloof, Duhamel believes. But regulators themselves remain unable to answer simple questions about when, for example, foreign entities will have access to China's fund market. Developments on the Mainland are not just opaque to outsiders.