Select Page

A critical look at China’s One Belt One Road Initiative

A critical look at China’s One Belt One Road Initiative

By Martin Hart-Landsberg, is a Professor Emeritus of Economics at Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon; and Adjunct Researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences.

China’s growth rate remains impressive, even if on the decline. The country’s continuing economic gains owe much to the Chinese state’s (1) still considerable ability to direct the activity of critical economic enterprises and sectors such as finance, (2) commitment to policies of economic expansion, and (3) flexibility in economic strategy.

It appears that China’s leaders view their recently adopted One Belt, One Road Initiative as key to the country’s future economic vitality. However, there are reasons to believe that this strategy is seriously flawed, with working people, including in China, destined to pay a high price for its shortcomings.

Chinese growth trends downward

China grew rapidly over the decades of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s with production and investment increasingly powered by the country’s growing integration into regional cross-border production networks. By 2002 China had become the world’s biggest recipient of foreign direct investment and by 2009 it had overtaken Germany to become the world’s biggest exporter.

Not surprisingly, the Great Recession and the decline in world trade that followed represented a major challenge to the county’s export-oriented growth strategy.

The government’s response was to counter the effects of declining external demand with a major investment program financed by massive money creation and low interest rates. Investment as a share of GDP rose to an all-time high of 48% in December 2011 and remains at over 44% of GDP.

But, despite the government’s efforts, growth steadily declined, from 10.6% in 2010 to 6.7% in 2016, before registering an increase of 6.9% in 2017.

Beginning in 2012, the Chinese government began promoting the idea of a “new normal”—centered around a target rate of growth of 6.5%. The government claimed that the benefits of this new normal growth rate would include greater stability and a more domestically-oriented growth process that would benefit Chinese workers.

However, in contrast to its rhetoric, the state continued to pursue a high grow rate by promoting a massive state-supported construction boom tied to a policy of expanded urbanization. New roads, railways, airports, shopping centers, and apartment complexes were built.

As might be expected, such a big construction push has left the country with excess facilities and infrastructure, highlighted by a growing number of ghost towns. As the South China Morning Post describes: (https://bit.ly/2St6rzP)

Six skyscrapers overlooking a huge, man-made lake once seemed like a dazzling illustration of a city’s ambition, the transformation of desert on the edge of Ordos in Inner Mongolia into a gleaming residential and commercial complex to help secure its future prosperity.

At noon on a cold winter’s day the reality seemed rather different.

Only a handful of people could be seen entering or exiting the buildings, with hardly a trace of activity in the 42-storey skyscrapers.

The complex opened five years ago, but just three of its buildings have been sold to the city government and another is occupied by its developer, a bank and an energy company. The remaining two are empty–gates blocked and dust piled on the ground.

Ordos, however, was just one project in China’s rush to urbanize. The nation used more cement in the three years from 2011 to 2013 than the United States used in the entire 20th century. . . .

Other mostly empty ghost towns can be found across China, including the Yujiapu financial district in Tianjin, the Chenggong district in Kunming in Yunnan and Yingkou in Liaoning province.

This building boom was financed by a rapid increase in debt, creating repayment concerns. Corporate debt in particular soared, as shown below, but local government and household debt also grew substantially.

The boom also caused several industries to dramatically increase their scale of production, creating serious overcapacity problems. As the researcher Xin Zhang points out:

Over the past decade, scholars and government officials have held a stable consensus that “nine traditional industries” in China are most severely exposed to the excess capacity problem: steel, cement, plate glass, electrolytic aluminium, coal, ship-building, solar energy, wind energy and petrochemical. All of these nine sectors are related to energy, infrastructural construction and real estate development, reflecting the nature of a heavily investment-driven economy for China.

Not surprisingly, this situation has also led to a significant decline in economy-wide rates of return. According to Xin Zhang: despite strong overall growth performance, the capital return rate of the Chinese economy has started to be on a sharp decline recently. Although the results vary by different estimation methods, research in and outside China points out a recent downward trend. For example, two economists show that all through the 1980s and the first half of the 1990s, the capital return rate of the Chinese economy had been relatively stable at about 0.22, much higher than the U.S. counterpart.

However, since the mid-1990s, the capital return rate experienced more ups and downs, until the dramatic drop to about 0.14 in 2013. Since then, the return to capital within Chinese economy has decreased even further, creating the phenomenon of a “capital glut”.

In other words, it was becoming increasingly unlikely that the Chinese state could stabilize growth pursuing its existing strategy. In fact, it appears that many wealthy Chinese have decided that their best play is to move their money out of the country.

A China Economic Review article highlights (https://bit.ly/2SBdXZC) this development:

Since 2015, the specter of capital flight has been haunting the Chinese economy. In that year, faced with the threat of a currency devaluation and an aggressive anti-corruption campaign, investors and savers began moving their wealth out of China. The outflow was so large that the central bank was forced to spend more than $1 trillion of its foreign exchange reserves to defend the exchange rate.

The Chinese government was eventually able to dam up the flow of capital out of its borders by imposing strict capital controls, and China’s balance of payments, exchange rate and foreign currency reserves have all stabilized. But even the largest dam cannot stop the rain; it can only keep water from flowing further downstream. There are now several signs that the conditions that originally led to the first massive wave of capital flight have returned. The strength of China’s capital controls might soon be put to the test.

Chinese leaders were not blind to the mounting economic difficulties. Limits to domestic construction were apparent, as was the danger that unused buildings and factories coupled with excess capacity in key industries could easily trigger widespread defaults on the part of borrowers and threaten the stability of the financial sector. Growing labor activism on the part of workers struggling with low salaries and dangerous working conditions added to their concern.

However, despite earlier voiced support for the notion of a “new normal” growth tied to slower but more worker-friendly and domestically-oriented economic activity, the party leadership appears to have chosen a new strategy, one that seeks to maintain the existing growth process by expanding it beyond China’s national borders: its One Belt and One Road Initiative.


Caption: Further reading: http://www.cadtm.org/A-critical-look-at-China-s-One-Belt-One-Road-initiative (https://bit.ly/2STnBps). (Distributed by APO Group on behalf of Monthly Review Foundation).


About The Author

Sanlam 2018 Annual Results

7 March 2019

 

Sanlam’s 2018 annual results provides testimony to its resilience amid challenging operating conditions and negative investment markets

Sanlam today announced its operational results for the 12 months ended 31 December 2018. The Group made significant progress in strategic execution during 2018. This included the acquisition of the remaining 53% stake in SAHAM Finances, the largest transaction concluded in the Group’s 100-year history, and the approval by Sanlam shareholders of a package of Broad-based Black Economic Empowerment (B-BBEE) transactions that will position the Group well for accelerated growth in its South African home market.

Operational results for 2018 included 14% growth in the value of new life insurance business (VNB) on a consistent economic basis and more than R2 billion in positive experience variances, testimony to Sanlam’s resilience in difficult times.

The Group relies on its federal operating model and diversified profile in dealing with the challenging operating environment, negative investment markets and volatile currencies. Management continues to focus on growing existing operations and extracting value from recent corporate transactions to drive enhanced future growth.

The negative investment market returns and higher interest rates in a number of markets where the Group operates had a negative impact on growth in operating earnings and some other key performance indicators. This was aggravated by weak economic growth in South Africa and Namibia and internal currency devaluations in Angola, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Substantial growth in Santam’s operating earnings (net result from financial services) and satisfactory growth by Sanlam Emerging Markets (SEM) and Sanlam Corporate offset softer contributions from Sanlam Personal Finance (SPF) and Sanlam Investment Group (SIG).

Key features of the 2018 annual results include:

Net result from financial services increased by 4% compared to the same period in 2017;

Net value of new covered business up 8% to R2 billion (up 14% on a consistent economic basis);

Net fund inflows of R42 billion compared to R37 billion in 2017;

Adjusted Return on Group Equity Value per share of 19.4% exceeded the target of 13.0%; and

Dividend per share of 312 cents, up 8%.

Sanlam Group Chief Executive Officer, Mr Ian Kirk said: “We are satisfied with our performance in a challenging operating environment. We will continue to focus on managing operations prudently and diligently executing on our strategy to deliver sustainable value to all our stakeholders. The integration of SAHAM Finances is progressing well. In addition, Sanlam shareholders approved the package of B-BBEE transactions, including an equity raising, at the extraordinary general meeting held on 12 December 2018. Our plan to implement these transactions this year remains on track.”

Sanlam Personal Finance (SPF) net result from financial services declined by 5%, largely due to the impact of new growth initiatives and dampened market conditions. Excluding the new initiatives, SPF’s contribution was 1% down on 2017 due to the major impact that the weak equity market performance in South Africa had on fund-based fee income.

SPF’s new business sales increased by 4%, an overall satisfactory result under challenging conditions. Sanlam Sky’s new business increased by an exceptional 71%. Strong growth of 13% in the traditional individual life channel was augmented by the Capitec Bank credit life new business recognised in the first half of 2018, and strong demand for the new Capitec Bank funeral product. The Recurring premium and Strategic Business Development business units also achieved strong growth of 20%, supported by the acquisition of BrightRock in 2017. Glacier new business grew marginally by 1%. Primary sales onto the Linked Investment Service Provider (LISP) platform improved by 5%, an acceptable result given the pressure on investor confidence in the mass affluent market. This was however, offset by lower sales of wrap funds and traditional life products.

The strong growth in new business volumes at Sanlam Sky had a major positive effect on SPF’s VNB growth, which increased by 7% (14% on a comparable basis).

Sanlam Emerging Markets (SEM) grew its net result from financial services by 14%. Excluding the impact of corporate activity, earnings were marginally up on 2017 (up 8% excluding the increased new business strain).

New business volumes at SEM increased by 20%. Namibia performed well, increasing new business volumes by 22% despite weak economic conditions. Both life and investment new business grew strongly. Botswana underperformed with the main detractor from new business growth being the investment line of business, which declined by 24%. This line of business is historically more volatile in nature.

The new business growth in the Rest of Africa portfolio was 68% largely due to corporate activity relating to SAHAM Finances, with the East Africa portfolio underperforming.

The Indian insurance businesses continued to perform well, achieving double-digit growth in both life and general insurance in local currency. The Malaysian businesses are finding some traction after a period of underperformance, increasing their overall new business contribution by 3%. New business production is not yet meeting expectations, but the mix of business improved at both businesses.

SEM’s VNB declined by 3% (up 6% on a consistent economic basis and excluding corporate activity). The relatively low growth on a comparable basis is largely attributable to the new business underperformance in East Africa.

Sanlam Investment Group’s (SIG) overall net result from financial services declined by 6%, attributable to lower performance fees at the third party asset manager in South Africa, administration costs incurred for system upgrades in the wealth management business and lower earnings from equity-backed financing transactions at Sanlam Specialised Finance. The other businesses did well to grow earnings, despite the pressure on funds under management due to lower investment markets.

New business volumes declined by 13% mainly due to market volatility and low investor confidence in South Africa. Institutional new inflows remained weak for the full year, while retail inflows also slowed down significantly after a more positive start to the year. The international businesses, UK, attracted strong new inflows (up 57%).

Sanlam Corporate’s net result from financial services increased by 4%, with the muted growth caused by a continuation of high group risk claims experience. Mortality and disability claims experience weakened further in the second half of the year, which is likely to require more rerating of premiums in 2019. The administration units turned profitable in 2018, a major achievement. The healthcare businesses reported satisfactory double-digit growth in earnings, while the Absa Consultants and Actuaries business made a pleasing contribution of R39 million.

New business volumes in life insurance more than doubled, reflecting an exceptional performance. Single premiums grew by 109%, while recurring premiums increased by a particularly satisfactory 56%.

The good growth in recurring and single premium business, combined with modelling improvements, supported a 64% (71% on a comparable economic basis) increase in the cluster’s VNB contribution.

Following a year of major catastrophe events in 2017, Santam experienced a relatively benign claims environment in 2018. Combined with acceptable growth in net earned premiums, it contributed to a 37% increase in gross result from financial services (41% after tax and non-controlling interest). The conventional insurance book achieved an underwriting margin of 9% in 2018 (6% in 2017).

As at 31 December 2018, discretionary capital amounted to a negative R3.7 billion before allowance for the planned B-BBEE share issuance. A number of capital management actions during 2018 affected the balance of available discretionary capital, including the US$1 billion (R13 billion) SAHAM Finances transaction. Cash proceeds from the B-BBEE share issuance will restore the discretionary capital portfolio to between R1 billion and R1.5 billion depending on the final issue price within the R74 to R86 price range approved by shareholders.

Looking forward, the Group said economic growth in South Africa would likely remain weak in the short to medium term future, and would continue to impact efforts to accelerate organic growth. The outlook for economic growth in other regions where the Group operates is more promising. Recent acquisitions such as the SAHAM transaction should also support operational performance going forward.

“We remain focused on executing our strategy. We are confident that we have the calibre of management and staff to prudently navigate the anticipated challenges going forward,” Mr Kirk concluded.

Details of the results for the 12 months ended 31 December 2018 are available at www.sanlam.com.