China M&A activity unlikely to slow down, economy appears immune from U.S. recession

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SINGAPORE, Feb. 25 – Chris Devonshire-Ellis, Senior Partner of Dezan Shira & Associates, speaking at the Asia Business Forum Annual China M&A Conference in Singapore today said that he felt the Chinese economy would withstand any U.S. recession and that M&A activity would continue in the PRC.

His comments, made to a group of prominent academics and lawyers, including the corporate finance heads of Deloitte Touche and KPMG, stated that while U.S. imports had declined by over 10 percent in the past four months signaling a downtown in the U.S. economy, Chinese exports had risen by over 21 percent for the same period, proving, he said, that China had sustainable export markets elsewhere that would keep it immune from any U.S. recession. He also noted that Chinese retail sales increased 16 percent over 2007 during the recent Chinese New Year, and that FDI had increased by 109 percent in January to US$11 billion over the previous year. Recent attempts to cool the China’s massive growth slowly appear to be working, and the recent injection of US$12 billion in bills will support domestic spending and help drive down inflation by kick starting the rural economies to spend more, fuelling both a domestic and import demand for goods.

Concerning M&A, Devonshire-Ellis commented that of China’s US$80 billion plus of deals, much of this was essentially government driven and funded, with little being from the private sector. “It’s interesting to note the two biggest M&A deals last year were by Beijing Enterprise Holdings of Hong Kong, being the listed investment arm of the Beijing government, who purchased Beijing Gas for US$1.5 billion, and China Aluminum, who bought 49 percent of Yunnan Copper for US$1 billion. These are essentially government backed deals. By comparison, much of India’s M&A activity last year involved the private sector,” he said.

Devonshire-Ellis also mentioned that there was some cooling towards China investments at the present, but passed this off on sub-prime lending emotions in the United States rather than China-based intangibles. Noting the MSCI Zhong Hua index has dropped 30 percent since August, and that the value of portfolios such as specialist China investors such as Jupiter China Fund had also decreased by 25 percent during the same period, the facts point to China immunity via its strong export-driven economy not being affected by the slow down in U.S. imports as significant, and that the MSCI will recover ground.

He also pointed out that China was investing heavily in its own infrastructure, with USD67 billion being earmarked for Central Chinese development this year alone, and other huge investments being made in the energy, power supply, waste and water treatment / management and that this expenditure would continue to push M&A activity in China. “It’s driven essentially by a realignment of strategic businesses that are currently poorly integrated,” he said.

However, he passed a word of warning about a Chinese “glass ceiling” when mentioning that Chinese business managers were not in the same global league as those from other emerging markets, such as India. Noting that the Shanghai bourse was still largely taken up by companies all or partly owned by the government, he questioned the credibility of the regulatory system in China and advised that this led Chinese managers into poor standards of corporate governance and accountability. They were playing in China to rules set in China and were not being educated to global standards he mentioned. This, coupled with serious communication difficulties, would mean that no major expansion overseas of Chinese companies, except those strategically positioned by the government for the basic acquisition of raw materials and energy for use in China, would emerge.

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