With China in the news on so many fronts, I was prompted to check out some of the mutual funds that are categorized as “China funds.” Whoa! Some have gained almost 40 percent during the past 12 months. It’s clearly an economy that is growing faster than ours, and we sell a lot of products to them — starting with cars whereby General Motors sells more in that country than it sells domestically.
So what’s the dark side of this relationship? The answer might be found in Peter Navarro’s and Greg Autry’s book, “Death by China,” which outlines all of the ways that China competes unfairly against most of the developed world.
A partial list includes the following: illegal export subsidies, a manipulated currency, theft of American intellectual property, accepting massive environmental damage to avoid expensive but cleaner manufacturing processes, lax worker health standards far below those of international norms, protectionism that keeps foreign competitors from setting up shop in the country — the list goes on. All of this bad blood contributes to the economic growth that drives up stock prices.
The theft of intellectual property is possibly the most destructive since it is estimated at between $200 billion and $600 billion annually, according to Navarro. The actual number is anyone’s guess. However, it is clear that this factor is a major contributor to China’s growth. It has been described by intelligence experts as the greatest theft in world history.
As for exports versus imports, we sell about $100 billion of goods to them and they sell about $450 billion to us. This generates what is an oversupply of dollars in China and under normal free-market circumstances, the price of dollars relative to Chinese currency should drop, which, in turn, would make Chinese products more expensive for us to buy. It would amount to a de facto tariff and would reduce the $350 billion trade deficit. To keep this from happening, China manipulates and maintains an undervalued currency, which continues to support products which are cheap when bought with dollars.
So what do the dictates of our conscience tell us about investing in China? Clearly it can be enticing to consider allocating some money toward such a dynamic economy that includes almost 20 percent of the world’s population. Add to this the human temptation to chase last year’s best-performing fund, and we have created our own toxic helping of sweet-and-sour pork.
For what it may be worth for those who decide to pass, China’s market experienced about a 50 percent loss in 2015 and its 10-year average annual return has been just 6 percent. As vibrant as China’s fast-growing economy may look on the surface, problems like its severe pollution and contaminated water may be more than just a speed bump.