Making sense of China’s regulatory crackdown

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An office building of Alibaba Group is pictured on August 10, 2021 in Zhengzhou, Henan Province of China.
An office building of Alibaba Group is pictured on August 10, 2021 in Zhengzhou, Henan Province of China.
Li Qingsheng/VCG via Getty Images

How should investors approach investments in the world’s second-largest economy following recent spats with large companies?

Ever since Jack Ma (the founder of China’s largest e-commerce group, Alibaba) criticised Chinese banking regulators at an October 2020 financial summit in Beijing, many of China’s largest, predominantly foreign-listed, technology companies have experienced regulatory interventions, which have severely curtailed or, in some cases, eliminated their profit-making opportunities.

What happened?

Ant Financial Group, the fintech arm of Alibaba Group, was due to go to an initial public offering (IPO) in Hong Kong and Shanghai on 5 November 2020, with the firm expected to raise $37bn, valuing the company at around $300bn. This would have seen it overtake the $29.4bn IPO of Saudi Aramco in 2019 to become the most valuable IPO ever. However, Ma’s criticism of Chinese regulators just 12 days before the IPO ultimately saw the IPO scrapped and the company forced to convert into a financial holding company with significantly higher capital requirements and regulatory constraints. This also prevented it from using the rich dataset of Alibaba numbers to further its lending business.

The initial regulations seemed squarely aimed at punishing Ma for daring to challenge the Chinese government but, in February 2021, the narrative started to expand as the regulatory crackdown gathered momentum and spread to other technological sectors including the lucrative gaming and online tutoring markets.

This all happened in the lead up to China’s most important political meeting of the year in March – the “lianghui” (“two sessions”), which refers to the annual meeting of that country’s top legislature, the NPC, and its political advisory body, the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). The lianghui ultimately saw the approval of China’s fourteenth five-year plan, which lays out the strategic priorities for the country over the next half decade (as well as some longer-term goals for 2035).

Regulatory intervention seemed to slow in the wake of the “two sessions” but then in July, as the CCP was celebrating its centenary, the regulatory interventions started to accelerate including a clampdown on Chinese ride-hailing company, DiDi Chuxing, which saw its app being pulled from app stores by Chinese regulators over data security concerns just days after its $4.4bn IPO in the US.

Investors were, unsurprisingly, spooked by the regulatory interventions which had a significant impact on the market value of these companies, with five of the largest and most directly impacted companies seeing their combined market caps fall by around $1trn from their respective peaks.

Why did it happen?

Cynical investors might interpret the interventions as the Chinese government’s attempt to reassert its authority on a private sector which was getting too powerful for its liking and, perhaps, used the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone and ensure the damage was most acutely felt by foreign investors in another shot fired in the US-China rivalry. What has become clearer with hindsight is that this is more likely the initial implementation of the latest long-term strategic initiatives of the CCP as its shifts focus to its new policy direction.

The past decade has seen China successfully meet its goals of alleviating poverty and improving living conditions. Around 160m people have been lifted out of extreme poverty over the past decade (about 100m of those people have been lifted out of poverty during President Xi Jinping’s reign since 2012). The shift to urban areas has also been accompanied by increased employment, with 60m jobs having been created in urban areas in the past five years.

The policies that enabled the rapid economic growth have clearly played a significant role in achieving the strategic goals of government over the past decade, but it has become clear that unchecked economic growth has come at the cost of increasing inequality. China’s latest five-year plan is an attempt to address some of the challenges created because of the unchecked economic expansion.

Some of the recent regulations fit neatly into the plan and, even though the Alibaba regulatory challenges preceded the approval of the latest five-year plan in March this year, the process of drafting the plans began in March 2020 and were approved for drafting at the fifth plenum in October 2020, so Ma’s comments likely only accelerated the actions against Alibaba.

How do we approach China from an investment perspective going forward?

First, we should not panic, what is at play is clearly not a bunch of random acts of government “muscle-flexing” or another salvo in the tit-for-tat battle for global supremacy with the US. In fact, as investors, we should welcome the long-term strategic thinking that will likely deliver sustainable growth, which is a key element of successful long-term investment returns. The latest five-year plan also commits to increasing access for foreigners to Chinese capital markets, so the breadth of investment opportunities is going to keep growing. That said, there are some learnings we can take from this.

China is willing to sacrifice areas that do not align with the country’s long-term goals and that can have catastrophic consequences for individual companies focused in niche areas (such as after-school tutoring). While the warning signs are perhaps obvious in retrospect, there are often compelling arguments as to why these warning signs should be ignored (“surely China wants its populace to be the most highly educated in the world?” might have kept you invested in after-school tutoring, despite warnings from government of an imminent crackdown in the sector).

The message of diversification might be a tough one for South African investors whose easiest access to Chinese investment opportunities is in the form of Tencent (through Naspers* and Prosus), but this speaks to the importance of rather looking for suitably diversified offshore investment solutions instead of trying to create a globally diversified portfolio via JSE-listed counters.

We have probably experienced a period of unusually limited government intervention in China, as cyclical challenges related to the trade war and then the pandemic saw the Chinese government back away from any intervention that would add stress to an already uncertain economic environment. Having said that, it is not unusual for there to be a level of cyclicality to Chinese government intervention.

Unlike the previous decade, it is less likely that backing market leaders will be a winning strategy as the incumbents face increased antitrust and data security scrutiny. This also suggests that a passive investment approach to China (which is generally overweight the current market leaders) might not be the best approach.

In general, if China is successful in achieving “common prosperity”, the increasing affluence and urbanisation should also achieve the aim of increasing consumption as a share of economic activity in China. So, perhaps the simplest way to benefit from that trend will be to back those companies that are most likely to capture a share of that increasing consumption, which might very well be global consumer companies and not domestic Chinese companies.

What are the biggest areas of uncertainty?

We are still very early in the rollout of China’s latest five-year plan, so the way the government implements and interprets the policies is still very much a work in progress. Thus, we should be prepared to experience some additional regulatory intervention, which may very well increase negative sentiment around the Chinese investment case. That said, it seems to us that most of the surprises are likely to be at the margins, with the broad aims of the party starting to become much clearer and, as such, are likely already priced in to current valuations.

The success of the implementation is also a key risk as the government’s plan to avoid the middle-income trap relies heavily on successful innovation. Innovation, though, is inherently uncertain and, as such, it is unlikely to just happen at the whim of central control.

Perhaps the biggest threat lies in the upcoming elections in October 2022, when China holds its 20th NC. President Xi has paved the way for an unprecedented, third five-year term as president by abolishing term limits in 2018. If Xi is unsuccessful at clinging to power, there is a strong possibility that the new leader will take a different approach to interpreting, and implementing, the long-term strategic goals for China, which is likely to result in another period of sustained regulatory intervention.

*finweek is a publication of Media24, a subsidiary of Naspers.

Peter Little is a fund manager at Anchor Capital.

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This article was written exclusively for finweek's 20 August newsletter. You can subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

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