February 6, 2018

If you were only to read one thing…

Economist – Pyramid schemes cause huge social harm in China 2/3

  • “The authorities call them ‘business cults’. Tens of millions of people are ensnared in these pyramid schemes that use cult-like techniques to brainwash their targets and bilk them out of their money.”
  • “Many countries suffer from Ponzi schemes, which typically sell financial products offering extravagant rewards. They pay old investors out of new deposits, which means their liabilities exceed their assets; when recruitment falters, the schemes collapse. China is no exception. In 2016 it closed down Ezubao, a multi-billion-dollar scam that had drawn in more than 900,000 investors. By number of victims, it was the world’s largest such fraud.”
  • “Chinese pyramid schemes commonly practice ‘multi-level marketing’ (MLM), a system whereby a salesperson earns money not just by selling a company’s goods but also from commissions on sales made by others, whom the first salesperson has recruited. People often earn more by recruiting others than from their own sales. Since 1998 China has banned the use of such methods, although it does allow some, mostly foreign, MLM companies to do business in China as ‘direct sellers’. This involves recruiting people to sell products at work or at home.”
  • “The distinguishing feature of the Chinese scams is the way they combine pyramid-type operations with cult-like brainwashing.”
  • “Many perfectly legal companies try to boost morale by getting staff to sing company songs or organizing awaydays. China’s business cults, however, combine such techniques with violence.”
  • “Business cults seem to be growing. In the first nine months of 2017 the police brought cases against almost 6,000 of them, twice as many as in the whole of 2016 and three times the average annual number in 2005-15. This was just scratching the surface. In July 2017 the police arrested 230 leaders of Shan Xin Hui, a scheme that was launched in May 2016 and had an estimated 5m investors just 15 months later. In August 2017, after the government launched its campaign against ‘diehard scams’, police in the southern port of Beihai, Guangxi province, arrested 1,200 people for defrauding victims of 1.5bn yuan ($223m). One scheme in Guangxi, known as 1040 Project, was reckoned to have fleeced its targets of 600m yuan.”
  • “The scale of the scams worries the government. Their cultish features make it even more anxious. The Communist Party worries about any social organization that it does not control. Cults are especially worrisome because religious and quasi-religious activities give their followers a focus of loyalty that competes with the party.”
  • “The authorities will find it hard to curb the scams for three main reasons. First, in order to encourage cheap loans for industry, the central bank keeps interest rates low. For years they were negative, i.e, below inflation. That built up demand among China’s savers for better returns. With gross savings equal to just under half of GDP, it is not surprising that some of that pool of money should be attracted to schemes promising remarkable dividends.”
  • “Second, it is often hard for consumers to spot frauds. In 2005 China legalized direct selling, arguing that there was a distinction between that practice and the way that Ponzi schemes operate. But Qiao Xinsheng of Zhongnan University of Economics and Law argues that the difference is often ‘blurred’ in the eyes of the public. Scammers can easily pass them themselves off as legitimate. Dodgy companies exploit government propaganda in order to pretend they have official status. For example, they may claim to be ‘new era’ companies, borrowing a catchphrase of China’s president, Xi Jinping.”
  • “Third, argues Mr Li, business cults manipulate traditional attachments to kin. Companies in America often appeal to individual ambition, promising to show investors how to make money for themselves. Those in China offer to help the family, or a wider group. Shan Xin Hui literally means Kind Heart Exchange. It purported to be a charity, offering higher returns to poor investors than to rich ones. (In reality everyone got scammed.) Business cults rely on one family member to recruit another, and upon the obligation that relatives feel to trust each other. This helps explain why investors who have lost life savings continue to support the companies that defrauded them.”

Worthy Insights / Opinion Pieces / Advice

Economist – Why sub-zero interest rates are neither unfair nor unnatural – Free exchange 2/3

NYT – Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built – Nellie Bowles 2/4

NYT – Amazon Asked for Patience. Remarkably, Wall Street Complied. – Michael Corkery and Nick Wingfield 2/4

  • “In a business environment that demands, and rewards, quarterly profits and short-term strategic thinking, Amazon showed extraordinary resolve in focusing on long-term goals, somehow persuading investors to go along.”
  • “Over its first decade in existence, including long stretches where it consistently reported losses, Amazon enjoyed a luxury afforded few companies: leeway.”
  • “Amazon has reported an annual profit in only 13 of the 21 years that it has operated as a publicly traded company, according to FactSet, a financial data firm.”
  • “And its profit margins, already low by some measures, have fluctuated from year to year — hardly moving in the straight upward line that Wall Street usually likes to see.”
  • “Yet investors have rewarded Amazon for plowing its profits back into growing its businesses, whether in online retail, cloud computing or, most recently, in grocery stores, with the acquisition of Whole Foods Market.”

Vanity Fair – Twitter’s Dirty Secret – Nick Bilton 2/2

  • “Twitter knew about all its fake followers, and always has – eliminating just enough bots to make it seem like they care, but not enough that it would affect the perceived number of active users on the platform.”

WSJ – China Shows How It Will Fight a Trade War – Nathaniel Taplin 2/5

  • “U.S. agriculture will be in China’s crosshairs if a trade war erupts.”

Real Estate

The Real Deal – Everything must go: Chinese investors sell off their foreign RE holdings – Erin Hudson 2/3

WSJ – Daily Shot: Bankrate.com US 30-Yr Fixed Rate Mortgage Rate 2/2

WSJ – Daily Shot: FRED – Home Equity Loans 2/5

  • “Home equity loan balances continue to slip as Americans remain uneasy tapping this form of credit.”

Finance

Reuters – JGBs pare losses as Bank of Japan offers “unlimited” buying to curb rising yields – Hideyuki Sano 2/1

WSJ – What Markets Are Really Telling Us About Higher Rates – Richard Barley 2/5

  • “Companies are paying slightly more to borrow, but higher risk-free yields haven’t fed through fully. This is significant.”
  • “…the ECB, is still at play. The ECB’s bond-buying actions have a twist: in the first four weeks of January, corporate purchases as a share of government purchases stood at 27%, versus 11.5% when the program was running full-tilt at €80 billion a month, according to Deutsche Bank . In other words, corporates are still getting decent support from ECB purchases.”
  • “One snag is that corporate-bond spreads are already so tight there is little room for error. In Europe, the investment-grade ICE BofAML corporate index yield premium over government bonds is just 0.74 percentage points, its lowest level since August 2007.”
  • “Investors should watch closely if spreads do widen significantly. It would mean either companies are making riskier, top-of-market types of bets or investors are getting concerned about growth and underlying cash flows. For now, the message from higher interest rates is, don’t sweat it.”

Cryptocurrency

FT – ‘Crypto crazy’ Japanese mystified by virtual heist – Leo Lewis and Robin Harding 2/2

  • “The $500m theft of XEM coins by an anonymous hacker is threatening the country’s faith in cryptocurrencies.”

FT – Bitcoin investors find tax demands are not virtual – Ben McLannahan and Vanessa Houlder 2/4

  • “Cryptocurrency traders in many jurisdictions may be liable for hefty capital gains tax bills.”

NYT – Making a Crypto Utopia in Puerto Rico – Nellie Bowles 2/2

Reuters – Bitcoin extends slide, falls below $7,000 – Gertrude Chavez-Dreyfuss 2/5

  • “Digital currency bitcoin BTC=BTSP fell more than 15% on Monday to a nearly three-month low amid a slew of concerns ranging from a global regulatory clampdown to a ban on using credit cards to buy bitcoin by British and U.S. banks.”
  • “On the Luxembourg-based Bitstamp exchange, bitcoin fell as low as $6,853.53 in early afternoon trading in New York. That marked a fall of more than half from a peak of almost $20,000 hit in December.”
  • “Bitcoin has fallen in six of the last eight trading session.”
  • “The currency, which surged more than 1,300% last year, has lost about half its value so far in 2018, as more governments and banks signal their intention for a regulatory crackdown. Last week bitcoin suffered its worst weekly performance since 2013.”

Tech

NYT – Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built – Nellie Bowles 2/4

Health / Medicine

Economist – A revolution in health care is coming – Leaders 2/1

Asia – excluding China and Japan

WSJ – Samsung Heir Lee Jae-yong Freed From Prison by Appeals Court – Eun-Young Jeong 2/5

China

The Sydney Morning Herald – China said to mull legal gambling on Hainan – Keith Zhai and Daniela Wei 2/4

India

Bloomberg Businessweek – India’s Phantom Flats Leave Homebuyers’ Dreams in Tatters – Pooja Thakur Mahrotri, Upmanyu Trivedi, and Dhwani Pandya 1/30

  • “Across the metropolitan area that surrounds New Delhi, a string of real-estate developers including Unitech, Jaypee Infratech Ltd. and Amrapali Group have been dragged to court by irate homeowners who shelled out payments for apartments that have yet to be completed. Many of these firms took money from a stream of buyers. As sales slumped and the once red-hot market cooled, their businesses unraveled — leaving them grappling with debt.”
  • “The fallouts from the shakeup in the $126 billion property market are reverberating across companies, markets and the broader economy. Unitech, once India’s largest developer, has plunged to a fraction of its previous valuation. Jaypee is in insolvency court. State-owned banks — the lifeblood of the economy — are grappling with a pile up of bad loans from the industry. Indian families, who have long poured their life savings into real estate, are now pulling back.”
  • “Indian real-estate businesses expanded as long as firm were able to draw new buyers for planned projects. But as the economy slowed and demand softened, many firms were left short of cash and struggling to manage their debt. The downturn only worsened last year after the government tightened regulations to protect homebuyers and separately introduced a new services tax across all industries. India’s residential sector appears to have shrunk to a fraction of its size in less than a decade, according to Shishir Baijal, managing director of Knight Frank India.”
  • “Prices dropped 3% on average across the top six cities, according to Knight Frank, with some declining as much as 15% after accounting for developer discounts. And in the capital region, last year’s prices were 9% below their 2015 peak. The outlook remains bleak.”
  • “The property developers are adding to a pile-up of bad loans in India’s banking sector, which is already struggling to manage a spike in stressed assets across several industries.”
  • “India’s government has stepped in to regulate the real-estate industry with new laws, including one that forces developers to use at least 70% of sale proceeds to complete residential projects, rather than funnel money to different jobs. Other measures prevent them from pre-selling apartments before all building approvals are obtained.”
  • “The pain hasn’t been restricted to the North. India’s financial capital, Mumbai, last year witnessed a decline in residential property prices for the first time in a decade. New residential launches across eight Indian cities dropped 41% last year and were down 78% from their peak in 2010, Knight Frank data show.”

South America

Bloomberg Businessweek – Venezuelan Pirates Rule the Most Lawless Market on Earth – Jonathan Franklin 1/30

Economist – China moves into Latin America – Bello 2/1

  • “The Asian giant is taking advantage of other powers’ lack of interest in the region.”

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