Commentary on Political Economy

Friday 9 July 2021


Wall Street is finally waking up to the reality of China

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A U.S. flag in front of the logo for the Chinese ride-hailing company Didi Global during the IPO on the New York Stock Exchange on June 30. (REUTERS/Brendan McDermid)

This week, Xi Jinping dealt a humiliating blow to Wall Street, crushing a major Chinese tech firm shortly after U.S. investors had handed it billions. It’s a watershed moment that has even the most die-hard Wall Street China boosters finally admitting that the game has fundamentally changed. Investing Americans’ futures in Chinese companies is no longer a risk Wall Street can calculate, much less defend.

On July 2, just two days after Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Morgan Stanley launched an initial public offering for the Chinese ride-hailing app Didi on the New York Stock Exchange, Chinese regulators cracked down on the company hard. Citing data privacy concerns, the Chinese government ordered the removal of Didi’s app from app stores, pending an opaque national security review process. As a result, the stock has lost 30 percent of its value since shortly after its IPO, when investors, most of them from the United States, put $4.4 billion into the company. Shamelessly, the Wall Street firms that set up the Didi IPO collected millions of dollars in fees regardless.

Some Wall Street pundits — perhaps for the first time — realized they had been acting as useful idiots by encouraging Americans to throw money into the Chinese tech firm. CNBC host Jim Cramer said just last week about Didi, “I would try to get as many shares as you can … I doubt they’ll have much trouble with the regulators.”

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This week he’s singing a different tune. “You’re a moron if you buy a Chinese deal after this. You’re a moron. I don’t care if it pops,” Cramer said Tuesday. “Why do you need to put your capital at risk after this?”

Cramer, the new China skeptic, is now echoing the concerns national security types in Washington have been screaming in Wall Street’s direction for the past several years. Chinese companies raising capital in the United States can’t be audited. And now that Beijing is determined to increase its control over all Chinese industries, these companies can’t credibly claim to be independent from the Chinese government.

Of course, there were plenty of signs that Beijing was cracking down on its tech giants (and even setting their sights directly on Didi). But rather than heed those warnings, the New York financial gurus told their audiences and themselves that investing in China was a sure bet. Now, the financial consequences will fall not on those gatekeepers at the top of the financial industry, but on their clients — millions of unwitting U.S. investors.

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As U.S.-China tensions have worsened, Wall Street financial service firms, asset managers and hedge funds have been racing to increase their holdings in Chinese companies of all kinds, including those Washington was trying to sanction for complicity in human rights atrocities or links to the Chinese military.

Seduced by the lucrative Chinese market, Wall Street firms and U.S. regulators have eagerly helped a flurry of Chinese companies raise money from U.S. investors, who then find themselves holding these risky assets because their savings are tied up in pension funds or other vehicles they don’t personally manage.

Until now, many in the financial world wanted to believe the Chinese Communist Party was fundamentally pragmatic. They insisted that Beijing would never risk its economic development by killing its Wall Street cash cow, and that investors could always count on rational decision-making and solid returns. None of that is defensible anymore. With the Didi move, Xi has put an end to business as usual.

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The situation is getting worse, not better. Chinese tech firms like Alibaba and Tencent are facing huge fines for various alleged offenses. The Chinese government is going after more Chinese firms that have raised money in the U.S. markets. Realizing that some U.S.-China decoupling is certain, Xi may want to manage the process on his own terms, bringing Chinese companies back home to help bolster the country’s own capital markets.

“The Communist Party is busy asserting tighter control of Chinese tech companies in an effort not only to break any sense of independence among China’s technology leaders but also to ensure that they are acting in line with Beijing’s strategic goals,” said Jonathan D.T. Ward, author of “China’s Vision of Victory.”

But there is a silver lining to the Didi IPO debacle. No more can Wall Street pundits, asset managers, lawyers and lobbyists argue with a straight face that Chinese firms are anything but under the effective control of the CCP. That means admitting Beijing can squash them or pilfer their coffers at any time — for any reason. Wall Street must now acknowledge that the risk of investing in these companies can’t be known, much less disclosed. Therefore, U.S. investors shouldn’t be trusting their futures to China Inc.

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Admitting you have a problem is just the first step. Now the Wall Street clique must change its behavior to acknowledge that funneling Americans’ money into Chinese companies that have zero transparency, zero accountability and zero independence from the CCP is both bad for investors and bad for America.

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