Monthly Archives: March 2009

Hunan Valin Gets Australia’s Approval For Fortescue Stake

The second of the three big outstanding Chinese investments in Australian natural resources companies has got the nod of approval from Canberra. Hunan Valin Iron and Steel can go ahead with taking a $438 million stake in Fortescue Metals. The decision comes less than a week after Australia barred another state-owned Chinese firm, Minmetals, from taking over OZ Minerals on national security grounds. Minmetals is now reworking its offer to get ground Canberra’s objections.

Hunan Valin isn’t getting an unconditional go ahead: it can’t increase its stake beyond the 17.55% it is now buying and there are some conflict of interest issues to be settled as Hunan Valin is a leading customer of Fortescue. This all leaves the big one to come: a proposed $19.5 billion investment by Chinalco in Rio Tinto. A decision on that is still a couple of months away.

(Update: Minmetals and OZ Minerals have struck a new deal that excludes the Prominent Hill mine near the Woomera weapons-testing range that caused Canberra to block the original proposal. The revised bid is for $1.2 billion and is expected to get official clearance.)

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Google Expands Music Search Service That Labels Hope Will Kill Piracy

Google has run a music search engine in China since last August. It is the only country where it has such a service (or at least for now). It does so in direct competition with Baidu, which has 60% of the search market in China and gets a substantial portion of its traffic from searches for MP3s.

Many of the MP3s Baidu links to are illegal, which is where Google sees its opportunity, in legal, higher quality downloads. Initially it had some 350,000 songs but now, Reuters reports, it has signed licensing deals with the four major Western record labels, EMI, Sony Music, Warner Music Group and Universal Music, that will expand the catalogue to 1.1 million songs. The labels will share ad revenue around the free downloads with Google and Top100.cn, a music website co-founded by basketball star Yao Ming.

Because of piracy, Western record labels have made as near to no money in China as makes no difference. Annual sales are a derisory $76 million, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the industry’s trade organization. The Google deal is the first serious attempt to change that. “I can’t overestimate how important this is,” Lachie Rutherford, president of Warner Music Asia Pacific, tells Reuters. We’ll see.

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China Takes Its Place At Latin America’s Top Table

Much attention is being paid to China getting a bigger formal role in the International Monetary Fund. But there is one international financial institution it has already quietly joined: the Inter-American Development Bank.

China became the 48th member of the regional multilateral institution in January, subscribing $350 million dollars to the agency that promotes economic development in Latin America and the Caribbean. During this weekend’s 50th annual meeting, the first China is attending, IDB president Luis Alberto Moreno signed the Bank’s first co-financing agreement with a Chinese financial institution, the Export-Import Bank of China (the money will be used for Chinese-backed infrastructure projects in Colombia); a second program with China Development Bank Corporation, will follow, as will greater cooperation with the People’s Bank of China.

Given China’s growing trade and investment in the region, IDB membership and absorption into the region’s formal infrastructure seems logical. A similar argument could be made with the IMF and the world economy.

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China-Based CyberSpy Ring Hacks Asian Governments

Canadian researchers say they have uncovered a global cyberspy network that snoops into government computers, and is based mainly in China. The researchers say they have no evidence Beijing is behind the ring and authorities have denied it, too, but their report is bound to stir up old suspicions, and especially as it was prompted by a request from the Dalai Lama to check whether the computers of his exiled organization had been hacked.

What the subsequent 10-month investigation by Information Warfare Monitor, which comprises researchers from Ottawa-based think tank SecDev Group and the University of Toronto’s Munk Centre for International Studies, found was that 1,295 computers in 103 countries had been infiltrated, including machines in the foreign ministries of eight countries and various embassies of 11 more. The cyberattacks were mainly against Asian governments. Computers of international organizations, non-government organizations and news media were also hacked, the researchers say.

The cyberspies were able to take control of compromised computers and to send and receive classified data from them, creating a surveillance system the researchers dubbed GhostNet after the ghOst RAT trojan horse malware that was used, and which they traced back to commercial internet access accounts located on Hainan Island.

From the IWM report:

While our analysis reveals that numerous politically sensitive and high value computer systems were compromised in ways that circumstantially point to China as the culprit, we do not know the exact motivation or the identity of the attacker(s), or how to accurately characterize this network of infections as a whole. One of the characteristics of cyber-attacks of the sort we document here is the ease by which attribution can be obscured.

Regardless of who or what is ultimately in control of GhostNet, it is the capabilities of exploitation, and the strategic intelligence that can be harvested from it, which matters most. Indeed, although the Achilles’ heel of the GhostNet system allowed us to monitor and document its far-reaching network of infiltration, we can safely hypothesize that it is neither the first nor the only one of its kind.

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China Isn’t The Biggest Buyer Of U.S. Debt

Beijing is not the biggest buyer of U.S. government debt, though you would scarcely believe it from reading the public prints. U.S. money market funds bought  three times as much of U.S. Treasuries and Agencies last year as China, $942 billion vs $283 billion, according to Brad Setser at the Council On Foreign Relations. “I am waiting for a round of stories pondering whether money market funds will continue to buy Treasuries and Agencies at their 2008 pace,” he wryly notes.

The comparison may be an anomaly. The credit crisis has disrupted the markets for  money market funds’ usual fare, CDs and commercial paper. The oversubscription of this week’s U.S. Treasury auctions suggest that the forced flight to safety is continuing.

Despite misgivings about the dollar, China is also continuing to buy U.S. debt though it is buying only Treasuries now. At some point, Setser reckons, “the reallocation of China’s portfolio toward Treasuries will eventually run its course – and China’s Treasury purchases will start to track its reserve growth”.  The bigger question for the U.S. will be whether Americans will stop buying Treasuries.

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Australia Nixes One Chinese Mining Investment, Two Left

Of the three outstanding Chinese investments in Australian mining companies facing government review, one has just bitten the dust. China Minmetals Group’s A$2.6 billion offer for OZ Minerals has been blocked on national security grounds. One of OZ’s main mines is close to Woomera, Australia’s weapons testing site. The deal would have to be rejigged without that mine to get approval, which is unlikely.

Canberra still has to decide on Hunan Valin Iron and Steel’s plan to take a 17.6%  stake in Fortescue Metals Group for $770 million, and — the big one — Chinalco’s $19.5 billion investment in Rio Tinto. That faces opposition both in the country and the Senate, where the government does not control a majority and whose economic committee last week opened an inquiry into Australia’s foreign-investment laws.

A decision by Treasurer Wayne Swan on the advice of the Foreign Investment Review Board has been pushed out till June. Question is whether that gives time for the opposition to blow itself out, or to build itself up.

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China, A New Global Currency And The IMF As The World’s Central Banker

Our man in New York tells us that U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was caught off guard by a question at a Council On Foreign Relations discussion there on China’s recent trial balloons about the need for a global reserve currency that wasn’t the dollar. This was odd, our man reports, as Geithner’s boss, the U.S. President, had emphatically dismissed the idea the evening before when asked something similar at a White House press conference.

We recall there was a bit of a flap when Geithner said during his confirmation hearings earlier this year that his boss believed China to be a currency manipulator. So there is some previous for the two not being on the same page, and the Treasury secretary does have quite a bit to occupy his mind at the moment. But that all sent this Bystander to re-read recent speeches of People’s Bank of China Governor, Zhou Xiaochuan, who has been one of those promoting the the idea of a new reserve currency based on the International Monetary Fund’s Special Drawing Rights, as we previously noted.

What caught our eye in his speech on reforming the international monetary system, was not so much that, or even China’s apparent willingness to buy SDR-denominated bonds, which would certainly help the evolution of SDRs into a recognizable currency, but Zhou’s notion that some countries’ foreign exchange reserves should be managed by the IMF.

Now it would be an extraordinary step for any country, especially China and the U.S., to give up sovereign control over part of their reserves — extraordinary to the point of incredible to our minds — though we can see how it would help provide an element of stability to world financial markets and also create the kernel of the wherewithal for something any new global reserve currency would need, a lender of last resort. That is the intriguing aspect of Zhou’s speech.

There is growing support for a increase in SDR allocation as a way quickly to lift the reserves of countries suffering balance of payments strain in the current crisis, and even to do so each year. The use of SDRs in a wider range of financial instruments and transactions is also more or less a mainstream idea among economists now. But the very airing of the idea that the IMF could play the role of global central banker, and that China would suggest it given the harsh words it has had for the Fund in the past, is a sign of something shifting deep down.

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Nike Cuts China Suppliers

Here’s a straw in the wind, and a bad one at that. Nike is dropping three of its China suppliers because of the global slowdown in demand for its sports shoes and apparel, and saying that more may follow as part of a global restructuring now in review. Nike uses 180 suppliers in China, so four represents a tiny portion — less than 2% — but the company has weathered the fall off in consumer demand in rich countries better than most, at least until now.

All three suppliers make shoes and rely heavily on Nike for orders. Their contracts will be wound down over the next six months to a year to give them time to find new customers. Tough task right now, unless they can turn to the domestic market. Otherwise they will join the growing ranks of export-oriented companies — 62,000 in Guangdong alone last year — shuttering their doors for good.

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China Mulls A New Long-Term Alternative To The Dollar

Another straw in the wind that China’s central bankers are toying with the idea of an alternative to the dollar as the global reserve currency: Hu Xiaolian, director of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) and a central bank vice governor, says that the IMF could raise funds quickly by issuing bonds, and that China “would actively consider” purchasing such debt.

Any purchases would presumably be funded by swapping out of China’s large holdings of U.S. Treasuries ($1.95 trillion at end-2008). Recently, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao expressed concern about the safety of U.S. Treasuries, although China has little alternative at this point for recycling its trade surplus (as both he and Hu acknowledge).

Hu’s remarks follow those by central bank Governor Zhou Xiaochuan that the IMF should aim in the long term to create a non-sovereign reserve currency, and those of Russian officials who say that China is one of the nations backed its call for a discussion on how to replace the dollar as the world’s primary reserve currency.

The Fund already has a currency of sorts in its special drawing rights, but Zhou would have something more tradable in mind. IMF bonds would be a step in that direction as well as letting China respond to international calls for it to boost its financial support for the IMF so the Fund can provide more money to nations hard hit by the global financial crisis.

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Soldier Killed In Chongqing Reflects Rising Armed Crime

Civilian attacks on the military are uncommon, so the report that a soldier standing guard outside a garrison in Chongqing had been shot and killed and his machine gun stolen is notable. The official word is that there was one assailant, but some reports say there were multiple attackers and other soldiers wounded.

Police and the army are treating it as a terrorist attack, though it occurred away from the usual base of operations of the most likely suspects, separatist groups in Tibet and Xinjiang. Last year, two men drove a truck into a group of jogging policemen in Xinjiang, killing 16; that was blamed on Muslim Uighur separatists. This latest attack may have more to do with the rising tide of violent crime. Individuals aren’t allowed to own guns, but authorities have acknowledged the increasing presence of armed street gangs.

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