China is becoming the new America, while America is becoming the old China. Jack Perkowski thinks it’s happening right now. Jack is an Old China Hand and a colleague in the automotive parts business. He’s an American and a Yale graduate. Fifteen years ago, he came to China and started ASIMCO, an auto component manufacturing company. In January, Perkowski left the company. The global decline in the business didn’t spare ASIMCO. Perkowski is a true Lao Wai, which literally translates into “Old Foreigner” in Mandarin. From one of the first in China, we inherited a lot of his experience. Some is chronicled in Perkowski’s book Managing the Dragon, which made the bestseller lists. Most is regularly updated in Perkowski’s blog that goes by the same name. In a recent post, he left us some interesting thoughts. Some may find them revolting, even seditious.
During my time here, China has become the third largest economy in the world, the world’s largest market for cars, computers, cell phones and a host of other products, and the country has accumulated $2 trillion of foreign currency reserves. China is now the single largest investor in the United States, unthinkable in 1994 when China had less than $50 billion of reserves.
As the single largest creditor, is China worried about where the U.S. of A. are going? Perkowski sure thinks so:
Given all that has transpired, the leaders at Zhongnanhai must be scratching their heads, wondering what their counterparts in the United States are up to. It began with Enron, Worldcom, Tyco and a host of accounting scandals. In a flash, the financial statements of Chinese companies were just as believable and just as transparent, if not more so, than those of U.S. companies. Then it was Bear Stearns, Lehman, AIG, Bank of America, Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae, Citicorp and the meltdown of the U.S. financial industry. Hoping to learn how to develop its own financial system, China encouraged investments in its state-owned banks by leading U.S. players. Maybe they aren’t such good examples to follow after all?
While China is trying to divest itself from state-owned companies, what is China’s largest debtor doing? Just the opposite.
But the sharp left turn that the Obama Administration has taken since coming to power must really have China’s leaders wondering. Not just the banks, but now large industrial companies, are owned by the U.S. government, and the United States is doing what any government does when it owns companies—it meddles, and political, not economic, considerations are taking precedence.
The takeover of the car industry by the US government reminds Perkowski of the bad old days in China. The courts ignoring the law? Employment for the working masses trumps turning a profit? Where does one still find these egregious practices?
Rather than let the bankruptcy system work as it has over the years to restructure companies, billions of dollars, much of which will never be recovered, have been pumped into General Motors and Chrysler, two companies that represent less than 30 percent of the U.S. automobile market and have been losing market share to foreign-owned companies that now also happen to manufacture in the United States-all in the name of saving the jobs of the United Auto Workers, whose support played an important role in getting the current administration elected.
Central planners deciding the direction of the companies? Heads of state-owned enterprises serving at the pleasure of party bosses?
An administration-appointed car czar, not the company’s board of directors, has fired the General Motors chairman and CEO and installed a new CEO, president and chairman. General Motors is told what plants it cannot close and where its offices should be located. Barney Frank personally called the General Motors CEO to reverse a decision to close a GM distribution facility in his district, and President Obama himself assured Detroit’s mayor that GM’s headquarters would remain in Detroit, rather than move to a neighboring suburb. Undoubtedly, the Obama Administration and Congress will tell their management appointees what types of cars GM should produce. Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Hyundai and their U.S. workers must be delighted with this turn of events.
At least we can find solace in the fact that there still is justice in America. Perkowski is beginning to have his doubts.
As for the vaunted ‘rule of law’ that the United States has been known for, ask the GM and Chrysler secured bondholders what they think. And as for manufacturing statistics—Americans are being told that the administration will ‘save or create’ 600,000 jobs this summer, a statistic that the Wall Street Journal has labeled an ‘immeasurable metric.’
I there anything that doesn’t remind Perkowski of the times before Deng Xiaoping? Yes. China was never ruled by Russian Emperors, who were famous for mistreating their serfs:
A newly appointed pay czar (there are now more than 20 such ‘czars’ in Washington) will now review the compensation of the top 100 managers of any company that has received support from the government.
So what does Perkowski suggest?
Somewhere along the line, the United States picked up that socialist economic playbook that Deng Xiaoping was smart enough to throw away. Perhaps the U.S. should ‘follow Deng’ and go back to what got the United States, and now China, to where it is today?