When asked for his advice on how to survive the financial crisis, global investment guru Jim Rogers often tells his interlocutors: "Teach your children Mandarin." The 66-year-old financial commentator has practised what he preaches, in 2007 selling his mansion in New York and moving his family to Singapore.
"I am (in Asia) because this is the exciting part of the world. This is the future, and I want my children to grow up knowing Asia, and knowing things Chinese," he said during an interview from his exercise bike. Indeed, he said his five-year-old daughter is now a fluent Mandarin speaker.
He had thought about moving to China or Hong Kong, but decided against it because of air pollution, adding: "I don't want to breathe Hong Kong air."
Rogers, who is due to speak on regional investment opportunities at the Asian Financial Forum in Hong Kong on January 19-20, made his name and fortune with investment legend George Soros. In 1970 they co-founded Quantum Fund, which saw its portfolio gain 4,200% in 10 years.
In recent months, Rogers said, as the global financial crisis has unfurled, he has been buying shares in Chinese firms, his top choices being agriculture, water, infrastructure and tourism.
"Mao Zedong ruined agriculture. China has to spend hundreds of billions of dollars to repair and revitalize it," he said, referring to the Chinese communist leader's rural reforms in the 1950s, which led to famine, poverty and environmental destruction on a massive scale. The political and economic mess that followed the communist revolution in 1949 created abundant opportunities that Rogers said Chinese people jumped at as soon as they got the green light from the reformist leader Deng Xiaoping.
Rogers believes that Beijing has coped better so far than the U.S. and Europe, but says efforts by the communist government could be stymied by the fact that the Chinese yuan is not fully convertible. "You need the free flow of capital to become a fully developed major world currency. That is a mistake the Chinese are still making," he said.
Despite his optimism, there is growing concern about how resilient the Chinese economy really is with its heavy reliance on exports and foreign direct investment. Francis Lun, general manager and financial analyst at Fulbright Securities, noted that China's exports had halved since September last year as demand from the U.S. and Europe plunges.Loss of export businesses has led to massive layoffs and factory closures in China's all-important export-oriented manufacturing sector, he said.
"The number of jobs lost in the Pearl River delta alone is in the millions. And we are talking about low-skilled laborers from the poor rural areas of the country who will find it extremely difficult to get a new job over the next few months," Lun said.
While the Chinese authorities have expressed confidence in their new measures for encouraging domestic spending, some recent economic data suggested the reality might be harsher than expected, Lun said. The volume of property sales in Shenzhen plunged 50% in 2008, compared to the year earlier. The growth in car sales, another cogent indicator of economic health, kept plumbing new lows, he said.
Despite the gloomy projections for China as an economy closely enmeshed with consumption in the United States and Europe, Rogers spares his pessimism for U.S. president-elect Barack Obama's plans to help remedy economic woes. He derides Obama's tax plans, and is equally critical of the economic advisers Obama has brought into his cabinet, saying they "are the same people who caused the problems. They are going to make things worse."
Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2009