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Chinese private enterprise; communist party seeks greater control

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At a summit with China’s richest entrepreneurs in late 2018 Xi Jinping sought to allay concerns that the state had declared war on the country’s private sector. Although officials in Beijing had spent the previous year bringing to heel unruly tycoons, China’s president insisted that rumours of a forceful push for party influence in the private sector were untrue. He exhorted the business leaders to “take a pill of reassurance”.

The medicine has been hard to swallow. Since then the Communist Party has sought a more active hand in recruitment and business decisions. And after subduing a band of headstrong bosses at overextended financial conglomerates, the state is now taking aim at China’s tech billionaires, making it clear that outspoken critics will not be tolerated.

Mr Xi’s preoccupation has always been maintaining China’s social and financial stability. Keeping big business in check is part of that plan. It should come as no surprise that the state is now homing in on tech, which has expanded rapidly. Six of China’s 20 most valuable listed companies are tech firms and with billions of users they touch the lives and wallets of almost all citizens.

A reckoning for the sector began with what looked like a shot across the bows of China’s largest financial-technology group. The suspension by regulators on November 5th of Ant Financial’s $37bn initial public offering with less than 48 hours’ notice was at first interpreted merely as a warning to its founder, Jack Ma, who had previously criticised China’s state-owned banks. But on November 10th the publication of an extensive draft of new rules for technology groups laid bare the state’s ambitions to bring to heel not just Ant, but the whole of China’s tech industry.

Mr Xi’s relationship with China’s tycoons has always been troubled. When he became president in 2013, he inherited a corporate system replete with fraud, patchy regulation and surging debt. After the success of an anti-corruption campaign that mostly targeted officials, Mr Xi took aim at a group of businessmen who were ploughing huge sums into risky overseas investments. Purchases included SeaWorld, an American amusement-park group, and the Waldorf Astoria, a swish hotel in New York. Officials argued that many of these acquisitions were thinly disguised means to divert capital out of China. 

Many of the businessmen who once fancied themselves as a Chinese Warren Buffett are in prison or worse. Wu Xiaohui, the chairman of Anbang, which bought the Waldorf among other assets, was handed an 18-year prison sentence in 2018 for financial crimes. Ye Jianming, who attempted to buy a $9bn stake in Rosneft, a Russian oil producer, was detained in early 2018. His whereabouts is still unknown. Xiao Jianhua, a broker for China’s political elite who once controlled Baoshang Bank, was kidnapped by Chinese agents from his flat at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong in 2017 and is thought to be co-operating with authorities in the unwinding of his financial conglomerate.

The crackdown has put an abrupt end to a boom in global spending by Chinese firms: in 2016 there were $200bn-worth of overseas mergers and acquisitions, the figure in 2019 was less than a fifth of that. And under government pressure private groups have divested assets worth billions of dollars. hna, an airlines and logistics group that bought a large stake in Deutsche Bank and Hilton Worldwide, a hotel group, has sold assets worth over $20bn in recent years. Anbang Insurance was nationalised, putting the Waldorf under the ownership of China’s Ministry of Finance. Baoshang was taken over by the state and allowed to file for bankruptcy in August. Acquisitions of European football clubs by Chinese groups have all but ended.

Analysts have praised the way in which systemic risks posed by companies such as Anbang and hna appear to have been reduced on Mr Xi’s watch. Within China few dare to criticise him for his failings. Those who have done so have been dealt with severely. Ren Zhiqiang, a senior member of the Communist Party who once ran a state-owned property firm, penned a missive to friends earlier this year in which he referred to Mr Xi as a “naked clown”. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison in September for bribery and embezzlement.

The party has also been increasing its influence over private firms in more subtle ways. Under a strategy referred to as “party building”, firms have been asked to launch party committees, which can opine on whether a corporate decision is in line with government policy. The number of committees in publicly traded but privately controlled companies is still low. According to a survey of 1,378 Chinese listed firms by Plenum, a consultancy, of the 61% that were privately controlled only 11.5% had party-building clauses in their charters compared with 90% of state-owned firms.

Party invitation

Yet the prevalence of such committees looks likely to grow. In September Mr Xi asked for the private sector to “unite around the party”. A day later Ye Qing, vice-chairman of the All-China Federation of Industry and Commerce, a powerful organisation controlled by the Communist Party, issued a more detailed list of demands. He called for private groups to establish human-resources departments led by the party and monitoring units that would allow the party to audit company managers.

This might not affect all firms equally. “For big companies, there’s no negotiation. The party approaches you and you say yes,” says Joe Zhang, a business consultant who has sat on the boards of Chinese private and state corporations. However, he also argues that for most smaller firms, less visible and not as economically important, party cells are little more than a rubber stamp as profits will trump state influence on decision-making. Their influence may not necessarily be unwelcome either. One executive, whose company has a party committee, argues that by growing closer to the thinking of the party leadership, “we can steer the company accordingly”. This heads off potential clashes with the state.

So far there is little evidence to suggest that party committees have hurt profitability, says Huang Tianlei of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a think-tank. But increased party influence could inhibit some operations. “Innovation may be suppressed. More red tape can emerge. A firm can turn from profit-driven to goal-driven, sacrificing profitability,” says Mr Huang.

It is possible that party committees may soon play a larger role in tech firms. A raft of new regulations presents a more immediate threat. Ant is connected to hundreds of millions of people through its payments and lending platforms. Like other Chinese tech giants it holds precious data on customers as well as controlling a pipeline through which hundreds of billions of dollars are lent and spent. That such power lies in private hands is a source of tension between the party and entrepreneurs.

“These resources need to be tightly controlled and the political loyalty of the firms and entrepreneurs, not only to the regime but also to individual political leaders, needs to be strictly maintained,” says Sun Xin, an academic at King’s College London. “The case of Ant is just one manifestation of this underlying logic.”

The halting of Ant’s ipo was triggered by new draft regulations aimed at online micro lending. For Ant, the rules can only be interpreted as an attack on the firm’s lending platform, its biggest source of revenue. Mr Ma may regret comparing China’s banks to pawnshops in a speech in October. The comments infuriated senior officials and played a part in the hasty suspension of Ant’s ipo. But Mr Ma is not to blame for the latest onslaught of antitrust rules, although he may have sped up their arrival.

 

vie-ing for influence

The new rules, under consideration for some while, will for the first time explicitly apply monopoly controls on internet and e-commerce firms. For many years China’s antitrust laws have not exempted the groups but they have also not been targeted in monopoly cases. This has allowed a few companies to control large swathes of the digital economy. They also take aim at the structures that have allowed Chinese tech firms to raise capital overseas. Barred from allowing foreign investors to take direct stakes, for two decades virtually all capital-hungry tech groups have skirted the rules by using a “variable-interest entity” (vie) to link foreign cash to the Chinese market. The structure creates an offshore holding company into which foreigners invest. That company has a contractual agreement with an onshore firm to receive the economic benefits of the underlying assets.

The vie structure has long been tolerated by Chinese authorities, but without full legal recognition. Foreigners have virtually no recourse in China to claim rights to the assets they have invested in. Foreign funds have long been wary of the framework but most Chinese tech companies still use it to structure their overseas listings. The new antitrust rules could require companies to seek approval for such arrangements, calling into question whether vies will be permitted in the future and so the way that foreign capital will reach Chinese tech firms. The threat of withdrawing tacit approval for a vie is another way the state can intimidate firms and their owners.

Perhaps the new rules will humble the outspoken Mr Ma. He has not spoken publicly on the matter, but Ant has bent the knee and agreed to embrace the new regulations. Mr Xi has made clear that no company is too big, and no ipo too valuable, to be allowed to challenge the state. (Economist)



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StrEdge calls for SMART restructuring of businesses

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In a climate of unprecedented economic challenges, restructuring of businesses, from public enterprises to SMEs is critical, says the leadership of the StrEdge Group of Companies. In a press statement, StrEdge Group, which is a cluster of home-grown enterprises covering consultancy in Processes, People, Finance and Technology, notes that Business Process Reengineering (BPR), Human Resource Restructuring, Financial Restructuring and Automation are crucial not merely to support rebuilding the country but also from a long-term sustainability perspective.

“Multi-dimensional restructuring is a prudent and a tested method to come out of the difficult circumstances the entire country is facing right now.  This will create results in national interest if all can adopt SMART methodologies, from entrepreneurs to government hierarchy,” Group Director /CEO StrEdge Advisory, Sumedha Wijesekera notes in the press statement.

StrEdge which brings hands-on experience restructuring multiple businesses from corporates to SMEs, believes that a proper analysis of the existing banking finance structures of a business cannot be undermined. “The rising finance costs and all the macroeconomic constraints coupled with prevailing uncertainties have warranted restructures from both the business perspective as well as that of the bankers’,” observes Wijesekera.  From a business perspective, such restructuring would enable solutions for cash flow constraints, save bank interest cost, promote sustainable growth and more importantly, businesses to be future-ready to capture the market potential in the next upward curve of the economy, he says.

 From the bank’s perspective, restructuring helps to offer better structures with effective monitoring to match the business requirements, prevent NPLs and build up strong and more profitable relationships by being able to act as an advisor in this setting.

Furthermore, it is very important to revisit the costing of goods and services in any organisation in view of increased raw materials prices, exchange rates, finance cost, loss of sales, diminishing margins and loss of capacity. Introductions of dynamic price mechanisms for each product and service channel of today’s businesses, will give a lot of clarity for the leadership to manage them successfully.

 The StrEdge Group which has in depth experience in BPR covering multiple industries including both banks and non-banking financial institutions, believes that SMART restructuring will help organisations re-align their processes with present and future demands, says StrEdge Group Director, Janaka Epasinghe. The current demand to achieve more with less resources, has triggered this as a need, he adds.  “Eliminating waste, increasing the service levels, reduction in costs, increased visibility, internal and external customer satisfaction and future-readiness are few of the results that can be derived with this activity.  Furthermore, this will strengthen the sustainability of any organisation,” Epasinghe remarks.

 Current economic constraints have taken a huge toll on the human resource which is the heart of any organisation, compelling to revisit the HR pillar for sustainability and growth, observes Epasinghe who notes that if organisations are not in a position to compensate with economic benefits, it’s always important to bring other interventions to maintain productivity.

“The biggest bonus here is that even the workforce is ready to embrace changes despite the current challenging environment with a resilient mindset, which the leadership needs to capitalise on,” says the StrEdge Director.

 The foreign currency constraints and the lack of resources due to the brain drain in the IT industry have pushed certain organisations to successfully opt for less expensive technology solutions with the help from external and internal experts. “These interventions will give results within a shorter period of time with a very low budget.  Empowering the staff, cost reductions, visualisation, better service standards and increased profitability are some of the major benefits of these SMART technology interventions within a company,” observes StrEdge Tech Solutions Director/CEO, Udaya Samaradivakara. It will also help them to address multiple urgent needs from a people-process-finance and technology perspective, without waiting until times get better and this certainly will be a SMART option, notes Samaradivakara.

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Oil demand forecasts aren’t as bullish as they seem

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Oil has become an attractive alternative fuel because gas prices have soared. But Europe is rapidly replenishing its natural gas stockpiles.Recent revisions to oil demand forecasts aren’t as bullish as they might appear. Don’t get too excited about prices going up just yet.

The International Energy Agency, the US Energy Information Administration and the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries all updated their short-term outlooks in the past week. Two of them cut their demand estimates for both this year and next, with only the IEA breaking ranks to increase its forecasts. And it wasn’t just a minor tweak from the Paris-based agency. It revised oil demand higher for this year by a whopping 520,000 barrels a day, with most of that rolled forward into 2023 as well. On the face of it, that’s very bullish for oil.

But there are plenty of reasons to be cautious. First, let’s compare the actual outlooks from the three sets of analysts and put them in their historical context. The IEA’s revision sets its new demand number for 2022 roughly halfway between those of the other two agencies. It also brings its outlook pretty much back to where it saw things in March. So, although the IEA’s revision was big, it’s not out of line with others.

The other noticeable feature in the forecasts is that oil demand growth is disappearing fast, as the chart below illustrates. Global oil demand grew year on year by about 5 million barrels a day in the first quarter of the year — all three sources agree on that — but that increase is now evaporating.

That’s not entirely unexpected when you consider year on year comparisons. Oil demand at the start of 2021 was still adversely affected by the Covid pandemic, so a rebound at the beginning of this year was entirely reasonable. Then economic activity and travel eventually picked up later in 2021, so we would expect demand growth in the corresponding quarters of 2022 to ease.

-Bloomberg

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Digital Marketing Association of Sri Lanka hosts its 1st AGM

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The Digital Marketing Association of Sri Lanka (DMASL), Sri Lanka’s national body of digital marketers hosted its 1st Annual General Meeting on the 4th of August 2022. Umair Wolid was ceremoniously inducted as the new President of DMASL for the year 2022/2023 at the event. Additionally, a new Executive Committee was also appointed during the course of the event.

The DMASL was formed in 2021 in an effort to drive the growth of the digital marketing industry. The association plays a pivotal role in recognizing, representing, and supporting Sri Lanka’s digital marketing professionals. Since its inception, the DMASL has implemented professional standards, ethical guidelines and ensured best practices for Sri Lanka’s digital marketing industry.

The newly elected President of the DMASL commented on the event: “I am truly honoured and grateful to have been selected as President of the DMASL. I look forward to working with the entire digital marketing fraternity to help uplift the digital marketing industry in Sri Lanka. The DMASL was created as a platform for individuals to expand their knowledge and provide guidance on running digital businesses in an ethical manner. I look forward to the upcoming year and all the opportunities and challenges it will bring”.

The newly elected EXCO committee for the year 2022/23 includes; Kabeer Rafaideen, Muhammed Gazzaly, Niranka Perera, Rajitha Dahanayake, Jaque Perera, Prasad Perera, Udara Dharmasena, Lalinda Ariyaratna, Infas Iqbal, Amitha Amarasinghe, Sanjini Munaweera, Umair Wolid, Gayathri Seneviratne, Arjun Jeger, Shalendra Mendis and Shehan Selvanayagam.

Over the next year, the DMASL is looking to improve upon its previous efforts and continue implementing training sessions, knowledge sharing, and networking activities which will bring together different sectors in the industry.. The association will also be looking into integration of digital marketing into businesses, as it is an important element in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. Another key area of focus for the DMASL is working in tandem with selected Government Organisations to help strategize Digital firsts and Digital marketing driven projects.

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