Invest in China’s Geeks and Guts

China’s role in the global economy is bigger than ever. Even amid a global depression, China’s potential is mind-bogglingly vast. What follows are some thoughts on China’s potential – and a good way to play one of China’s growth industries, even now…

If China’s economy continues to grow at its current rate, it will pass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy in 18 years. Of course, it won’t grow at its current rate for 18 years – not continuously, anyway. It will grow somewhat slower in spots and sometimes faster. What growth rate comes out in the end is anybody’s guess, but the 18-year guess will probably be off.

Then again, the guess also assumes the U.S. stays where it is. And that is also unlikely. The U.S. economy shrank last year and looks to shrink again in 2009. Meanwhile, China is one of the few big economies still growing, though at a slower pace. The result is that China will actually make up ground faster in 2009. As Ting Lu, a Merrill Lynch economist based in Hong Kong, notes: “In 2007, the gap between the growth rates of China and other big countries was huge. Actually, in 2009, the gap between will be even bigger.”

As the Great Depression II continues to lay siege to the world’s economies, China remains a coiled spring of growth. Even though China is now the world’s second- or third-largest economy, it still is a relatively poor country. And its resources are barely tapped.

The vast potential of China is hard to grapple with. Already, China has built the world’s largest building (Beijing’s airport terminal) and its longest transoceanic bridge. It has the world’s fastest train and the biggest dam. As John Pomfret, former bureau chief for The Washington Post in Beijing, observes: “It is a nation of builders, of grand schemes, of gigantism.” He calls China’s engineers “some of the world’s biggest risk-takers. Geeks with guts.”

The Qinghai-Tibet railway was another engineering feat. Chinese engineers, already considered the best railway builders in the world, built a railway on the complex and shifting permafrost linking Llasa with Golmud in China’s western hinterlands. The railway stretches hundreds of miles across a treacherous plateau.

Author Abrahm Lustgarten in China’s Great Train describes the area as one of “intermittently frozen marshes, lakes and soggy permafrost that heave and shift more actively than almost any other geologic environment on Earth.” In places, the quicksand is deep enough to swallow a tank. It is also higher than any other railway on Earth – at its peak, more than 16,600 feet above sea level. The cars of the train are pressurized as in an airplane, with oxygen pumped in.

After this stretch of the Qinghai-Tibet railway opened in 2006, the riches of Tibet started to come to light. The Ministry of Land and Resources disclosed huge resource finds – big veins of copper, zinc, lead, iron, gold, silver and other minerals.

“The new reserves make Tibet one of the richest regions in China’s territory,” Lustgarten writes, “and could shift the country’s reliance on imports of copper and iron altogether.” Tibet could hold 40 million pounds of copper – one-third of China’s total. There is more than a billion tons of high-grade iron ore.

Again, Lustgarten: “Among the discoveries in Tibet was China’s first substantial rich-iron supply, a seam called Nyixung, which alone is expected to contain as much as 500 million tons – enough to put an expected 20% of Chinese iron importers out of business.”

More than just minerals, there is also an abundance of oil. Sinopec estimates some 65 billion barrels of oil will become accessible in Tibet. “A find, that if proven,” Lustgarten writes, “would make the region one of the next great petroleum envies in the world.”

What makes these projects economic now is the Qinghai-Tibet railway. Many Canadian and Australian companies already have joint ventures in place to mine the plateau.

The economy boomed in Llasa, too, thanks to the railway. The number of restaurants and bars in Llasa increased over 20% within a year of the railroad’s completion. More than a million tourists took the train west to Llasa. Where it was once hard to find a hotel room in Llasa, over 660 hotels sprouted up after the railway. One, the Brahmaputra Grand, is a luxurious hotel with crystal chandeliers the size of Volkswagens and 50-foot tall plastic palm trees. A night here set you back $1,100.

Tibet industry up to that time was mostly in trading yak tails, fur and salt. And now, it looks as if Tibet will play the role of China’s great western frontier, much like America west of the Mississippi in the 19th century.

There will be and is an ugly side to all of this that I’ve not talked about – the suppression of ethnic Tibetans and the weakening of a very old culture. China, though, continues to build and build. As Lustgarten notes: “The western outposts are linked by an expanding transportation infrastructure – roads, power transmission lines, pipelines and railways – built at a rate that makes Dwight Eisenhower look lazy.”

But as with the rest of world, the pace has cooled. The fingers of depression wander all over the globe. No one can say how long it will take to work out of this mess.

However, some hopeful signs emerged recently. The China Electricity Council reports that electricity consumption rose nearly 7% in December, year over year. If no one has doctored up those numbers, that would be the first such increase since July. And there is some anecdotal evidence that housing prices in China are on the rise again.

Nonetheless, over the long term, China has lots of room and resources to grow. We got a glimpse of the implications of that growth in the last several years – the huge pull on resources such as oil, for instance. At the moment, economic depression has set in most everywhere. But longer term, it seems foolish to bet against the great dragon in the East.


Chris Mayer
for Markets and Money

P.S. I mentioned above that China’s electricity usage was up. There is opportunity in that. A slowing economy has not stopped China from investing in energy projects. China’s power demand is still growing. And China overall increased spending on power grids by 18% last year…

Chris Mayer
Chris Mayer is a veteran of the banking industry, specifically in the area of corporate lending. A financial writer since 1998, Mr. Mayer's essays have appeared in a wide variety of publications, from the Daily Article series to here in Markets and Money. He is the editor of Mayer's Special Situations and Capital and Crisis - formerly the Fleet Street Letter.

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3 Comments on "Invest in China’s Geeks and Guts"

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Greg Atkinson
I think the issue with China is that much of the construction work is done/overseen and or the projects designed by non Chinese companies. The point is that China is not moving up the value chain very quickly in terms of products it exports but it’s labor costs etc are rising. This means China is slowly becoming less competitive and even now some companies are relocating production to places like Vietnam. Whenever I read about the China “miracle” I think back to all the hype written about the Asian “tiger economies” in the 1990’s. Just as the Asian economic crisis… Read more »
Coffee Addict
Chris your China post is a must read for any resource investor. I share the view that China has a great long term future although the impact of the credit depression is greatly understated (as it is In Australia). China is politically fracturous at the present time. My gut feel is, however, that China will in become cohesive in the longer term . Generational (political) change must of course happen first. Educated dotcomers will eventually take over the reigns and they will hold different views and values to current Politburo members. The strange thing is that current powerbrokers in China… Read more »

Passenger rail cars in Tibet are not pressurized. The air is oxygen-enriched, but is maintained at ambient atmospheric.

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