Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The rich get richer...

And also more visible.

I recently came upon the staggering statistic that China was reckoned to have around 2,000 renminbi billionaires at the end of 2010, nearly twice as many as in the preceding year. And in 2008, the official number of the country's billionaires had been just 24!

Now, sure, a lot of people made a pile of money off the Olympics; and even more have done so courtesy of the huge government-backed infrastructure projects with which the country defended itself against the effects of the global recession over the next few years. But did the number of billionaires really sky-rocket 80-fold in just two years? No, I suspect a lot of that gilded elite had passed the billion-renminbi threshold years before, but are just now starting to become less bashful about the fact (perhaps because they're feeling secure about the escape routes to Canada or wherever that they've set up for themselves, in case the taxman or the regulator starts asking too many awkward questions).

According to last year's Hurun Report - China's leading 'Rich List' survey - Shanghai alone has 350 renminbi billionaires. Wikipedia, somewhat behind the times for once, it seems, maintains that only 115 Chinese mainlanders have yet passed the US$1 billion mark; but an expat magazine in Chengdu has recently cited Hurun as claiming that there are now an astonishing 7,500 renminbi billionaires, around 600 of whom are said to be dollar billionaires (however, it omits to give any reference for these figures, and I can't find them on the Hurun site; their annual China Rich List, which comes out in September, usually only gives information on the wealthiest 1,000 or so individuals). Hurun's just published 'Global Rich List' says that China's 5 wealthiest individuals have now surpassed a net worth of US$10 billion, joining an elite club with just 83 members worldwide; though they're still a long way short of breaking into the Top 10 (Mark Zuckerberg is the newest entrant, with a personal wealth assessed at US$26 billion).

Now, those figures I opened with - 2,000 billionaires in 2010 as against 24 in 2008 - came to me via one of my employers, a management consultancy; so, I have no idea what the original source was, and I take them with a very large grain of salt.

Most of the statistics these folks give me to work with are, erm... extremely soft, to say the least. If I were being harsher, I might say fudged, flawed, unreliable, or plucked from an overworked researcher's fever dream.

I had to do a lot of tiresome re-writes on my latest piece for them about China's wealthy elites because they'd chosen to update some of their figures after they'd sent me the data they wanted me to write up. Well, not update: the figures were still a year or two out-of-date (which is a lot for anything to do with China, since things move so quickly here). No, they had chosen to change some of the category definitions they were using; although High Net-Worth Individual is a commonly used concept, conventionally defined as someone having investable assets in excess of US$1 million, they decided to produce a new variant of their own with the bar set at US$1.5 million (perhaps because that approximates quite neatly to RMB10 million?).

The curious thing is that this had resulted in the number of HNWIs doubling - for a similar survey sample, in the same year. None of their analysts or researchers seemed to think there was anything ODD about this. So, be warned - all such figures coming out of China should be treated with a certain scepticism.

[Even more bizarrely, these new sets of figures showed almost zero growth in this segment from 2010 to 2015. A lot more dollar millionaires seem to be expected to migrate into the "ultra-wealthy" category (defined as having assets in excess of US$30 million), but new millionaires would barely be emerging at more than a bare replacement level, and the number of HNWIs would remain below 1,000,000. This completely contradicted the original figures I'd been given - and hence the whole tenor of the article I'd written based on them - which projected continued strong growth in the domestic luxury market over the next few years. When I pointed this out, the powers-that-be decided to ignore the newer research ("obviously flawed"), and revert to the more optimistic assessments we'd been using originally. I am intrigued - baffled! - as to how this kind of thing can happen.  

And note, this is not Chinese sleight-of-hand I'm talking about here; foreign companies are every bit as capable of blinkered over-optimism and tactical (self-)deception.]


John said...

How ever (and whomever) they parade these figures out it doesn't impress me, we all know it's the wealth divide that counts. Sure, some might bang on about how we need these ultra-rich to invest in projects in order to create growth but it's been a long time since the exploitations of the industrial revolution in Britain and China is only going through a similar stage only now. If a Chinese company can show me sustained growth alongside a morally sound business model then I might take note. I still stand by my theory that China is at least 100 years behind Britain in so many aspects no matter how much of a change has occurred and I haven't seen that gap start to close yet.

Froog said...

I've always suspected "morally sound" and "business model" are fundamentally incompatible concepts. But then, I am a bit of an anarcho-socialist at heart.

My confrontational buddy Big Frank used to like going in to high school and university 'Meet the foreigner talking monkey' type classes and say, "How far is China behind the West in its development? About 30 years? How long was Mao in power? Draw your own conclusions."

In terms of the moral framework, you can't put a number on it: hundreds, thousands of years behind.