There is a lot of action in the wake of China’s approval of a free trade zone in Shanghai. While not all of it is good, plenty of opportunities lie ahead, maybe even for Hong Kong, which otherwise could feel the sting of competition.
Premier Li Keqiang will preside over the opening of Shanghai’s new free trade zone on Sept. 29, ushering in reforms that range from easier conversion of the yuan to more liberal interest rates and relaxed restrictions on foreign investment. The FTZ is part of a plan by Li to shift the Chinese economy away from investment and exports and toward services and consumption as a means of sustaining growth. The reforms are also a way to transform Shanghai into a global financial center by 2020, which was first announced in 2009.
Li said at the World Economic Forum recently that “an important part of economic-system reform is financial reform. It is because it is such a complicated systematic project, it indicates China’s reform has entered a deep-water zone, or the most difficult phase.” While President Xi Jinping has not been thought likely by many economists and political strategists to change China drastically, Li had promised to open up China’s economy “no matter how deep the water.”
Hong Kong served in an FTZ capacity for more than a hundred years and is China’s biggest financial center. The rise of Shanghai means that the former crown colony will have to boost its competitiveness if it is not to be left behind, according to Asia’s richest man, Li Ka-shing, chairman of of Hong Kong-based Cheung Kong Holdings Ltd. and Hutchison Whampoa Ltd.
Li Ka-shing was reported saying that the new FTZ “will affect Hong Kong heavily.” There have been other rumblings about how Hong Kong must focus on economics rather than politics, or risk its reputation as a financial center.
However, John Blank, chief equity strategist for Zacks, said that since Hong Kong “has been free trade for over a century. It is already service driven.”
Blank regards the news about Shanghai as potentially huge. “It’s a major thing for China,” he said, calling it the biggest thing since the country opened up for reforms in the 1970s. And although many reports are downplaying its importance because of the less-than-breakneck pace of the reforms it will undertake, Blank said that Beijing’s cautious approach is a sign that the country is taking the reforms seriously.
Regardless of all the caveats and the slow pace of change, the mere announcement of the new FTZ, made in August, sent shares of companies with “Shanghai” in their names shooting skyward, whether they were connected with the new free trade zone or not. That’s created an additional $45 billion in value—more than the value of the entire Vietnam stock market—that former World Bank economist Andy Xie has termed a bubble. Investors need to be wary along those lines as they consider the FTZ’s opportunities.