Opinion

George Chen

China is still waiting for inflation to peak

George Chen
Aug 31, 2011 06:44 UTC

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

How time flies. It’s already the end of August and speculations naturally arise about what China’s inflation reading will be for this month.

The most optimistic view these days is that the August Consumer Price Index (CPI) could decline to below 6 percent. The most pessimistic view I’ve heard is that growth has slowed down in August, but probably only to 6.2 percent or 6.3 percent.

But, why should we care about the August CPI so much? One month cannot tell the whole story.

The reason we care so much is because if the August CPI growth slows down (we will see the official release of August economic data in the coming weeks), it’s good news for the central bank as well as for the ordinary people in China who have been fighting with fast inflation for more than three years already. But, it’s not good enough.

Yesterday, amid market talks about August CPI, I heard something interesting from Mengniu, China’s top dairy product maker: “We are confident we can at least maintain (first-half) margin levels in the second half,” Mengniu Chief Financial Officer Wu Jingshui told reporters after the company’s first-half earnings release. He added the company might raise product prices and adjust its product mix to offset an estimated 3 to 5 percent rise in raw milk costs in 2011.

Inflation-hit Chinese go abroad to shop

George Chen
Jul 11, 2011 06:32 UTC

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

It’s been a month since my last column on Reuters.com as I have been on the road for a while.

When I travel in New York and London, my identity is more like that of a consumer with a dash of journalistic observation. People usually say Hong Kong is a shopping paradise but in my view, Hong Kong is no longer my favorite city for shopping. For U.S. fashion brands such as Cole Haan or Banana Republic, prices are much cheaper in New York. It’s the same for London if you’re a big fan of Burberry or Paul Smith.

The American people I know complain far less about the financial crisis than two or three years ago. Instead, some of them say they actually enjoy some of the benefits. Rents are cheaper. Food is cheaper. Transport companies are unable to raise ticket prices.

One country, two problems

George Chen
May 23, 2011 04:51 UTC

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

There’s a new problem with the “one country, two systems” policy for Hong Kong and mainland China — the appreciation of the yuan can ease inflation in mainland China but not in Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, the former British colony that returned to Beijing’s hands in 1997, things unfortunately work the other way round.

Peter Wong, HSBC’s Asia-Pacific top boss (and widely considered the most handsome banker in Hong Kong) said at a forum in Shanghai last week that because the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, whose value is falling almost every day, food prices in Hong Kong are set to increase as Hong Kong needs to pay more to import food products from the mainland.

The dilemma between pay rise and inflation

George Chen
May 4, 2011 09:20 UTC

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

First, we were worried about inflation in mainland China. Now it seems Hong Kong’s inflation situation in coming months looks no better. I blame the worsening problem partly on the city’s first-ever minimum wage law, effective May 1.

As I study international political economy at the University of Hong Kong, my professor and classmates do know I am a free market fan and don’t believe a minimum wage will help Hong Kong’s economy and boost employment, as some Hong Kong lawmakers assert.

The sad truth is I went to buy my favorite Pearl Milk Tea on May 1 and found it was 2 Hong Kong dollars (about US$0.26) more expensive. Then I went to check out McDonald’s — prices for some of its burgers and drinks have also risen about 2-3 percent. And last night, local media said taxi and tram fares were going to rise in the former British colony too!

Income gap matters

George Chen
Apr 12, 2011 03:07 UTC

PaulsonBy George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

We’ve been talking about accelerating inflation for some time, and it has resulted in another tough issue for the government to address — with much care — the growing income gap between rich and poor.

Income disparities in some affluent cities such as Hong Kong have apparently reached a critical point, with frequent protests in the former British colony. Last weekend, a group of the so-called post-1980 generation of young people went to Central to protest the wealth imbalance. They even attempted to break into Cheung Kong Centre before the police arrived and stopped them.

They viewed Cheung Kong Centre, home to many large banks like Barclays Plc and BNP Paribas, as well as the offices of Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest and also the city’s most powerful man, as a symbol of the imbalance. I was told by friends in mainland China that a similar anti-rich atmosphere is also brewing fast in big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where relatively poorer people are complaining about inflation, especially rising property prices and rents.

From noodles to gasoline, inflation is not just an issue in China

George Chen
Apr 8, 2011 05:42 UTC

noodlesBy George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

These days I’m increasingly convinced that inflation is not just a China issue but a global problem and one that is becoming worse.

Yesterday when I posted a photo of rice noodles on my Chinese Twitter-like mini blogging account, I didn’t expect it would lead to quite such an active online discussion. I paid HK$16 (about US$2) for the bowl of noodles in the canteen of the University of Hong Kong (HKU). My friends from Geneva to New York to Shanghai “complained” that the price was way too cheap.

Well, the University Canteen is intended for students and I am indeed a HKU post-graduate student, part-time.

The next 48 hours

George Chen
Mar 29, 2011 03:32 UTC

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

What might you do in the next 48 hours in China? A number of things — how about rushing to nearby supermarkets to stock up on soap and shampoo if you are a price-sensitive consumer?

No kidding!

Retail prices for those products are set to rise sharply in China from next month. At least two industry leaders — Procter & Gamble and Unilever — were reported by Chinese media to have decided to lift detergent and soap prices by up to 15 percent next month.

State television on Monday showed images of empty store shelves in some cities as residents raced to hoard P&G and Unilever products before the price rises went into effect.

Dairy and property: How Japan’s crisis is affecting China

George Chen
Mar 17, 2011 09:06 UTC
Chinese moms While the rest of the world is trying to help Japan deal with the aftermath of its earthquake and tsunami, some parents in China and Hong Kong are on a single-minded quest to buy up as much made-in-Japan baby formula as they can. On my way to work on Monday morning, I saw a long queue of anxious-looking people in front of a grocery store. Over the following three days, the queue got longer and longer and more and more anxious. They were all after the same thing – baby formula from Japan. This is simply because some Chinese parents believe their babies are accustomed to drinking Japanese milk and they are concerned that radiation may affect the quality of exports from Japan in coming months Hong Kong media reported that retail prices for some Japanese baby formula have risen more than 30 percent this week. At present, the market price is about HK$250 (US$32) for a standard container and some retailers are reportedly limiting purchases to six per person to avoid angering latecomers. In this case, parents called on relatives, even elderly grandparents, to join the queue on their behalf (which works if you have many relatives and friends who are willing to help). Of course, Hong Kong parents are not alone in this concern. A fast-growing number of parents in mainland China are on a similar quest and they don’t mind paying HK$2,000 (US$256) for a round-trip ticket from major mainland cities to Hong Kong to buy made-in-Japan products. People in Hong Kong, may soon face a bigger disappointment as a result of Japan’s earthquake – the possibility of property prices rising even further and faster. Local property agents say they have noticed some landlords want to increase rents, especially in downtown areas such as Admiralty and the Mid-levels, which are within minutes of Hong Kong’s Central financial and business district, where many international banks have their regional headquarters. Global financial firms including Blackstone, BNP Paribas and Royal Bank of Scotland are relocating foreign staff, especially senior executives, from Tokyo to neighboring bases to avoid the possibility of radiation exposure. These executive typically head to Singapore, Hong Kong and Beijing, with most apparently happier to choose Hong Kong, if not Singapore. Rents in Hong Kong are already a social problem, making the city one of the most expensive places in the world in which to live. The government has been trying to cool prices since late last year. With more rich but timorous bankers being relocating to Hong Kong from Tokyo and so far no indication of when they might return to Japan, the outlook for the property market in Hong Kong looks bullish. I’m not saying this isn’t a positive  trend, but given what is happening to the lives of ordinary people in Hong Kong and China, the crisis in Japan is becoming a crisis for Asia, if not the rest of the world. If the nuclear crisis cannot be contained and people lose confidence in crisis management and post-crisis protection, a chain reaction may be seen in many areas beyond dairy and property prices.

Japan

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

While the rest of the world is trying to help Japan deal with the aftermath of its earthquake and tsunami, some parents in China and Hong Kong are on a single-minded quest to buy up as much made-in-Japan baby formula as they can.

On my way to work on Monday morning, I saw a long queue of anxious-looking people in front of a grocery store. Over the following three days, the queue got longer and longer and more and more anxious.

My Shanghai holiday

George Chen
Mar 10, 2011 02:35 UTC

food

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

While Chinese lawmakers gathered in Beijing for the annual parliamentary meeting, I returned to my hometown Shanghai for a holiday.

The  lawmakers are keen to discuss China’s macroeconomic matters these days, but I am more interested in being a microeconomic observer. For example, how much does an apple cost in Shanghai these days?

During my holiday, I brought my girlfriend, a Hong Kongner, to Shanghai No.1 Food Store on the historic Nanjing Road. The store is a favorite place from my childhood as I felt I could buy food items from all over the world under one roof.

Why property prices in China won’t fall

George Chen
Feb 25, 2011 08:01 UTC

property

By George Chen
The opinions expressed are the author’s own.

Let’s face it — it appears there is only upside for property prices in China.

Chinese officials from Premier Wen Jiabao on down to small city mayors have been telling the public they will try their best to keep property prices under control and have indeed done much in the past 12 months via tightening monetary policy and government restrictions on property purchases. The result? Unfortunately, the more they talk, the more disappointed Chinese people feel.

The People’s Bank of China, the country’s central bank, has so far raised bank required reserve ratios (RRR) nine times since January 1 last year. The most recent on February 18 brought the RRR to a record 19.5 percent. The theory is that as banks place more money with the central bank, market liquidity should tighten and buying power for everything, not just property, should weaken.

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