That is the average annual return from investing in the MCSI China index since March 31 1998. This despite 40% average annual returns in the past five years.
I use this startlingly data point to make a much larger point. Sometimes large economic trends do not make great investments. And obvious top down trends don’t always make good investments.
I believe China faces some serious headwinds going forward. Everyone seems to think China can spend anything it wants on commodities such as oil, iron ore, copper, etc., but they don’t. And when you add in the fact that China is about to start importing vast amounts of food as well and that they have a problem with water and one realizes that the country has serious import problems to overcome. And this doesn’t even take into account, the lack of accounting standards, mounting banking problems, a surging gap between between rural and urban Chinese and a lack of clear private property laws.
So before commentators and so-called experts try to convince you to invest in something hot like China consider the longer term record of investing in the country and look deeper into some of the issues affecting the country, you might be surprised by what you learn.
For the record, I have no investments in China or any company listed anywhere that has major operations in China. For reasons I cite above, I believe there are better risk/reward situations elsewhere, especially in North America.
This post reminds me of an article I read several years ago on the trade website 401kwire (bear with me for a moment, and you'll see where I'm going with this.) At the time, I was working in business development for a start-up company in the 401(k) industry. As a web-based, mostly paper-less enterprise, my company could profitably administer retirement plans for small companies. One of the bullet points we mentioned to potential investors was that (I forget the exact numbers) 80% of American small businesses with fewer than 100 employees didn't have a retirement plan, and that represented a huge potential market for us (of course, a significant percentage of these small business had high turnover, or low-paid workforces that could make a 401k impractical, etc.). After a couple of years at this company, 401kwire published an article in which the writer called the small plan market the "China" of the 401(k) industry. The writer dug up a quote from the late 19th Century by an officer of an American company that manufactured matchbooks, in which the American businessman spoke about the potential profits from selling matchbooks to however many Chinese there were back then. His point, of course, was that sometimes markets that look like huge potential opportunities remain potential opportunities (as opposed to actual ones) for a long time.
Edelheit makes some good points about the challenges facing China, and the risks of investing directly in the country, but I think there are ways to profit from the industrialization of China indirectly, by investing in companies based outside of China that are positioned to benefit from this trend (e.g., companies exporting food or raw materials to China, etc.).