Thursday, April 26, 2007

Democracy in China... of sorts

Over time I have been increasing the portion of my stock investments on issues outside of the United States. This can be accomplished in a variety of ways, most particularly with ETF's or low-cost mutual funds that can specialize by country or type of industry.

In the portfolios that I run for my nephews I select individual stocks and look for stocks that trade as ADR's which allow them to be easily bought and sold on US markets like the NYSE and NASDAQ (even though the stock really trades on its home market). Some of the international ADR's that I own include 1) Toyota 2) BHP (Australian mining company) 3) ICICI (Indian Bank) and... China Mobile.

It is proxy season and I usually just chuck out these forms because voting for a corporation when you have only a few shares is generally a waste of time because the company controls what is on the ballot and only if there is a massive groundswell do they consider listening to shareholders. Corporate "voting" isn't exactly as meaningful as it was in Athens in the days of direct democracy...

But as I held this form in my hand, about to shred it, something hit me - this was as close to actual voting and elections that they allow in China today! While you can't elect a representative government, capitalism and the desire to raise funds overseas (which has been a big win for China) is causing them to at least take on the minimum level of good corporate governance and begin protecting shareholder rights. The ability to raise equity funds through IPO's buys China a lot of breathing room since it makes it less likely that they'll have to use public funds to pay off bad and under performing loans that riddle their loss-plagued state owned enterprises.

I usually don't put much stock in the "engagement" line of analysis which says that the best way to change a repressive regime is to trade and work with it, and then it changes from within. This method works very poorly against an entrenched, authoritarian government. In this case, however, for a moment I thought that this might actually make a difference if shareholder rights and the right of law become better protected in China.

In an era when Putin is poisoning / assassinating his opponents and locking up peaceful demonstrators it is good to at least have a ray of hope for change in China. And all to make more money, perhaps a drive as strong as the drive for control.

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