Home > Economics, Finance, Foreign Policy, Politics > Steve Wynn Misses the Point

Steve Wynn Misses the Point

…in proclaiming the Chinese government more favorable to investors than the U.S. government.  Wynn proclaimed that “Macau has been steady. The shocking, unexpected government is the one in Washington” along with a handful of other choice words directed at the U.S. government’s handling of the credit crisis.

Of course Steve Wynn likes working in China.  He’s dealing only in Macau, a province much like Hong Kong in that it is one of the “one country, two systems” regions in China.  Macau enjoys freedom and liberties unthinkable on mainland China.  To equate Macau with all of China is just wrong.  Moreover, to equate China with the United States is not only morally reprehensible, but economically naive.  Question the economic policy of the U.S. government all you want, but this country unquestionably has one of the least spotty human rights records.   Sure from Steve Wynn’s perspective tax policy is important.  But there are serious risks when dealing with a country that can change its stance towards your business and your customers on a whim.  Until China improves its track record on human rights and civil liberties there will be an implicit risk to any investment in the country.  Of course totalitarianism opens the door for profit opportunities.  Favoritism, protectionism and corruption, all inherent elements of totalitarianism, come with exceptional money-making opportunities.  It’s easy that way!  But watch out, because as quickly as you can come into favor and profits, you can fall out of it.

Not too long ago CNBC’s Jim Cramer said something echoing that sentiment and I offered Cramer the following fake news story in response:

A new survey of portfolio managers revealed a shocking new trend developing in the investment universe: portfolio managers prefer investing in countries with Communist dictatorships, military coups within the last five years, oligarchies who dominate wealth coupled with a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB pulling the strings, and a civic society which largely favors strong-handed rule to democracy than they would the world’s longest-standing and most free democracy. Investors cited concerns over “wealth destruction” as the primary catalyst for this shift in sentiment, as they believe only strong-handed rule, with high barriers to entry can adequately protect their hard earned wealth.

Following this alarming survey, President Obama declared that “Although I am not a socialist, after learning the results of this poll, I have decided to ask Congress to put together a bill that would pave the way for a movement towards totalitarian Communism.” Not to be outdone, the Republican National Committee hired Goldman Sachs as an outside consultant in order to explore the availability of former global military and intelligence leaders available at this time to orchestrate a military style coup in the United States in order to attract investments to the slumping domestic economy. A spokesman from Goldman revealed that this is a new line of business for Goldman Sachs and revealed that the opportunity in political orchestration came from a message that G-d left Lloyd Blankfein on his voice mail during the week of January 15th.

In response to these latest developments, stocks initially flew on the news that the United States would explore alternate forms of government. What started as a morning rally turned into an afternoon collapse, as investors expressed concerns over the ability of Democrats and Republicans to reach a consensus as to the most beneficial form of totalitarianism.

I urge Wynn and Cramer alike to speak with some Australians and/or Rio Tinto about some of the complexities of working in China.  Just recently, China jailed several Rio Tinto employees on charges of bribing officials and “stealing commercial secrets.”  The Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith had the following words to say about the secretive trial and murky process: “This was an opportunity for China to bring some clarity to the notion or question of commercial secrets….As China emerges into the global economy, the international business community needs to understand with certainty what the rules are in China.”  All the charged employees surprisingly plead guilty, and were “tried” in a closed trial in which Australian officials were wrongfully denied access to.  Many insist that these actions by China were in response to aggressive pricing negotiations over iron ore, an essential input good in steel production.

Whether these officials were guilty of bribery or not, there is seemingly rampant bribery in China.  Not only that, the country places significant limitations on civil liberties and its human rights record is far from clean.  While there have been improvements, China uses capital punishment on political dissenters, censors dissent, limits religious freedoms, discriminates against ethnic minorities and exposes its poorer workers to inhumane conditions.  These are substantial issues that companies and investors must consider in allocating capital to Chinese endeavors and significant barriers to entry in working in China.  Just ask Google about their experience in the country.  Google refused to succumb to China’s harsh censorship laws, and as a result, the company was forced to shutdown their Chinese search engine.  Sure there are profit opportunities in China, but there are also very real obstacles created by the People Republic’s spotty and inconsistent record on human rights and civil liberties.  The country is inherently unpredictable with arbitrary spurts of complacency and aggression.

I am well aware of the challenges faced by the U.S. in the midst of this rolling credit crisis.  These are frequent themes that I discuss and dissect.  Yet despite our troubles, to remotely equate conducting business in and with a country with questionable regard for its citizen’s lives is rather absurd.  Talk about the world’s largest population maturing in one country.  Talk about the urbanization, modernization, industrialization of a major global power.  Talk about these things and invest accordingly.  But please don’t compare the governments of the two and say that China is more predictable and stable than Washington.  (Off-point, but relevant: Ever notice how there is an inverse relationship between tax policy and civil liberties from presidential administrations.  Ronald Reagan gave us supply side economics, but he also supported some oppressive regimes around the world in the name of “anti-communism.”  George W. gave us lower taxes, but he also gave us the Patriot Act.  Also interesting is that the same people who lambaste America’s “socialist policies” offer glowing praise for China’s government and their preferable treatment to investors.)

Economic policy is but one element as to what a government does.  This overemphasis on tax policy is a big part of why some greatly over-exaggerate the political risk in this country right now.  There are way more variables to governing than just how you approach taxes.  Policy generally speaking is much broader than how governments treat investors.  Our system is stressed, but it is not broken.  We in this country have longstanding principles and traditions that have withstood the test of time and have afforded generations of people an opportunity to partake in the American Dream.  If a cheaper tax rate for Steve Wynn is worth assuming the political risk of China that’s his choice, but in the grand scheme of things, there is just no way to compare the governments of the two countries.

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  1. angrywoodchuck
    August 31, 2010 at 7:24 am

    I agree that China has its own problems, human rights not being the least of them, and that these problems you discuss all add risk to any investment in China. I never considered Steve Wynn’s discussion on this topic as someone including a moral obligation variable into their ROI calculation, I simply considered the “headline” of what he was saying. Namely, that capital is looking for somewhere to invest. Anywhere to invest. And it’s the devil you know that might just turn out to be a more profitable investment.

    I am sure someone somewhere that works for Mr. Wynn considered some level of risk associated with investing in the “x” level of unpredictability in China versus the “x” level of unpredictability in the U.S. and the formula’s solution simply pointed out that despite the measured risk of loss possible in a country like China, if it returns even incrementally more than investing here, then China gets the capital. That formula could change tomorrow with changes in that risk input, but that’s how it’s coming out today.

    As long as that’s true, capital will continue to leave this country (and the jobs that come with it) and be invested in other “risky,” albeit perhaps only slightly “less risky” locations. My takeaway from his interview was simply that. China’s level of unpredictability is somewhat predictable whereas ours is completely unknown. At least for the foreseeable future.

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