China will hand Trump the win he badly needs, says Mobius

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 03: Mark Mobius, Executive chairman of Templeton emerging markets on April 3, 2017 in Sydney, . (Photo by Ben Rushton/Fairfax Media) Photo: Ben RushtonDonald Trump needs a win “badly” this week when he meets Xi Jinping, and the Chinese President will be more than happy to give it to him, says Mark Mobius, the world’s best known investor in emerging markets.
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The New York-born Mobius joined Templeton 30 years ago as president of the asset manager’s emerging markets fund, but his experience back a further decade, gives him an unparalleled depth of knowledge when it comes to this dynamic, diverse and volatile corner of the investment world.

Mobius, whose title is executive chairman of Franklin Emerging Markets Group, has twin bases in Hong Kong and Singapore. But he says he doesn’t regard either as a “home” as much as a place to hang his hat when he’s not travelling, which he does a lot. The 80-year-old investor still spends as many as 260 days of the year on the road.

And from his on-the-ground experience in the region, he says the view from Asia on the new American leader is more pragmatic than in the West.

“As we travel around and talk to business people, very often Trump is not uppermost in their minds,” Mobius says. “I think most of these people are practical – they know that when a politician says something, particularly in the US, it means nothing unless it’s acted upon.

“One of the things they like about Trump is that he’s a dealmaker, and they feel comfortable with that. I think the Chinese feel that way as well. They think that ‘well we can hold our own and we’ll be able to negotiate a deal with this guy – he’s not dogmatic’.”

It’s in this context – Trump as a negotiator – that this week’s meeting between Jinping and his American counterpart is of particular significance.

“This meeting in Florida with Xi Jinping will be very, very important,” Mobius says. “It’s on everybody’s mind.”

Mobius believes the Chinese “have to come up with something that is positive for Trump”.

After the recent Congressional defeat of his healthcare legislation, Trump “needs success badly” from this week’s meeting between the two leaders. And Xi will be happy to give him one, Mobius says. What would a win for Trump look like?

“It would look like the Chinese saying that they are going to allow more American imports into China in certain categories, and it would also mean the Chinese would make investments in American manufacturing, in coal mining, in automobiles – things that Trump is talking about.

“And they’ll promise to hire more workers. From China’s point of view it’s peanuts; put a $1 billion in American manufacturing, what’s the big deal?

“I may be completely off base here, but that’s what I expect,” Mobius says.

Mobius points to the corporate “feelers”, which have already been put out. In January, Foxconn Technology Group’s chairman talked about a joint investment with Apple for a display-making facility in the US, although Apple has since apparently kiboshed the plan. Also in January, Alibaba boss Jack Ma said he would create 1 million new US jobs and help American companies export to China. What does China get?

“Peace,” Mobius says.

He points to the work of Michael Pillsbury, who he says is one of the policy voices to whom Trump listens, and in particular Pillsbury’s book, “The 100-year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower”.

“Pillsbury says the Chinese will not confront the US at this stage; they want a very peaceful, smooth international relations to allow them to build up their economy to the point where they surpass the US economy and then they say, ‘OK guys, we are in charge’.

“I think he’s right.”

The “sensitive areas” are around the South China Sea and North Korea, where Trump has recently threatened to “go it alone” to confront the pariah nation should the Chinese not help.

“But I think these issues are peripheral for Trump,” Mobius says. “The real issue is he wants to be re-elected, and if he doesn’t start delivering on his campaign promises he’s in trouble.”

Mobius thinks Trump would have experience dealing with Asian business people through his real estate deals and gambling operations. “You must remember that when you are running a casino you have a lot of Chinese customers,” he says.

He tells an anecdote of a wealthy Chinese businessman who bought an apartment in Trump Towers.

“He said that [Trump] would come around every month and invite him out for lunch or dinner to see if things were OK, so he got to know these people,” Mobius says. It’s also through this conversation that Mobius learnt that Trump tipped an amount equal to the bill.

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