Foiled by Foil: China’s Hopes for “Market Economy” Status

The U.S. Department of Commerce recently issued a 162.24% anti-dumping tariff on aluminum foil imports from China. The announcement is unsurprising given President Trump’s rallying cry for tariffs against Chinese imports since the campaign trail. However, the outcome is significant because it marks the Trump administration’s decision to continue treating China as a non-market economy (NME). In response, China has cited the new tariffs as an impetus to request for additional consultations with the U.S. as part of its ongoing fight at the World Trade Organization (WTO) over its NME status.

Beijing argues that, under WTO guidelines, a new member is supposed to be certified as a “market economy” 15 years after ascension. Prior to certification, a member is considered an NME. These economies are often subjected to more stringent anti-dumping duties than other countries. The assumption is that prices are often distorted, state-controlled, and not a reliable benchmark.  As such, trading partners are given more flexibility in determining whether an NME is dumping and in calculating a corresponding tariff. For example, the U.S. generally applies an average duty of 162% against Chinese goods, compared with a 33% rate for goods from “market economies.” Following certification, a higher burden of proof is expected in order for a member country to accuse and retaliate against a country that is certified as a “market economy.” It is thus understandable that China is doing everything it can to acquire the “market economy” certification.

On the other hand, the U.S. and the E.U. argue that achieving “market economy” status was contingent upon China taking up liberalization practices. For example, the continual dominance of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in China remains a key concern for both the U.S. and E.U. The WTO, however, has yet to take a stance on China’s SOEs. Meanwhile, China has filed a complaint in the WTO against both the U.S. and E.U. for continuing to deny China “market economy” status.

Despite the lack of status, China is now a frequent participant of the WTO dispute settlement system. Some have argued that China’s increased involvement in the WTO can be seen as a failure by the existing international economic order to control the rise of China. However, an alternative view is that China’s involvement in the WTO is evidence of successful efforts to integrate China and align its modus operandi with international norms. There are instances where Beijing has sought to diverge from existing international institutions. For example, China’s establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank could be seen as a direct challenge to the current order led by the World Bank and a failure of the existing order to properly integrate emerging economies such as China. Therefore, China’s acceptance and active participation in the WTO should be celebrated and welcomed.

Foiled by Foil China’s Hopes for Market Economy Status (PDF)

China’s Restrictions on Foreign Investment Hit Hollywood Hard

Huahua Media, a Chinese film conglomerate, recently scrapped its $1 billion deal with Paramount Pictures. In January, Paramount announced the infusion of cash from the Chinese company to finance 25% of its film slate from 2017-2019. It was a much-needed boost after Paramount’s recent lackluster performance at the box office.

In August, signs of the deal falling through surfaced as Paramount reported a missed payment from Huahua Media. In November, it was officially canceled. The deal’s failure has been one of the more high-profile manifestations of Bejing’s crackdown on “irrational” foreign investment.

In August of 2017, China laid down official rules for overseas investment. The State Council, China’s cabinet, commented the goal is to curb the “various risks and challenges in overseas investments.” Massive capital outflow has the potential to weaken China’s currency and create more debt. The country also has an eye towards reducing leverage in financial markets and mitigating systemic risks during an especially politically sensitive year, before the Communist Party transitions. In April, President Xi Jinping convened a gathering to discuss “safeguarding national financial-market security.”

The People’s Bank of China began imposing restrictions after last year’s record outflow of $816 billion from the country. Foreign investment in the gambling and sex industries has been outright banned. Investments in foreign real estate, film, and sports has been “restricted.” China’s outbound investment has fallen 44.3% during the first seven months since the new restrictions started being enforced. Some of its most aggressive deal makers have been impacted.

The size of the Huahua-Paramount deal likely led to increased scrutiny from Bejing. It far surpassed any previous China-Hollywood deal. Huahua had previously financed Paramount productions such as Star Trek Beyond and Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation. Paramount plans to fill the gap left by Huahua’s withdrawal with Skydance Media, Hasbro, and SEGA. The practical effect of Bejing’s foreign investment scrutiny is a serious blow to Paramount’s efforts to turn its film business around after releasing several flops. Moving forward, Hollywood executives will presumably exercise more caution in cutting deals with Chinese companies.

China’s Restrictions on Foreign Investment Hit Hollywood Hard (PDF)

Stimulus: The Beginning of an End

The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) forced the central banks in major economies across the world to resort to unconventional monetary policies. One of the unconventional policy measures was to prescribe policy interest rates near zero or even below zero, as seen in some European economies.

By prescribing near zero policy rates in the beginning of the crisis, and even negative rates at subsequent stages, the central bankers communicated that commercial banks are supposed to use available resources to lend, and not earn small returns by depositing that money with the central bank.

The signs of economic recovery and increasing domestic demand have prompted the central bankers to take stock of the situation. Though the U.S. Federal Reserve has signaled that it is beginning to withdraw its stimulus program of allowing the government bonds to mature in October 2017 without any replacement, the other major central banks are not likely to follow suit any time soon.

In the wake of the GFC, the U.S. has seen huge volumes of liquidity being pumped into the economy with near zero policy rates, but unlike Europe and Japan, it did not breach the zero barrier. This difference can be attributed to two factors: first, the U.S. has faster recovery than Europe and Japan; second, the saturation of interest rate reduction policy where any further reduction in rates is not likely to improve the domestic demand.

However, the access to near zero credit has stabilized the banking system and set off a boom in the financial assets market. This boom has been further strengthened by the flight of safety to dollar-denominated assets by financial asset managers and the simultaneous appreciation of the dollar. The recent Federal Open Market Committee statement released on November 1, 2017 gives clear indications of recovery in the economy, highlighting the low unemployment rate and expansion of economic activity at a moderate pace, irrespective of an anticipated temporary increase in inflation due to recent natural calamities.

While the U.S. has set its course on withdrawing its economic stimulus, Europe and Japan are not likely to do so in the near future. One of the factors adding to the uncertainty of withdrawal of stimulus by European Banks and Japan is that head chiefs of four major central banks are nearing end of term and may be replaced soon: namely, Mario Draghi, Chairman of European Central Bank; Janet Yellen, Chair of U.S. Federal Reserve; Haruhiko Kuroda, Governor of Bank of Japan; and Zhou Xioachuan, Governor of People’s Bank of China. However, the fears of this uncertainty are allayed to a certain extent after taking into consideration that their probable successors would continue to tread on expected lines and consider the withdrawal of stimulus as the economies show signs of recovery.

Stimulus The Beginning of an End (PDF)

China-Backed Buyout Fund Founder Charged in U.S. Insider Trading Case

In September of this year, President Trump stopped a foreign takeover of an American company on national security-concerns; only the fourth time a U.S. president has done so in the last 25 years. The President blocked the proposed $1.3 billion takeover of Lattice Semiconductor Corp., a manufacturer of programmable logic chips, by Canyon Bridge Capital Partners LLC, a private-equity firm backed by a Chinese state-owned asset manager. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS) recommended stopping the deal. The President upheld CFIUS’s recommendation, finding that the Chinese government’s role in the transaction threatened the competitiveness of American industry, and gave Beijing access to cutting-edge technology with commercial and military applications.

A month later, Canyon Bridge’s Managing Partner, Benjamin Chow, a U.S. citizen, was charged with insider trading related to the attempted acquisition of Lattice. The Acting Manhattan U.S. Attorney and the FBI Assistant Director released a statement, explaining that Chow allegedly disclosed material nonpublic information at in-person meetings, over text message, and over voicemail, relating to a potential merger between the two entities. In turn, this was used to make roughly $5 million dollars in profitable securities trades. Chow faces fourteen charges, including conspiracy to commit securities fraud and securities fraud, with potential prison sentences and fines of up to $5 million.

Chow denies any wrongdoing. In a statement to Reuters, Chow’s attorney George Canellos, a partner at Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy LLP, claimed that “Benjamin Chow is a true American success story, and the charges against him are baseless and unprecedented.” A Canyon Bridge spokesman stated that it was aware of the indictment, but was not itself subject to any investigation. Despite the mayhem, Canyon Bridge has managed to keep its focus. The private-equity firm is continuing with its plans to acquire British chip designer Imagination Technologies, which in April 2017 was dropped by Apple as a supplier of iPhone technology. Recently, a UK High Court sanctioned the $718 million takeover.

China-Backed Buyout Fund Founder Charged in U.S. Insider Trading Case (PDF)

US Commerce Secretary Says He Will Likely Sell Stake in Russian Energy Company with Ties to Putin and the Kremlin

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross says he will likely not maintain his stake in Navigator Holdings, a shipping company that does business with a Russian energy company. Ross has as much as $10 million invested in Navigator Holdings. One of Navigator’s clients includes the Russian energy company SIBUR, which is owned by Putin’s son-in-law along with sanctioned Russian oligarch Gennady Timchenko, who reportedly has ties close to the Kremlin.

The Commerce Secretary is criticizing reports that say he did not disclose his business ties with Navigator Holdings. The ties were first revealed in the Paradise Papers, which were leaked to a German newspaper on November 5, 2017. Ross says he disclosed three times on his form 278 that he had an interest in Navigator Holdings. However, it appears that billionaire banker Ross failed to disclose that Navigator Holdings conducted business with SIBUR.

In an interview with Bloomberg TV, Ross denied that Navigator Holdings had ties to Russians under sanctions; Ross further stated that he was not involved with Navigator’s negotiations with SIBUR, but that there was nothing wrong with having a business relationship with the Russian energy company. SIBUR appears to be Navigator’s second-largest client.

Ross argued that he does not have a duty to disclose Navigator’s relationship with SIBUR because he is not an officer, director, or investor of the Russian energy company. He further stated that a company without sanctions is the same as any other company. However, Timchenko, one of the owners of SIBUR, has been barred from entering the United States by the Treasury Department since 2014.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who is part of the Senate Commerce Committee, says Ross was misleading by not disclosing Navigator Holdings’ ties to Russia. Senator Blumenthal said that he will call for the Commerce Department to investigate Navigator’s relationship with SIBUR.

The Commerce Secretary says he is planning on selling his stake in Navigator Holdings, but his reasons for selling are not because of the controversy surrounding the company’s ties with SIBUR.

US Commerce Secretary Says He Will Likely Sell Stake in Russian Energy Company with Ties to Putin and the Kremlin

A $50 Billion Deal and Bribery Allegations for Airbus

It’s a bird, it’s a plane! No it’s…  Wait, that’s right! Airbus SE (“Airbus”) does make planes. Just as Boeing reported its $20 billion dollar deal, Airbus announced its $50 billion deal at the 2017 Dubai Air Show. The Dubai Airshow is an aerospace convention featuring aerospace exhibitors, trade visitors, and a platform for business and governmental firms to negotiate the sale and acquisition of aircraft. The mastermind behind the $50 billion Airbus deal is John Leachy. He is not a household name yet, but that may change soon. The agreement consists of the sale of 430 A320neo jets with U.S. investor Indigo Partners. And in a time when there is great uncertainty about critical U.S. issues, business is clearly thriving. Currently, Airbus wants to build a new assembly plant in Mobile, Alabama.

The A320neo (new engine option) is a new advanced and fuel-efficient single engine plane. Narrow body planes, like the A320neo, are the “work horses” of global air travel. The work load for the planes are set to increase and account for 73% of air travel demand by 2036. Will people be flying more by 2036? Will the price of air travel increase by 2036? Will more people be flying and the price of air travel increase by 2036? All of these questions are up for debate. Nevertheless, of the 430 orders, Wizz Air Holdings ordered 146, Frontier Airlines ordered 134, Volaris ordered 80, and JetSmart ordered 70. Clearly, these companies are preparing for a shift in the atmosphere.

Despite the $50 billion deal, Airbus CEO Tom Enders is currently dealing with bribery allegations as well. Airbus is engaged in internal and external investigations following government agency investigations and proactive reports of issues they caught themselves involving millions of dollars in bribes to government officials. Fraud, bribery, and corruption charges currently loom in UK, France, Austria, and Germany. The investigations could also make their way to U.S. courts. Germany is focusing on Airbus’s civil aircraft sector, which is Airbus’s leader in sales and profit. Prosecutors in Munich have confirmed they will be pressing charges against some of the Airbus managers soon. France is focusing on Airbus’s helicopter sector. Sanctioned fines could reach the billions in monetary value and the reputational damages would be devastating in this new global era where illegal corporate activity is strongly condemned.

In this new global era, business ethics is critical. And with the constant evolution of globalization, ethical violations could spread across the globe. A company’s reputation is as important as sales and profit. Only time will tell if all of this will end favorably for Airbus.

A $50 Billion Deal and Bribery Allegations for Airbus (PDF)

Japanese FTC Tackles Airbnb for Suspected Antitrust Practices

The Japanese Fair Trade Commission (JFTC) launched an investigation on Airbnb last month for violating antitrust laws. Regulators have obtained documents from Airbnb in Tokyo on suspicion that it asked users not to list properties on rival sites.

Upon reading an Airbnb contract, one property manager shared that he reluctantly signed an “exclusivity clause” that prohibited agents and owners from posting their listings on other websites. In exchange, Airbnb provided him with access to availability and other vital data.

Airbnb, however, denies the claims, saying it does not make property postings conditional on exclusivity. “All hosts and partners in Japan who list properties on Airbnb are able to list them on other platforms,” a Singapore-based Airbnb spokesman said.

Airbnb is Japan’s top home-sharing website, with over 50,000 rooms. It competes with hotels and other traditional forms of lodging by letting people rent out their homes or apartments to visitors. The hotel industry views Airbnb and other services as providing unfair competition, since the home-sharing companies provide similar services as the hotel industry without as stringent of licensing requirements and market regulation.

News about Airbnb’s suspected antitrust violations come amid a time of heightened competition in Japan’s vacation rentals market.

Until recently, peer-to-peer lodging (or minpaku) was illegal in Japan. However, this past June, the government passed a new law that allows private citizens to take in fee-paying lodgers for up to 180 days a year without a hotel operator license. A roster of new players have announced their entry to the market following the new minpaku rules, creating a time of intensified competition in the home-sharing market.

Furthermore, Japan is currently facing a tourism boom. As of October, the total number of foreign visitors entering the country reached 23.8 million, making it almost certain to surpass last year’s record of 24 million by the end of the year. This surge in travelers has increased the demand for short-term home rentals.

With increased supply and demand for short-term travel stay in the nation, the JFTC may face suspected antitrust violations with heightened scrutiny. If the investigation finds that Airbnb violated antitrust practices by partaking in actions to diminish business opportunities of rival companies or discourage new businesses to enter the market, the company could be subjected to disciplinary action.

Japanese FTC Tackles Airbnb for Suspected Antitrust Practices (PDF)

Marissa Mayer Subpoenaed to Testify Before Senate Commerce Committee

Last month, Yahoo revealed that all of its approximately three billion accounts were affected by the 2013 data breach. Apologizing for the attacks, former CEO Marissa Mayer stated, “we worked hard over the years to earn our users’ trust. As CEO, these thefts occurred during my tenure, and I want to sincerely apologize to each and every one of our users.”

A Senate Commerce Committee spokesperson confirmed on Tuesday, November 7 that the Committee had subpoenaed Mayer to testify in a hearing concerning the data breaches. After multiple opportunities to testify voluntarily and even after being threatened with legal action, Mayer agreed to testify after the Committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) supported the Committee Chairman John Thune’s (R-S.D.) move to subpoena Mayer. Appearing along with Mayer is a Verizon representative, as well as Equifax’s interim CEO Pualino do Rego Barros and its former CEO, Richard Smith.

In her testimony before the Committee, Mayer apologized and noted the breadth of the information stolen. Mayer noted, “we roughly doubled our internal security staff and made significant investments in its leadership and the team.” Filling Yahoo with top security specialists and adopting comprehensive information security programs, Mayer assured the Committee that Yahoo had the systems and personnel in place to thoroughly monitor for and protect against data breaches. Mayer concluded by mentioning the difficulty in protecting against state-sponsored attacks, and the aggressive pursuit the DOJ and the FBI, along with Yahoo, are taking to prevent such attacks.

The Yahoo data breach was revealed to have been a state-sponsored attack by Russian individuals. Two Russian intelligence agents were indicted in connection with the attack of 500 million Yahoo accounts, and are considered some of the most dangerous agents in the world. Several senators asked those before the Committee whether there should be a financial incentive for companies to prevent against hacks and have systems in place to notify consumers. Senators also asked why consumers do not own their own data or have an ability to opt out. Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Bluemthal struck a harsh tone, stating, “under current law, even some of the most egregious examples of lax security can be met only with apologies and promises to do better next time. Not fines, or other penalties, or real deterrents. The real deterrent will come when those penalties are imposed on executives like the ones before us today.”

In an exchange with Senator Bill Nelson, Mayer admitted that Yahoo was not protected against a state actor such as Russia. When asked what it was doing to ensure Yahoo’s protection, Verizon said it “long believed” legislation specific to data security and data breach is necessary, and that it is open to collaborating with senators to draft such legislation. With skepticism, Nelson agreed but communicated that “It’s going to take an attitude change among companies such as yours,” adding that they [Yahoo, Verizon, Equifax] must go to “extreme limits” to protect customers’ privacy.

Marissa Mayer Subpoenaed to Testify Before Senate Commerce Committee (PDF)

Sina Concentrated Its Control Shortly After Winning the Proxy Fight Against a U.S. Investor

On November 8, 2017, following the victory of a proxy fight against a U.S. investor, Sina issued a new class of shares and gave 55.5% of the company’s voting power to Charles Chao, Sina’s chairman and chief executive, to avoid facing such fights in the future.

Sina, listed on NASDAQ since 2000, is an Internet pioneer and tech giant in China. Its weibo service is one of China’s most popular social networks. The forced shareholder vote was initiated by hedge fund, Aristeia Capital, who nominated two candidates for the company’s board to push for significant changes of Sina. However, on November 3, 2017, Aristeia Capital failed with more than 77% and 56% of the votes against the two nominations.

The contest draws attention because it is the first proxy fight between a New York-listed Chinese company and a U.S. investor. Some even view it a “test case” to show how far the foreign ownership of Chinese companies listed in the U.S. can go. Sina also seems to take it very serious, changing its shareholder structure in just less than four days after the victory. It “believes any future proxy contest could be costly, time consuming, and disruptive.” The investors may hold another opinion though, as the share price of Sina fell about 10% the day after the announcement.

Some U.S. investors have complained about the lack of shareholder rights in U.S.-traded Chinese companies since their boards are not held to the expected US standards. NASDAQ offers foreign private issuers some exemptions, and many Chinese companies like Sina are incorporated in “business-friendly” places, thus not necessarily subject to US laws.

Many foreign investors have been richly rewarded by China’s Internet market. Back in late 1990s, when Chinese Internet start-ups sought capital and few Chinese venture capital firms existed, the companies’ financing largely depended on foreign investors.

This could be a problem because the Chinese government has some restrictions on foreign investment in certain sensitive areas. Except for the investment structure (variable interest entity or V.I.E) invented for this situation, some analysts speculate that one reason for the foreign investors’ success in avoiding certain scrutiny from the authorities is that they have taken a largely passive role in the companies. But the proxy fight may express some dissatisfaction with such passiveness. Will the approach taken by American activists touch the nerves of the Beijing authorities? Will the Chinese government take a more active role in the management of its corporate giants? Do American investors really understand how China’s Internet sector works and will their active participation truly benefit the shareholders? The answers are still pending.

Sina Concentrated Its Control Shortly After Winning the Proxy Fight Against a U.S. Investor (PDF)

Recap: “BCLBE Leadership Lunch Talk: The Tech Counsel”

On November 6, 2017, the Berkeley Center for Law, Business and the Economy (BCLBE) hosted a conversation with attorney Dana Wagner from Square.

Square is a financial services, merchant services aggregator and mobile payment company. Wagner has worked with Square as the leader of their legal, regulatory, government relations, compliance, and security operations department for more than five years and shepherded the startup through the IPO process last year. Wagner was their first lawyer. He helped shape Square into a global public technology company and built one of the very best legal and regulatory teams in the industry. Before joining Square, Wagner led Google’s antitrust and competition practice. At the beginning of his career, Wagner also served as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Northern District of California and as a trial attorney in the antitrust division in the U.S. Department of Justice.

Wagner pursued his undergraduate studies at U.C. Berkeley and received his J.D. from Yale Law School. Contrary to most law students, Wagner did not think of going to law school to save the world or do public service. However, after spending his first summer with the government and his second summer in a law firm, Wagner realized that he enjoyed working for the public sector.

While Wagner was working on cartel criminal cases in the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Google reached out to him to create their antitrust division. Wagner had not practiced in such an area for years by then, but managed to quickly acquire the qualifications needed by doing the job itself and by building a team that was able to face antitrust issues that came in every product launch, in the IP strategy and in every partnership.

After four years at Google, Square reached out via e-mail to Wagner to have a conversation when the company was in a very early stage. A combination of elements led Wagner to accept this new challenge: a very good leadership and business model, the fact that he felt that he was not doing legal work at Google anymore, and his thought that you have to run a startup at least once in your life,

At Square, Wagner built his own team from scratch. He looked for lawyers who wanted to do something that would challenge themselves and learn. According to Wagner, another important quality for young lawyers is an ability to take good risks, because there is a lot of risk aversion in the legal world. He wrapped up by stating that risk aversion is something that should be avoided by employees of technology companies.

Recap BCLBE Leadership Lunch Talk The Tech Counsel (PDF)