Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Love-Nest of One’s Own

There are no virgin marriages, says billionaire Bhupendra Kumar Bodi

He’s right. Your place or mine?

Love it or not, Singapore is undeniably a slightly wacky place. Disneyland with the death penalty? Government bans on selling chewing gum? A family-oriented place that is also a world class money-laundering center? It’s all here, folks.

Now, billionaire Bhupendra Kumar Modi, chairman of the Spices Global business group and someone who was recently granted Singapore citizenship, has weighed in with a policy proposal to reverse Singapore’s falling birth rates and aging population – give the young people a chance to buy their own government flats to get away from Mom and Dad’s prudishly prying eyes. You see, Singapore currently has a rule that government-built housing, which accounts for 82% of dwellings for Singaporeans, are prioritized for family buyers. An unmarried adult needs to be over 35 to buy flats built by the Housing and Development Board.

As reported in this Bloomberg article, Mr. Modi believes the policy deprives young singles the opportunities to regularly act on their sexual urges. “Most of the girls and boys these days would like to have sex before they marry,” he says. “There are no virgin marriages.” His underlying concern is that Singapore’s current lowly birth rate of 1.3 children per woman is gradually draining the city state of its vital work force. However, standing against him in this view are both socially conservative types who don’t believe in the morality of pre-marital sex as well as government officials who want to keep a damper on soaring property prices.

Singapore is sometimes referred to as a “nanny” state, given its tendency to try to coddle its population. With policy nannies such as Mr. Modi pushing such accommodating family values, Singapore’s young and amorously frustrated should be dancing in the street. With any luck, they’ll soon be engaged in other coupling activities more frequently. And privately.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Tiger Mom or Money Launderer?

A dorm with a view.

The popular perception is that Chinese people see the world through long term horizons - they measure time generationally rather than weekly or quarterly as do Americans. Those looking to perpetuate that view need look no further than the case of the Chinese mother who has spent US$6.5 million on a New York apartment near Fifth Avenue to house her daughter when the girl eventually (and no doubt inevitably, damn it!) attends an Ivy League university. A typical over-achieving, over-coddling Asian Tiger Mom? Maybe, but with a distinctive twist: her daughter is just two years old. This Business Insider article provides further details.

This woman obviously lives with purpose and vision. However, what she sees perhaps only she knows. A bright academic future for her brilliant child? An optimistic view of high-end Manhattan real estate? A great opportunity to put some idle, possibly “dirty”, offshore cash to work by converting it into a hard asset? Maybe all of the above. Speculation on what is going on has lit up the Chinese microblog sites. If nothing else, we’ll find out in sixteen years.

Monday, March 25, 2013

China’s First World First Lady

The popular media’s opinion is in: this past week’s lead story about China’s new leadership under President Xi Jinping had less to do with him and more to do with his better half, Peng Liyuan. One picture says it all. Here it is.

Two questions come to mind. Why did it take fifty years for China to have such an attractive, presentable first lady? And good god, is that a Tod’s bag she’s carrying?? The blogosphere was in overdrive last week trying to figure out what leather product she used to tote around her personal items when she accompanied her husband on their state visit to Russia. As it turns out, the bag and her smart-looking outfit were both created by a Chinese designer – Exception (as reported in For this, she can be further commended for having the keen sense to avoid stepping in PR doo-doo while her husband wages a domestic war against luxury products for government officials.

Such is the staid, faceless look of China’s political leadership (now that Bo Xilai is out of favor) that a hottie first lady, a former singer who can rival the likes of Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, can steal the media thunder from a geopolitically strategic visit with President Putin. But perhaps a little historical context would be useful. Below are pictures of her predecessors.

Hu Jintao and wife
Deng Xiaoping and wife
Jiang Zemin and wife

Need I say more? At the risk of seeming to have a sensibility no deeper than tabloid papparazzi, I have to admit that I get why the Chinese public is in such a tizzy about Ms. Peng. After all, the country has a bit of a history deifying certain personalities, whether supreme party leaders or emperors. In this age of lightning-fast internet coverage and worship of superficial appearances, perhaps it’s time for another media empress to step forth to help soften the starchiness of China’s current crop of leaders.   

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Asia 1% as a Cityscape

Want to see what the ascendancy of Asia's 1% would look like as an urban snapshot? Here it is, thanks to Ah, what a difference twenty years makes...

Shanghai 1990, 2010.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Dying for a Good Job

A price too great

This South China Morning Post article details the deaths this week of two 40-something year old finance executives based in Hong Kong. They are Li Kai, chief executive of mainland-based Bosera Asset Management, and Mark Liinamaa, a research analyst with Citigroup. Li died of a brain hemorrhage while Liinamaa died of a heart attack. Both were on business trips when the tragedies befell them. Both deaths were attributed in part to work-related stress. The article also makes reference to two other similarly sudden deaths that have taken place on the Mainland in the last few years.
Often, the creation of personal wealth is a cause for pride and celebration. Hong Kong and China have experienced much of it in the past decade, even after the 2008 financial crisis. However, nothing good comes without certain costs, most of all to personal health. Work pressure, frequent travel, rich meals, heavy drinking and lack of exercise and life balance can exert a heavy price. Sometimes, sadly, that amount is incalculably high.

Friday, March 8, 2013

America: Land of the Free, Home of the Huge Wealth Gap

This is a chilling video about America's ballooning wealth gap. Whether the numbers are accurate or not, few people doubt a trend that is driving America towards economic feudalism. Socialism may be a dirty word to many in the U.S., but this type of inequality is an even more frightening vision of an alternative reality.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Forbes Billionaire List – 2013 Edition

Li Ka Shing – good reason to smile

It’s that time of year to feel puny again - the Forbes 2013 list of the world's most rich is out. Not surprisingly, given all the chatter about rising wealth inequality, billionaires as a class are richer than ever. This year, there are 1,426 of them, up from 1,226 last year, and they command $5.4 trillion in wealth. 2013 was a year when Asia surged up in its proportion of names, mainly on the strength of Hong Kong and China. Some initial statistics regarding Asia are as follows:
  • Non-Japan Asia (excluding Australia and New Zealand) had 334 names, up from 267 in 2012. Nevertheless, Asia continued to trail the US, which had 442 names and Europe, which had 366.
  • The geographic distribution of billionaires in Asia is in the chart below. After China (122) and India (55), Hong Kong with its measly 7 million population came in with a whopping 39 names. Singapore, which has approximately 70% of Hong Kong’s population, had 24. When it comes to wealthy, all hail the city states of Asia.

  • Superman Li Ka Shing of Hong Kong outshone all other Asians again, but by an even bigger margin than before. He moved up from 9th in the world to 8th, with a whopping $6 billion increase in net worth to $31 billion. No other Asian cracked the world’s top 20.
  • As with 2012, the next richest Asian was India’s Mukesh Ambani of the Reliance Group. However, given that his wealth dropped $1 billion, he only ranked 22nd. In general, the India names did not advance in 2013.
  • Other Hong Kong-related names, including Lee Shau Kee (Henderson Group) and the Kwok brothers (Sun Hung Kai), did well on the back of Hong Kong’s continuing asset inflation (some would say ‘bubble’).
  • China added 29 new names.
China+HK’s surge up the ranks of the world’s wealth elite continues. However, much of it is built on asset prices rather than the value of the output of industrial enterprises. How sustainable that wealth is, and how far it might fall in a world where hot money and ultra-low interest rates no longer exist, will be an interesting show to watch from my lowly, undersized footstool.

Monday, March 4, 2013

India’s Lutyens’ Delhi – Location, location, location

Working electricity and other amenities not included.

A house in disrepair, with chipped paint and musty bathrooms. Undrinkable tap water. Poor electricity supply. Sub-zero refrigerator or infinity swimming pool? Forget it! Price range for real estate gems like this one? US$40-70 million, or more. Welcome to the Lutyens’ Delhi neighborhood of India’ capital city. Why would anyone in their right mind pay so much for something with such little upkeep? Location, dahling. Nothing screams “British Raj!” like this leafy district in the heart of New Delhi’s government district. Those with money to burn who want to live in a trophy neighborhood rich in colonial history and rub shoulders with government officials in bureaucracy-rich India have few other choices. The rare multi-acre lots that come up for sale here simply ooze privilege and cache, even though the structures that have been built on them often simply just ooze. Therefore, these properties have proven to be hot hot hot, despite their appearance.

Interested in a closer look? Check out this New York Times article on Lutyens' Delhi property prices. Then grab a suitcase of cash, head to New Delhi, put on your blindfold, and get in line.

Lifestyles of North Korea’s Elite

1% newlyweds, North Korea style.

As an outsider, not much can be said about North Korea’s 1% lifestyle because so little is known about them. Okay, we know from Google Earth images that the Dear Leader (the late Kim Jong Il) lived in a highly manicured compound with an Olympic-sized pool (which explained his svelte physique) and a waterslide. The international media has widely reported that he had an enduring fondness for Hollywood movies and French brandy. His oldest son continues to live the high life in Macau, preferring its freewheeling morality to the shackles of his homeland’s austerity and thought police. The current leader Kim Jong Un gets to call international luminaries such as basketball player Dennis Rodman as a lifelong buddy.
But what about the other elite members of society? Luckily for those curious about the lifestyles within the walled slum-fortress that is North Korea, an organization like New Focus International exists to bring insiders’ reports about day-to-day existence. This report from NFI highlights some of the aspects of North Korea’s 10% elite, which the article defines as “Party and state officials, high ranking officers in the Korean People’s Army, those who have foreign work experience or have family members who have been dispatched abroad.” The report goes on to describe the ambition of those in this privileged class to move even higher into the 1% super-elite class, which get to enjoy $12.50 whiskey shots in karaoke clubs, own private PCs, and watch international news broadcasting on wall-mounted flat panel TVs. And the weddings, oh my! A lucky few get to hold their ceremonies at the Mansudae Theatre of the Arts, which until recently was reserved for performances held exclusively for top political leaders and visiting foreign dignitaries.
Is there much social mobility happening at the top of this pyramid? Are we seeing a wider proliferation of home unit meat freezers and LCD televisions? Will any of these spoils filter down to help the starving masses? Stay tuned for the answers. I need to ask Dennis Rodman.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Come Fly with Mei

Let’s see how the other half lives, honey.

Chinese toddlers have spoken, and Chinese tour companies have heard their cry. Rich tots are no longer content with just receiving “My parents went to Italy, and all I got was this overpriced Armani T-shirt” gifts after an overseas trip. Wealthy Chinese are starting to turn away from vacations that simply revolve around luxury boutiques, follow-the-megaphone tour groups, or junket trips to gambling cities like Macau or Las Vegas. In increasing numbers, they are looking for “experiential” trips that focus on getting to know other cultures or communing with new environments. It’s the kind of trip that ordinary western travelers might call, er, a “standard vacation”. However, the similarities stop there. As reported in this Jing Daily article about new luxury travel trends for China's elite, ultra-high-end travel agencies have been set up to cater to jaded Chinese travelers who are willing to fork out up to US$189,000 for “round the world” trips. That amount of money is almost 50 times the average disposable annual income for Chinese urban residents. Yet, such first-class travel offerings are said to be selling out within a day.

One high-end agency, HH Travel, which is now a unit of Ctrip (China’s leading online travel company), claims that they had an average client spend in 2012 of $16,000 per person. Travel themes offered include an eight-day cruise in the Middle East ($13,000) or a South America adventure ($31,900). They are also offering an eight-day “Life of Pi”-inspired trip to India for $6,800. Let’s hope that this itinerary doesn’t involve one day in India and seven days on a life raft with a hungry tiger and hyena. If so, all that may be left of a toddler’s returning parents is the T-shirt.