Biggest risk in China investing? Not doing it

Business Materials 24 December 2007 08:13 (UTC +04:00)

( USA TODAY )- China: one country, 1.3 billion people, seemingly infinite growth potential. In short: perfect conditions for those hoping to get rich.

"China is consuming more, creating more, graduating more, and - with increasing economic clout - buying more," according to Burton Malkiel's new book, From Wall Street to the Great Wall.

Consider China's acquisitions since the millennium - Italian motorcycle manufacturer Benelli , German toolmaker Schiess , IBM's personal computer business and Britain's MG.

No question, China is a major investment opportunity.

But it's fraught with risk, misinformation and mystery.

Big investment houses and multinationals have been navigating China for decades, although slowly at first.

Now, individual investors want to jump and reap rewards - such as the rumored "$1 billion paper profit" Goldman Sachs made in one day during the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China's initial public offering.

That is where Malkiel , and his new book, comes in.

Malkiel is emeritus dean of the Yale School of Management, author of the famed A Random Walk Down Wall Street, and current Chemical Bank Professor of Economics at Princeton University.

And now, writing with Patricia Taylor, Jianping Mei and Rui Yang, Malkiel attempts to give a primer on China's economic extravaganza.

The biggest risk? Not investing at all, they say.

Just how to invest is not easy to explain and comes late in the book.

First, an introduction to historical and cultural China. It's a fascinating read about the influence of Confucian and Maoist ideology on contemporary Chinese economy. (The future of China is covered, as well.)

Readers are in for a heavy slog next: a dense explanation of efficiency in stock markets in general, and Chinese markets in particular.

If you've read A Random Walk Down Wall Street, this will be familiar territory. If not, this part is intimidating. Even the authors say it can be "eye-closing prose" and suggest skipping it if you have "absolute faith in our judgment."

A very simplified version goes like this: Inefficient markets of a certain type (like some in China) are those where corruption and unethical dealings are rampant. In these markets, if you have what amounts to inside information (or can spot the trends of a stock's price being manipulated), you should be able to reliably beat the market with your stock picks. For this reason, the authors suggest investing in funds run by local Chinese managers who have access to this sort of information.

Which brings us to three strategies:

• Homegrown . Invest in funds with a China focus or Chinese stocks listed on U.S. stock exchanges.

•Offshore. Invest in businesses and industries that will indirectly benefit from a growing China.

•Go for broke. Invest directly in Chinese stocks listed on Chinese stock exchanges.

So much of the book talks about Chinese stock markets, and gives advice on how to look at Chinese stocks, but - reader beware - you won't find much about how to do this kind of investing.

"We called a number of major, widely respected brokerage firms," they write. "Some frankly admitted they had no idea how to purchase Hong Kong stocks. Others said they would only do so with a minimum order of $20,000. Still others said they would check with their international desk and try to get back to us within the week."

The other two strategies (offshore and homegrown ) are more accessible for individual U.S. investors, and the authors provide dozens of stock and fund picks for the adventurous reader. Of course, as the authors note, the picks were made in February 2007, so while they might still be good, they might also be worthless now.

"One of the paradoxes of investment advice," they write, "is that when people act on a recommendation, they tend to diminish its value."

In an effort to combat this paradox, the authors do a good job explaining why they chose the picks they did, and how individual investors might evaluate their own picks. Also, the authors provide basic investing strategy where needed, such as how to assess one's capacity for risk.

From Wall Street to the Great Wall is interesting.

But the problem is that, for most individual investors, direct investment in stocks is not much of a viable option yet.