x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

China's rich lose deep pockets

Building Brics: The slowdown in the second-biggest economy in the world has rippled through markets globally. Perhaps surprisingly, that is tearing holes in the pockets of those inhabiting the rarefied atmosphere of the country's super-wealthy.

The net worth of Li Yanhong, the co-founder of the Chinese internet search engine Baidu, dropped $800 million to $8 billion this year. Nelson Ching / Bloomberg News
The net worth of Li Yanhong, the co-founder of the Chinese internet search engine Baidu, dropped $800 million to $8 billion this year. Nelson Ching / Bloomberg News

They used to be incredibly rich and a symbol of China's economic dream. But now the country's super wealthy appear to be leaking money.

In a who's who of billionaires unveiled this week, the country's movers and shakers in the business world have seen their wealth hit by slowing growth in the second-biggest economy in the world.

The influential Hurun Rich List reveals a different picture from a year ago, when China's heady economic expansion was causing the ranks of the very well off to swell at a breathless pace.

"If you look at … the outside market, the United States and Europe, the economic performance is not good, as a result, the demand for the products of the Chinese companies has gone down. That's not favourable for the economic performance of these companies," says Stephen Ching, an associate professor in the School of Economics and Finance at the University of Hong Kong

Now in its 14th year, the survey shows China has 251 dollar billionaires, a drop of 20 from last year's figure of 271, which represented a heady increase from 189 in 2010. The fall follows six years of increases.

Indeed, among the 1,000 names included on the list, almost half, at 469, have seen their wealth fall over the past year. Average wealth on the list is now USS$860 million (Dh3.15 billion) a drop of 9 per cent.

According to Mr Ching, a stock market decline is the key reason behind this drop.

Indeed, Hurun reports the Shanghai Stock Exchange has dropped 23 per cent over the past 12 months.

Increased labour costs have also hit the well-heeled.

"Labour costs have gone up and labour regulations have become stricter. That means the costs of operating in China and the costs of production in China have gone up," says Mr Ching.

For all the financial turbulence, China still boasts an impressive tally of the super-rich, one that is several times greater than a decade ago.

Topping this year's list is Zong Qinghou, 67, from the soft drinks company Wahaha. He regains the position he held in 2010 thanks to a fortune of $12.6bn.

In second place, with assets valued at $10.3bn, is Wang Jianlin, 58, who heads the property developer Wanda and who hit the headlines in May with his purchase of AMC, the second-largest cinema chain in the United States.

Li Yanhong, 44, remains in third position, despite his net worth having dropped $800m to $8bn this year. Mr Li is a co-founder of the dominant Chinese internet search engine, Baidu, of which he owns 16 per cent.

China's richest woman remains the property developer Wa Yajun, 47, ranked eighth on the list thanks to her $6bn fortune.

A key trend noted by Hurun this year is that property is no longer the best-represented sector.

Back in 1999, when the list was first published, half those included made their money through property. This year, manufacturing enjoys a larger share, at 20.1 per cent compared with property's 19.8 per cent, although both these figures are significantly down on the proportion property once commanded.

There have also been notable declines in the fortunes of retail magnates, down to 4.2 per cent compared with 5.8 per cent last year, and renewable energy, which has seen its share fall from 4.6 per cent to 3.8 per cent.

Although almost half this year's entrants are less wealthy than 12 months ago, 291 have seen their wealth increase, while there are 150 new names and 114 whose assets are worth the same as last year.

"Although this year has seen some significant wealth bloodletting, it is worth remembering that these entrepreneurs are still up 40 per cent on two years ago and almost 10 times on 10 years ago," says Rupert Hoogewerf, the chairman and chief executive of the Hurun report.

Analysts will be interested to see whether there will be any recovery of the assets lost over the past year. Mr Ching considers this unlikely.

"Some factors will affect the profitability of companies in China, such as the US economy and European economy, and it seems unlikely there will be a strong rebound in these two outside markets," he says.

"In terms of the labour costs, the same applies, so it's not going to be optimistic in the future. In terms of the exchange rate, the [yuan] is strong relative to other currencies, and the dollar and the euro and that may persist."

After three decades of heady economic growth that have helped to create the country's huge number of billionaires, a slowdown is inevitable, says Simon Fan, of the economics department at Hong Kong's Lingnan University. He says it remains difficult to predict, however, whether the country will have a hard or soft landing.

"The trend of economic growth is slowing down but there's another issue, the cyclical factor. For the cyclical factor, it's anybody's guess."