Given the huge focus on the novel Coronavirus Pandemic, one story that has gone relatively underreported this year has been the continued rise of Shanghai as an International Financial Centre.
The bustling offices and restaurants there are now in marked contrast to the empty streets of the City of London or those around Wall Street.
According to the Global Financial Centres Index, published in September jointly by the Z/Yen Group, a UK thinks tank, and the China Development Institution, a Shenzhen-based research body, it had overtaken Tokyo as the third-ranked financial centre and was behind only New York and London.
Some commentators are now pointing out that China’s commercial hub is reestablishing the position it last enjoyed before the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression (1931-45) when it was Asia’s financial powerhouse.
A major development this year has been the Wall Street invasion of Shanghai despite the ongoing trade tensions between the United States and China.
Leading US financial institutions have been taking advantage of bold new measures by the Chinese government to open up the financial sector to foreign competition.
JP Morgan, the US investment bank, is in the process of completing a $1 billion buyout to take full control of a fund manager subsidiary. This followed a similar move in March by its rival Morgan Stanley.
Blackrock, the New York-based global fund manager, also got the go-ahead in August to operate a wholly-owned fund management business.
It has been good to report on all this in recent weeks. Many people have been only too quick to tell me that if you look at China from the vantage point of the US or Europe, it appears to be the place where all the action is.
With the virus under control in the country, it is the only major economy set to grow this year while others are set to contract, some markedly so.
The recently announced proposals for the new Five-Year Plan (2021-25) also set out a clear sense of direction to achieve ever more important national goals.
Zhu Ning, professor of finance at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance, told me that the US institutions know where the future opportunities lie.
“The Chinese economy and financial markets are simply too big to ignore and still provide growth opportunities, particularly in light of the COVID situation,” he said. One attraction is the staggering amount of money Chinese people have to invest. This is expected to rise from $24 trillion in 2018 to $41 trillion in 2023, according to Oliver Wyman, a leading consultancy.
Many in the West claim that any rise in the importance of Shanghai would inevitably be at the expense of Hong Kong.
They ignore the fact that a $15-trillion-and-growing economy like China’s will have room for a number of financial centres
Hong Kong, in fact, also rose to overtake Singapore in the latest GFC Index. It has the advantage that money can be easily moved in and out of the special administrative region.
Its future also clearly lies in it being a key hub of China’s Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, set to be one of the world’s most dynamic areas in the coming decades.
“There continue to be advantages in Hong Kong, not least the ability to trade in the US dollar and to take advantage of the ability to move money in and out easily,” said Mike Wardle, head of indices at Z/Yen Group.
Douglas McWilliams, deputy chairman of the Centre for Economics and Business Research, a London-based economics consultancy, told me he became aware of the financial and other opportunities in China when he took part in the Beijing-to-Paris Car Rally last year about which he has written a book, Driving the Silk Road: Halfway Around the World in a Bentley S1.
He said he stopped in Hohhot, capital of the Inner Mongolia autonomous region, where he was astonished to find it had a bigger population than Rome.
“A regional finance centre in China might serve a local market nearly as big as the whole of Southern Europe, so it has a huge potential market. Seven out of the top 15 financial centres tipped for rapid growth worldwide are in China,” he said.
There is certainly a mood of optimism in China’s financial sector despite everything else going on in the world.
Sheng Songcheng, executive deputy director of CEIBS Lujiazui Institute of Finance, part of the China Europe International Business School, is one who believes 2020 could prove a turning point.
“In the post-2020 era, Shanghai will march toward even higher goals for building an international financial centre,” he said. It is the same Shanghai spirit that not only is invigorating the rest of China but appears to have captivated Wall Street too.