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Many Chinese investors nonchalant about stock market plunge

Many Chinese investors nonchalant about stock market plunge
Investors monitor data at a securities brokerage house in Beijing. In China, the biggest investor by far remains the government itself. (How Hwee Young / European Pressphoto Agency)

China's stock markets fell so violently in recent days that exchanges from New York to Thailand recoiled, the hashtag #BlackMonday went viral on Twitter, and analysts began discussing the specter of a global financial crisis, using words like "panic" and "disaster" to describe the rout.

Yet many ordinary Chinese investors seem to have met the plunge with another word: "Whatever."

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"Of course, when you're dealing with the stock market, you have to bear some risk," said Adam Bai, a 23-year-old software engineering student who has lost about $500 in the stock market since June. "I've been pretty calm — it's not like I'm losing all my property or wealth in this plunge. … In fact, I think this has been a good learning experience."

China's stock market is undoubtedly in turmoil: The Shanghai composite slumped 8.5% on Monday, triggering mass sell-offs around the world as investors questioned whether the Chinese government would be able to meet its 7% GDP growth target for 2015. The index then dropped an additional 7.6% on Tuesday, even as foreign exchanges began to heal.

Yet many of the Chinese market's millions of middle-class investors treat the market as a sort of state-backed casino — an opaque, highly volatile mechanism only loosely tied to China's economic reality — and so far many appear to see the recent turmoil as little more than a passing storm.

On Beijing's streets, in cafes and on social media sites, the mood is still generally calm, though thanks to strict government control of the media, coverage of the market plunge has been decidedly muted.

"The investors I've talked to have this fatalistic view that these things happen, that the government will eventually have to step in and it won't let things get completely belly up because the consequences will be too terrible," said Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese politics at the University of Sydney. "I think this view will prevail until something happens that shows there are real limits on what the government can do."

Although many Americans are intimately vested in the stock market through their 401(k) retirement plans, the Chinese market is far smaller and more removed from daily life. Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reopened the Shanghai composite in the 1980s after decades of closure under Mao Tse-tung, signaling a victory for pro-market reform. Yet the government has maintained heavy control over the market, and investors often buy stocks based on their readings of political trends.

Chinese investors are a diverse bunch. Many Chinese have been drawn to the stock market for lack of other investment options: The country's real estate market is cooling down after decades of explosive growth; the government has strict rules for foreign investments; savings account interest rates are notoriously low.

Even billionaire entrepreneurs have a stake in the markets. Wang Jianlin, Asia's richest man and the chairman of real estate and entertainment conglomerate Dalian Wanda Group, has reportedly lost $13 billion in the crash.

The biggest investor by far remains the government itself. Still, about 1 in 30 people in China owns equities, according to Capital Economics, a macro-economic research firm. Even among these rare investors, stocks represent less than 15% of household assets, according to an early July note by Qu Hongbin, HSBC's chief economist for greater China.

Many of these investors remain in the black. Chinese stock markets enjoyed a bull run from last spring until June, fueled by a wave of positive state media coverage, even though the country was experiencing its slowest overall economic growth since 2009. Despite the recent turmoil — stocks have dropped 40% since their June 12 peak — the Shanghai index remains more than 33% above its level a year ago.

"Years ago, when I first started investing in the stock market, I tried to copy [Warren] Buffett's style," said Kira Sun, 24, an employee at a trust fund in Beijing. "I'd invest in the value of the stock. Then I realized the Chinese market is very different from the Western market." (In the U.S., a company's strength and long-term prospects usually dictate its stock price; in China, that's not always the case.)

Sun said that in 2012, he adopted a more pragmatic strategy that was heavy on short selling, a way to profit from a market's volatility by making short-term investments, sometimes buying up stocks and then selling them at a higher price days or hours later. On May 28, he was spooked by a dramatic single-day market plunge — indexes fell more than 6% — and one day later, he emptied his accounts.

He said that he earned a net of about $78,000 on the stock market before pulling out. "I'd definitely go back to it someday," he said. "A gambler will always return to gambling, so long as there's a table."

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China's ruling Communist Party has staked much of its legitimacy on its ability to ensure economic well-being for the country's 1.4 billion people. Economic policymakers for 30 years have been able to deliver blistering GDP growth, but experts say the current model, which is based on exports and investment, is running out of steam. Officials have promised to shift to a more sustainable model based on consumption and services. To achieve this, they've promised to liberalize the economy by adopting a raft of difficult reforms.

Governments of developed economies have adopted stimulus measures to prop up ailing stock markets. Yet experts say that when China's stock bubble started to burst in June, the ruling Communist Party launched an intervention so extreme that it called these reforms into doubt. Authorities severely restricted selling, lent huge sums to spur buying and suspended trading for hundreds of stocks.

Many observers said that though the measures temporarily stabilized share prices, they destroyed the market's credibility, possibly even precipitating the most recent plunge.

This week, authorities appear to have adopted a more hands-off approach — on Tuesday, the central bank cut interest rates, freeing banks to lend more — but overseas investors appear to have been spooked by the lack of a coherent strategy.

"From a fundamental point of view, the stock market won't have much impact on the economy, because it's quite small, and because the losses tend to concentrate among a small group who tend to be on the wealthy side," said Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management.

"The real impact of the stock market is its impact on government credibility," he said. "When the market is doing very well, policymakers develop a real aura of control, of an ability to understand and get things done. And when you get the reversal they lose that aura. We're going to see that in China."

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Although China's stock market plunge has been massive news around the globe, it has received little attention from the Chinese press, and President Xi Jinping has not publicly commented on it.

In June, when panicked selling was at its peak, central propaganda authorities forced media to "discontinue discussions, expert interviews, and on-site live coverage," according to a circular leaked by the news website China Digital Times. "Do not exaggerate panic or sadness," it said. "Do not use emotionally charged words such as 'slump,' 'spike,' or 'collapse.'"

On Tuesday, the newspaper Reference News quoted "foreign media" as saying that Beijing "still has some cards to play" to stop the plunge. The websites of staid Communist Party mouthpieces, including the New China News Agency and the People's Daily, covered Monday's losses in terse, jargon-heavy stories buried deep on their home pages.

An editorial in the state-run Global Times urged investors to recover their morale, blaming the recent turmoil on short-sightedness. "We should become inured to face all sorts of problems with grace," it said. "This temporary lack of confidence will not snowball to become destructive."

On Tuesday, the stock market turmoil did not even crack the top 10 hot topics on Sina Weibo, the country's most popular microblog. None of the investors interviewed for this article said they were seriously concerned about the country's economic health.

"Chinese people have experienced several rounds of [the stock market] rising and falling in the past few years, and many have learned their lessons," said Hu Xingdou, a professor of economics at the Beijing Institute of Technology.

Many white-collar workers have decided that investing simply isn't worth the strain. Kevin Zhang, a 36-year-old landlord, said he would not even consider it.

"China's stock market is controlled by the government," he said. "No ordinary understanding of economics will tell you what's going on in there."

Nicole Liu in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

Twitter: @JRKaiman

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