T. Rowe Price gains an entry to China

Beijing selects Baltimore firm to help invest its social security fund in U.S.

November 30, 2006|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,Sun reporter

As Wall Street scrambles to get a piece of China's burgeoning wealth, Baltimore investment manager T. Rowe Price Group Inc. won its first share with a historic deal to manage part of the country's social security fund.

The Chinese government, which had largely barred investment outside the country until recent years, announced at a red-carpet ceremony yesterday in Beijing that it had approved 10 foreign firms to help invest the $28.5 billion fund. Price was one of two companies chosen to devote assets to U.S. stocks.

"This gives us a presence and degree of credibility in this marketplace," said Todd Ruppert, president of Price's global investment services. "And it gives us a significant foothold in China relative to other organizations."

More than 100 companies vied for a mandate from the Chinese government to invest money for the social security fund. Among the other firms selected were Pimco, State Street Global Advisors and Invesco. Though the deal is relatively small in terms of money management, companies such as Price hope that yesterday's move will lead to further opportunities.

U.S. companies have long been enamored with business possibilities in China, whose economy has been growing at a rapid clip. In particular, financial services companies have seen dollar signs in a saver society that has an estimated $2 trillion to $3 trillion parked in bank accounts and where the nascent mutual fund industry is roughly the size of its U.S. counterpart in the late 1970s.

Also, the social security fund, while small, is expected to grow. The central government created the fund in 2000 amid growing worries about China's aging population of 1.3 billion people. The retirement crisis is similar to those faced by Western nations but is worsened by China's policy of generally limiting families to one child, which means a lower ratio of young workers to retirees.

The social security fund receives backing from state-run lotteries and some state-owned companies. It serves as a backup to provincial systems and private pensions.

Some academics say the potential is huge for companies that manage Chinese money.

"There are significant opportunities opening up, and this is an important one," said Barry Naughton, a professor of Chinese economy at the University of California at San Diego. "This is a good sign that the government is looking to have open competition among fund managers, and to have its own funds managed wisely is a good sign overall for the healthy development of financial markets there."

Price, which had been laying the groundwork in China and establishing contacts for years, clearly sees its chance to get in on the ground floor, though officials are hard pressed to say what's next. Systems for allowing foreigners into the investment market are still being worked out, and often business prospects are limited by requirements that companies form joint ventures with Chinese companies or by caps on investments in foreign securities.

While Chinese companies have been encouraged to invest abroad as part of the government's "Go Out" policy, experts say Beijing is still bent on keeping domestic control of what it considers critical industries, including financial services. Peter Morici, an economist and professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said Beijing opens Chinese markets mainly to gain Western know-how.

Morici pointed to the experience of General Motors Corp., which formed a joint venture with a Chinese automaker only to see it later form another subsidiary to manufacture cars using Western technology. According to news accounts, one Chinese executive used a proverb to explain the move: "A housekeeper can never replace a master."

"The real question is whether they are really going to let us in or are they just going to let T. Rowe in and learn from them," Morici said. "Americans have never made money the way they thought they could because of the way China sets up these deals."

Still, the march to China continues. Other Maryland companies with business in the country include spice maker McCormick & Co. of Sparks, which manufactures products there, and the Baltimore architectural firm RTKL Associates Inc., which helped design China's Museum of Film. Chindex International Inc., based in Bethesda, provides health care products and medical services there.

In anticipation of expansion in China, Price registered this year for a trademark there that incorporates two Chinese characters, Pu Xin, which loosely translates to "trust and confidence by the masses." It's a play on the company's English slogan "Invest with Confidence" that is often coupled with its bighorn sheep logo.

The Price team with Ruppert that submitted the application to the Chinese social security fund included Mandarin speakers Phil Lin, Wenhua Zhang and Deborah Novotny. Lin had experience working with the Chinese government, helping to write its retirement law.

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