Pesek on Asia: China's Bad News
Good morning. Here's my take on some of the stories driving the debate in politics, finance and social issues across Asia today:
China's bad news is worse than you think.
So much for audacious reforms to put the world's second-biggest economy on more stable footing. The bad news isn't that growth slowed to 7.7 percent in the October-December quarter -- it's that activity didn't slow more. The only way China can wean itself off excess investment and exports is a sharp slowdown. But it's clear that the government unleashed sizable amounts of fresh stimulus in the second half of 2013 to ensure growth exceeded 7.5 percent. That suggests a disturbing lack of political will on the parts of President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. China is still too busy pumping up gross domestic product to reform an unbalanced and bubble-prone economy.
Roh Moo Hyun nostalgia hits Korea.
As tragic figures in modern South Korea go, Roh is standout. The liberal human-rights advocate rose to the presidency in 2003 with the help of the pro-democracy "Generation 386" -- voters in their 30s, who went to college in the 1980s under military rule and were born in the 1960s. His five-year term ended in scandal and controversy (Roh committed suicide in 2009). In a new memoir, former defense chief Robert Gates even describes Roh as “probably a little bit crazy." But Koreans are flocking to theaters to see a new film inspired by Roh's life, "The Attorney." Its depiction of a heroic man who gave up wealth to help average Koreans is causing a wave of Roh nostalgia. No word on whether the current president, the conservative Park Geun Hye, has seen it.
A growth industry for North Korea: wives.
If Kim Jong Un is desperate for a new business opportunity, how about matchmaking? A new poll finds that seven in 10 South Korean men are open to marrying a woman from the North. Seriously, though, demographic trends are sure to create some bizarre advertising campaigns in the future, as researcher Soohyung Lee pointed out in the 2012 study “The Competition for Brides in East Asia.” As populations shrink and women become scarce thanks to societal preferences for boys in, say, China, Asia could be looking at a future that would shock science-fiction scribes, where the supply of women flows across borders to meet demand. One day North Korea’s main export could be marriage-age women.
AirAsia bets on Japan -- again.
Tony Fernandes isn't easily discouraged. In 2001, just after airplanes crashed into New York's twin towers and global growth swooned, advisors counselled the Malaysian entrepreneur against starting an airline. Told he couldn't take on the state-coddled Malaysia Airlines, he did just that, too. Informed that Japanese consumers don't do budget travel, Fernandes is trying anew to crack the market. "Japan is a market we are very bullish on,” the AirAsia CEO tells Bloomberg News. It will be fascinating to see if he succeeds at a time when the Japanese government wants to see the prices consumers pay rise, not fall.
Thai finances under the microscope.
Debt markets are suddenly buzzing about Bangkok's government coffers as protesters settle in for the long haul. The size of the demonstrations may have waned, but the determination of protest leaders to oust Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has them digging in at different strategic spots around the capital. The specter of a long, economy-shaking standoff has investors pulling billions of dollars out of the baht and traders betting that the risk of Thailand defaulting on debt is the highest since August. Here's a timely op-ed sketching out what's at stake in Thailand this year. Warning: it's not pretty.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter.)