Pesek on Asia: JPMorgan Pulls Back

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Good morning. Here's my take on some of the stories driving the debate in politics, finance and social issues across Asia today. But first, happy holidays to one and all -- I will be back online Dec. 30:

JPMorgan pulls back in Asia

As the fabled Wall Street firm puts its Hong Kong-based Global Special Opportunities Group on the block, Asia has to wonder about the bigger significance. When the largest U.S. bank sees an investment team focused on special opportunities in Asia as expendable -- a chance to streamline its global business -- perhaps the region is in for a tougher 2014 than it thought. Of course, this could be a hasty move that the bank will regret. But it may be worth considering that JPMorgan Chase sees the region entering into a period of lackluster performance. That's a real risk in the year ahead.

Rise of Chinese materialism

Global retailers have long salivated over the Chinese becoming American -- 1.3 billion people gauging their success by what they own and, therefore, buying lots. This survey by global research firm IPSOS suggests that day is fast approaching, with 71 percent of Chinese respondents subscribing to the view that those with the nicest toys are the most content. Chinese shoppers have already replaced Americans and Japanese as the most important demographic for luxury items. And that's fine. But let's just hope Chinese households avoid the next phase of American-style materialism: maxing out credit cards. Talk about a billion reasons for American Express to worry.

Scandals surround Tokyo governor

It's often said that Tokyo is Japan and Japan is Tokyo. The city is home to both the government and the vast majority of the nation's corporate headquarters, giving the Tokyo governor disproportionate national notoriety and power. As such, the growing number of election-finance scandals circling around Governor Naoki Inose is making headlines throughout Japan. A few months ago Inose was celebrating winning the 2020 Olympics. Who knows, three months from now he may be unemployed if more voters start demanding his resignation.

Mulling China's new assertiveness

On The Atlantic's list of the top stories of 2013 is China's sudden assertiveness and what it means for the developed world. Developing nations in Asia, Latin America and Africa have been seeing the more confident and engaged face of the Communist Party for years. But Beijing's announcement of an air-defense identification zone over the Asian seas, one that's still sending shockwaves through the halls of power in Japan, took the world aback and raised questions about what the most-populous nation has in mind next.

Cigarette makers clamor for Asian smokers

One of the more depressing global business stories in recent years has been Big Tobacco's rush to Asia with their lawyers in tow. As taxes rise and western smokers become more health conscious, cigarette makers are relying more in this region's rapid growth and comparatively young populations. They have taken to trying to skirt efforts by governments to avoid a future bubble in cancer cases. Here's but the latest example: an attempt by Philip Morris to flood the Philippines with cheap cigarettes.

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Willie Pesek at