October 4th, 2009
09:01 PM GMT
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Forgive me for gearing this blog to a selected group of people, but if you are anything like me (which I am convinced most of you are), you procrastinate doing your taxes until days before the filing deadline.

Many Americans I know are befuddled by the new and seemingly urgent demands of the U.S. Internal Revenue Service to declare all foreign accounts.  They must do so by October 15.  Sure, filing the TDF 90-22.1 form isn't a new requirement.  However, because of the crackdown on tax evaders by governments worldwide, including the United States, the IRS is tightening its rules on offshore accounts.

Here is a little quiz that I hope is helpful:

1) Is this you?

a) An American expatriate

b) A U.S. green card holder living overseas

c) A foreigner residing in the U.S.

(If the answer is YES to any of the above, keep reading.)

2) Do you have any account with the following in a country outside of the U.S.?

a) Banks

b) Brokerages

c) Mutual funds

d) Unit trusts

e) Pre-paid credit cards

f)  Business account where you sign the checks (even if the account is not in your name)

g) Any other financial account

(If the answer is YES, keep going...)

3) Look at all your account statements and find the highest balance for the calendar year for every account.  Add up the balances from all the accounts for a grand total.  How much do you get?

a) More than US$10,000

b) Less than US$10,000

(If you chose A, this blog is for you.)

So what now?  The IRS wants you to declare all your accounts.  You need to write on the form the most money you had in every account to the dollar.  (No more ranges.)  And you have to file for past years, too.  Evan Blanco, partner with Deloitte in Hong Kong, told me filers should make a good faith effort to "go back over the past six years and look at any accounts that they had anything to do with."

The penalty?  A hefty fine or, if it is deemed you willfully hid money, prison time.

So better get cracking.



September 25th, 2009
11:39 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China - This week, I found myself at a Chinese restaurant, staring, chopsticks in hand, at a basket of steaming chicken feet. How on earth could two economic powers - the U.S. and China - be fighting over these little claws?

China is threatening to cut off imports of American chicken meat and auto parts - a decision made after the Obama administration announced they would act on an existing World Trade Organization rule and slap a 35 percent tariff on Chinese tires sold in the U.S.

But is this a real threat? The Chinese love chicken feet (a dish translated as "Phoenix talons") - especially the kind from America. Chef Tsui Kam Tong told me American chicken feet are bigger, meatier and tastier than the rest.

U.S. poultry farmers breed larger birds so they can sell more breast meat. But at home, there is no market for the feet (outside of pet food companies) so suppliers are more than happy to sell them to the Chinese.

The claws are deep-fried to make them crispy then steamed so the cartilage is chewy and soft. The feet are seasoned - typically with black beans and barbecue sauce - and steamed again before serving.

 To eat chicken feet properly, Chef Tsui explained, you have to chew each mouthful slowly to get the flavor out of the skin and cartilage. And don't forget to suck on the bones, he said.

Chef Tsui prepares 40 plates of chicken feet a day. He said cooking the dish wouldn't be the same without claws from the U.S.

Hopefully, Beijing and Washington won't get bogged down in tit-for-tat trade disputes and lose sight of the bigger issues.

Perhaps, both sides should sit down to a dim sum lunch with this Chinese specialty.



September 3rd, 2009
06:22 AM GMT
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Look out from the bridge of a container ship like the Svend Maersk and it's easy to see why the crew is prepared to ward off pirates.  This vessel is a gold mine of goods, loaded with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of toys, computers and mobile phones.  That's a lot of loot.

Piracy is a scourge on the shipping industry.  World trade depends on container ships.  The vessels and their routes are required to be as efficient as possible so any disruption raises costs.  As the Svend's chief officer Christian Vium told me, in this business, time is money.

The ships are most vulnerable in confined waters near countries in economic turmoil.  "There is no doubt in my mind that whatever happens at sea is connected to the law and order on land," explains Captain Bo Nikolaisen.  The crew is most on alert when they travel through the Gulf of Aden where one of Maersk's ships, the Alabama, was hijacked by Somali pirates earlier this year.

The Strait of Malacca in Southeast Asia used to be another danger zone until Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia decided to take action to protect the well-trafficked thoroughfare.  The threat in the strait today, Nikolaisen says, has dissipated "considerably".

Captain Nikolaisen hasn't had trouble with pirates for over a decade, but he still takes precautions, especially in the Gulf of Aden.

1)  Speed up near maximum speed. The ship burns ten tons of oil per hour, but, he says, the fast movement makes it tougher for pirates to come aboard.

2) Turn off all unnecessary lights. Ships keep their navigational lights on but otherwise are cloaked in darkness.

3) Black out the portholes. Sheets of black plastic are fastened to portholes on every door.  The crew covers the portholes with the plastic to obscure the view of the ship's interior in case pirates make it onto the vessel.

Captain Nikolaisen says most pirates are thieves rather than hijackers.  They sneak on board to steal equipment or rob the captain of his laptop, cellphone, or maybe some cash, but usually they leave the crew unharmed.  However, given the economic crisis, better to be safe than sorry.

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August 16th, 2009
04:53 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China - Confused by the rules and regulations of China's stock markets? You are not alone.

Probably one of the most common questions I am asked as Asia Business Editor is how to invest in China, especially its stock markets. The markets are up more than 80 percent this year. With the world economy in turmoil, many investors see China as a bright spot on an otherwise dark landscape. They want in.

Market watchers debate if China's stock markets are headed into bubble territory and warn that trading is still a new phenomenon in the country. Information is scarce, spotty, and often only in Chinese. Market swings are extremely volatile.

But with that warning in mind, here is a little guide to help the intrepid better understand China's stock investing ABC's.

A-shares: Stocks of Chinese companies listed in mainland China - in Shenzhen and Shanghai. These shares are sold in Chinese yuan, largely to local investors. Foreign individual investors cannot buy A-shares directly. International institutions can, but with limits. "China has a very restrictive policy in terms of allowing foreign investing into the local stock market," explains Peter Alexander of Shanghai-based Z-Ben Advisors. "They don't actually need foreign investors because there is enormous amount of demand locally." Alexander suggests going through a bank or a mutual fund.

B-shares: B-shares are also stocks of Chinese companies listed in Shenzhen and Shanghai. These stocks were originally meant for foreign investors and are sold in U.S. and Hong Kong dollars. The B-share market never really took off in the way the Chinese government intended. Chinese companies looking for foreign funds often choose instead to list on the Hong Kong stock market. The government has recently loosened the rules to allow more domestic investors to buy B-shares though the number of companies is pretty small.

H-shares: If anyone wants to trade in Chinese stocks directly, Alexander says Hong Kong is the place to do it. "Over the past decade, a number of Chinese companies have begun to list on the Hong Kong market," he told me. "Banks, petroleum companies, every type of industry, big companies, very liquid." These shares trade in Hong Kong dollars and are governed by international standards, so buying and selling H-shares is more transparent. Information on these listed companies, Alexander says, is easier to find.

ADRs: American Depositary Receipts. These are shares of non-U.S. – in this case Chinese - companies listed in New York. Investors can buy big Chinese names such as China Mobile or PetroChina but the selection is limited.

Investing in Chinese companies is a bit of a letters game - and, certainly, a risky one.



August 10th, 2009
01:40 PM GMT
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Nobel laureate Paul Krugman is a famous man and particularly in Malaysia's political circles.

During the Asian financial crisis a decade ago, the American economist stunned most Western observers when he suggested that capital controls could be a viable antidote to a financial meltdown.

But that is exactly what Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had concluded as well.  Mahathir slapped capital controls on his country's financial flows to stop international speculators dead in their tracks. 

His decision was controversial at the time, but many of his critics now concede that Mahathir's tactic helped bolster Malaysia's economy rather than hurt it.  Krugman gets a lot of kudos here in Kuala Lumpur, too.

So how does Krugman suggest you track this global financial crisis?

1. Keep an eye on jobs.  "We can have a technical recovery where GDP is growing or industrial production is growing."  He told me, "But that's not going to matter for most people."  He wants to see countries worldwide adding jobs before he's convinced the economy is recovering.

2. Be wary of banks and oil.  Oil prices are hovering around $70/barrel during an unprecedented economic downturn.  "That's telling you that we've got a lot of pressure on oil supplies," Krugman said.  "And if the world economy starts to come back, oil prices will probably come up a lot, and that's a big brake on the recovery."

3. Consider working in health care.  Banking... not so much.  "Everybody's got real second thoughts about whether what's good for the trading floor is good for the economy," he said.  Trading floors are going to get "simpler" and "a lot more boring."

Veteran policymakers in Malaysia might think that would be a good thing, too.



August 3rd, 2009
11:21 AM GMT
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Editor's note: CNN features "The Biz Clinic," a weekly installment featuring expert analysis on steering through today's uncertain financial times. Be sure to watch CNN International every Monday for "The Biz Clinic."

HONG KONG, China - On our recent trip to Shanghai, my crew and I visited People's Square, a park in the heart of the Chinese city where children play in a fountain, fly kites, and blow soap bubbles.

These may not be the only bubbles forming in China.

According to many investment analysts, the nation's stock markets and real estate sector are headed into bubble territory. And investment bubbles, they say, can lead to significant losses if those bubbles burst. Just look at the U.S. housing collapse and the current financial crisis. Read more on growing anxiety in China

So how do you avoid an asset bubble? First, you need to learn how to spot one.

1) All bubbles start with a good story: Manias over dot.com companies, U.S. homes, even tulip bulbs all began the same way. People get overly excited about the prospects of an investment and bid up its value – even if the fundamentals lag.

2) Money, money: Money is available. Borrowing is made easy.

3) Herd mentality: Everyone and his third cousin are talking up that particular investment. Independent economist Andy Xie suggested taking a survey of the people around you. "When you hear that 90-percent of those people are in, you want to get out."

4) Denial: Jerry Lou of Morgan Stanley says if "you keep telling yourself that the story is so good, the growth is so robust, it's rock solid," it is time for a reality check.

Lou says hedge funds might want to keep playing the bubble before the crash, but warns average investors to be disciplined. Xie believes if you are in a bubble, it's best to get out, preferably early. "Don't try to make the last dollar," he cautions, "it's really dangerous." Watch how IPOs in China are making a comeback

It’s much safer to blow bubbles in the park.



June 25th, 2009
07:27 AM GMT
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In 2005, I took a road trip through Iran.  The sights – such as Yazd, the center of the endangered Zoroastrian religion, and the impressive mosques and madrassas of Esfahan – were some of the most fascinating I have ever seen. 

Also fascinating was what we didn’t see: No McDonald's, no Starbucks or any other globe-trotting American brand. 

Yet in the vacuum of Western products and services brought by financial sanctions against Iran, Asian companies have been eager to fill the void.

Ben Simpendorfer, author of "The New Silk Road: How a Rising Arab World is Turning Away from The West and Rediscovering China,” said trade between Asia and Iran has been surging since 2003.  China accounts for half the increase.  Railways, construction, and consumer goods firms, he says, have benefited in particular. 

Trade sanctions – in place since the 1979 revolution against the Shah – have diverted Iranian trade away from the West and more to the East. The rising trade power of China and other Asian nations with Iran has weakened the effectiveness of sanctions, Simpendorfer said.

"Over the past couple of years, demand from the traditional markets – Europe and the United States – have collapsed," Simpendorfer explained.  "So a lot of exporters in this region are now turning to the developing markets to try to find substitute buyers."

However, some exporters here are starting to face the same pressures as their Western counterparts.  "Asian companies are increasingly finding it difficult to finance their trade with Iran," he said.

Chinese exporters, Simpendorfer said, "are suggesting that they should rely on telegraphic transfers, for example, or euro-denominated trade finance, or even look to try to divert their trade through Dubai as an alternative to directly exporting to Iran."

The current unrest makes the future difficult to read, but Simpendorfer believes no matter the outcome, Iran’s economic ties with Asia are bound to rise.



June 15th, 2009
02:39 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China – How many of us have day dreamed of getting even with a back-stabbing colleague or a bullying boss?

Sticking voodoo dolls with pins.  Throwing darts at their photos on a board.  Playing a practical joke.

Here in Hong Kong, we have another fine option - hexing our office enemy with a shoe.

Under a bridge in the crowded shopping district of Causeway Bay, frustrated locals visit little old ladies who offer to curse that nasty co-worker (or anyone else giving you hell) for a bargain price of U.S. $6.  These geriatric mystics are busiest during the lunar "Waking of Insects" holiday, which marks when animals end their winter slumber.  However, "beating petty people," as it's known here, is now attracting those burned by the recession.

I recently visited one of the clairvoyants, Mei Ngan Leung.  She asked me to write a name down on a flimsy strip of paper.  She chanted a few words, took out a worn leather sandal, and beat and beat and beat the sorry-looking slip before torching and tossing it into a pail.

Who did I curse? Watch the segment on CNN.com.

The curse, Leung told me, will cause my enemy to change his behavior, to disappear from my life, or just leave me alone.  The hex, she said, cannot be undone and could, if the gods will it, last for eternity.

I'm not encouraging bad behavior, but I'm interested in hearing how YOU deal with the office pests.



June 12th, 2009
04:08 AM GMT
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HONG KONG, China - It appears Lisa Johnson Mandell has struck a chord.

The number of reader responses to my original post has nearly matched the 100 paid participants to her recent workshop in Hong Kong on “How to Snare a Millionaire.”

The overwhelming response online – which makes for fascinating reading - has been akin to this from “Dee”: "I’d hate to be desperate enough to chain myself to a millionaire through marriage, in a hope of finding security other than one I could just as easily provide for myself."

But a few of the writers – and some of my male colleagues – have wondered about the reverse. "The recession has caused more men to lose their jobs than women," Mandell told me.  "I anticipate a lot more men looking for sugar mamas."

So, in the interest of fair play, here is her advice for finding a female white knight.  Men, she says, need to follow similar rules:

Be eye candy.  "Cougar is a popular term," she explains.  "Sometimes you know they have had their starter husband and they're tired of the guy on the same footing who wants the younger hotter woman.  They want somebody who is young and hot themselves." 

Be a good listener.  Apparently, women like to air their grievances.  "It's called 'baggage dumping'," she says.

Be her caretaker.  "He needs to be the one who can do things for her that she can't do herself," Lisa says.  "Those things are different for men and women."

Don't talk about money or children.  Don't discuss problems, period, she says.  Not until the sixth date - or the sixth month if you can wait.

Don't talk about ex-lovers.  "SUCH a no no," Lisa says.  Otherwise, she explains, you might be inadvertently sending the message that you are not yet over your previous (possibly plebian) honey.

Trying to snare a millionaire is a practical tactic to survive the recession, Lisa told me, for both men and women.  In addition, she believes the financial strategy could just save your marriage.  "Fifty percent of all marriages break up because of financial issues," she reasons.  "I see nothing wrong with starting a marriage without that particular hurdle.  I mean, you are starting out with better odds."

That is, unless the couple starts to bicker over how to spend those millions. As “Kennedy” writes: “Okay, well after the marriage, what are the do’s and don’t’s for keeping and/or maintaining the millionaire?”

That’s the million-dollar question for all couples.



May 14th, 2009
09:32 AM GMT
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So how do you survive a firewalk?
So how do you survive a firewalk?

HONG KONG, China - My producer Pamela Boykoff somehow convinced me that walking on fire for the cameras was a good idea.

 Companies have been firing staff and now are trying to fire up those who remain. What better way to illustrate the corporate world's troubles than to show employees - and yours truly - walking over burning coals?

 So what is the point of this exercise, you ask?

Data storage firm EMC, the company that hosted the firewalk in Hong Kong for its employees, said the aim was to build teamwork. Companies pull staffers out of their comfort zone so, ultimately they bond and think outside of the box.

The idea, Steven Leonard, Asia president for EMC, told me, is that people are going through something together. The act, he said, is a "catharsis." I guess that is more powerful than taking the team out for a group dinner.

 I have to say the EMC employees seemed to be enjoying themselves - and bonding - as they overcame what many would perceive as a potentially traumatic experience. I, too, found the walk rewarding - probably because I managed to do it without engulfing myself in flames.

 So how do you survive a firewalk? I'm no expert, but here are a couple of tips:

 1. Don't panic.

 The real danger is playing mind tricks on yourself. Firewalk organizer Ronnie Ng says to imagine you are walking on a dewy field of grass. The secret is that a layer of embers protect your feet.

 3. Proceed at a normal pace - with confidence.

 Go too fast and bits of scalding coal get stuck between your toes. Walk too slowly - more than 3 seconds per step - and prepare for some blistering. Keep your eyes looking ahead. When you get it right, it should feel as though you are walking calmly along beach sands warmed by the sun.

 3. A back-up plan ... doesn't hurt.

 Chances are you won't need medical help, but Ng had buckets of ice water and olive oil on hand to soothe burning feet. The ice water, he said, stops pain. The oil was to help prevent blisters. Hong Kong has some excellent hospitals. Luckily, no one needed to go.

Don't panic. Proceed calmly. Have a back-up plan. Sounds like the same advice given to investors these days. Hopefully, these lessons can help us all avoid getting burned in business, too.

Watch my report



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