Barry Sternlicht says the ‘deck is stacked’ in China and he’s not a fan of investing there

Investing News

Global investor Barry Sternlicht told CNBC on Wednesday he continues to hold a cautious view on investing in China.

“We’re not investors directly in China,” the chairman and CEO of Starwood Capital Group said in an interview on “Squawk Box.” “It’s not a China thing, so much as countries where we think the deck is stacked or we can’t underwrite the political risk of the investment. It’s just, why bother?”

Sternlicht’s comments Wednesday follow Beijing’s recent regulatory crackdown on all manner of industries, including technology and private education firms. The developments thrust back into the spotlight concerns many overseas investors have had about operating in China, where the communist government can be unpredictable in exerting its far-reaching power over businesses.

Sternlicht, whose firm largely focuses on global real estate, has for years warned about the challenges of investing in China. For example, in a 2015 Bloomberg interview, he said the Chinese government’s central planning is “not always that obvious to the foreign investor” and suggested he wouldn’t get enough return for the risk he’s taking on.

Starwood Capital has, however, partnered with Chinese developer Shimao Property Holdings to operate a hotel joint venture in the country, which is home to the world’s second-largest economy. According to a 2017 press release, Shimao owned 51%, while Miami-based Starwood owned 49%.

Beyond that Shimao venture, Sternlicht told the travel news site Skift last year that his firm was “not ready to be adventurous” in China. “It’s not my comfort zone,” he added then.

More broadly, Sternlicht said he holds concerns about the economic implications of U.S.-China relations right now, particularly as it relates to Beijing’s recent encroachments on Taiwan.

Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department said in a statement it was worried about China’s “provocative military activity near Taiwan” and urged Beijing to “cease its military, diplomatic, and economic pressure and coercion” toward the democratic self-ruled island.

Taiwan holds a key place in the global economy because of its dominance in the semiconductor industry. However, China claims Taiwan as part of its own territory.

While saying the U.S. is unlikely to go to “physical war” with China over Taiwan, Sternlicht worried that the Biden administration may ratchet up economic sanctions and intensify the trade war that began under former President Donald Trump.

“It would strategically be a nightmare for the United States,” Sternlicht said. “Semiconductors will be more important than oil for this country,” he added. “Forget reserves. We need a semiconductor reserve because your washing machine will stop working. It’s a serious issue.”

“That is, really, the risk to the equity market because we will most likely start with a sanction, global sanctions against China. They think in 100-year intervals. We have investors that buy companies for weeks, not even months, so they will wait us out,” he added. … They have a huge competitive advantage.”

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