World Economy

GE's John Rice joins the China bulls club

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The plunge in China's stock markets, the yuan devaluation in August, and weaker-than-expected investment and factory output data have fanned concerns the world's second largest economy might be slowing down for good. But not everyone is convinced that it is all doom and gloom for China.

General Electric's Vice Chairman, John Rice, joins a small but influential group of business leaders that includes BMW CEO Harald Krügerk, Disney boss Bob Iger and WPP CEO Martin Sorrell, who continue to be bullish on China despite worries about China's growth and its ability to transition to a less heavy manufacturing-led economy.

Speaking to CNBC on Tuesday, Rice said, "I think whether China's growing at 7.5 percent or 6.5 percent or some other number, you still have the world's second biggest economy that's growing at a rate significantly above the average for all emerging market countries," adding that China would continue to be the number one or number two market companies aimed to sell into over the next 10 to 15 years.

Jerome Favre | Bloomberg | Getty Images

One of the reasons for Rice's optimism on the Chinese economy is the shift he has seen in its manufacturing sector.

"China's really moving up the hierarchy in terms of manufacturing," he said. They are "doing less low-end manufacturing and are interested more in additive manufacturing and 3D printing."

Official data and independent market surveys paint a rather dismal picture of China's manufacturing sector. The final Caixin/Markit manufacturing purchasing managers' index (PMI) slipped to 47.3 in August, the lowest reading since March 2009 and down from 47.8 in July. The reading was a touch better than the flash reading of 47.1. Meanwhile, China's official PMI data also slipped for the month to 49.7, the weakest since August 2012. A number below 50 indicates a contraction in activity.

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Rice acknowledged that in the short run business conditions were going to be tough as the market selloff in China continued, fueled by fears of a global recession and further currency devaluation.

"I think it'll be choppy, there's no question," he said.

But for an U.S. company, doing business in China was almost always in any case underpinned by the complex geo-political relationship between the two countries, Rice added.

An employee works on an assembly line producing Mercedes-Benz cars in Beijing, August 31, 2015.
Kim Kyung-Hoon | Reuters

An important piece of policy currently standing in the way of U.S. businesses in China was coming out of Washington, rather than Beijing, he said. He was referring to the reauthorization of the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which continues to be held up in Congress. Since the bank's operational charter expired in July it has not been able to process any new financial commitments to help U.S. businesses win contracts at home and abroad.

"The US congress has made a decision that the US should be the only major economy that doesn't have an export credit financing capability," Ric e told CNBC. "There are 50 other countries that have them. We think this is just crazy."

Rice said the reauthorization hold-up threatened U.S. jobs because overseas customers could push for production to be moved to facilities in countries that offered export financing support.

"Choice is determined by our customers, who say, when we bid, you must submit a bid that includes export credit financing," said Rice.

With the U.S. going to the polls next year, Rice added that there was a need for having a strong leader who understood the global business environment.

"If you think you can create enemies, build walls, not pass trade agreements, and exist effectively in a global economy, then you're looking at a world that's much different than the one I see," Rice warned. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has mooted the possibility build walls on the U.S.-Mexican border to stop the inflow of migrants and has on several occasions taken digs at China.

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On Europe, Rice remained upbeat despite the turmoil created first by the Greek crisis and more recently by the unexpected influx of migrants, largely from war-torn Syria.

"We like Europe. You can't paint Europe with one brush," he said, pointing out that the socio-economic and political differences between various European countries provided pockets of growth opportunity for GE.

GE last week won approval from EU regulators for its purchase of French power company Alstom's energy business, and Rice was sanguine about the near-eight months it had taken for his company to get the green light for its largest-ever deal.

He acknowledged that an aggressive regulatory environment was not unique to the EU: "I think a company like ours has to accept that that's just the way it's going to be."

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