Sound investments

Updated: 2012-08-03 11:12

By Robert Willox (China Daily)

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 Sound investments

Michael Pettis, a finance professor with Peking University, encourages his students to take an interest in arts and read books. Kuang Linhua / China Daily

Economist and indie music lover finds a perfect fit for his two passions

It's Zoomin' Night at the XP club, a time for experimenting with new sounds and music. An intense young man is pulverizing a snare drum while letting rip with primal roars and piercing electronic feedback. A girl on bass guitar keeps a rhythm of sorts going as a dozen spectators gather around. Among them and visibly appreciating the sound pictures and energy being created is 54-year-old Michael Pettis, a respected international economist and finance professor. It is his club and he is looking forward to the main act later in the evening. They are called Cradle Death.

He was doing something similar more than 30 years ago at the first club he ran, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol, when it was Lou Reed's Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth who were starting out and breaking musical boundaries. But that was in unbridled, free-lovin' New York. This is Beijing, 2012.

There are two sides to Michael Pettis, as different as chalk and cheese, or black and white, and yet as harmonious as yin and yang.

On the one hand, the former Wall Street trader is listened to attentively by government and company chiefs around the world - as well as by his students at Peking University - and is often paid small fortunes for imparting sound economic advice. On the other, he is a die-hard indie music lover, whose passion for underground music nurtures the raw talent of Chinese youth, who listen to no one, and impart their own sound.

To that end, he runs two businesses, a club and record label, which lose him money hand over fist and make no economic sense whatsoever.

But don't get him wrong. There is no Jekyll and Hyde transformation in Pettis from stuffy academic by day to bohemian Svengali at night. Nor is it a case of one passion being his job and the other his hobby.

"I really love both, and one pays for the other. It's a good balance," he says, perched in the loft office of his new music club Xiaoping, or XP, in central Beijing. "I don't think of it in terms of work or relaxation. If you do what you like, and like what you do, you're relaxed."

Plus, he says, it is common enough now and throughout history for wealthy people to support young and talented artists.

From the XP loft, Pettis also runs his record label Maybe Mars, which employs 10 people and has released 45 albums over the past six years - the same time that piracy, particularly in China, robbed the CD industry blind and left it to die.

"The club and label always lose money," he shrugs. "I've got no other hobbies. Everything goes into the music."

But Pettis doesn't seem to think in terms of success and failure. It's more about long-term development, and all about China's phenomenal growth, financially and culturally.

It was an interest in development that brought him to China first in 2001. "I came on holiday. I specialized in developing-country debt, mostly Latin America, and I didn't know much about Asia. I knew nothing about China. It was just curiosity."

That curiosity was more than satisfied. China was flexing its wings, about to take off economically, and the place to be. Pettis, who had been teaching at his alma mater, Columbia University in New York, took a job at China's other top university, Tsinghua, and planned to give it two years.

Then a chance meeting with a young musician, Zhang Shouwang, changed everything. Zhang was wearing a T-shirt with an imprint of Warhol's banana cover for Velvet Underground's debut album. Zhang had never heard of them, and so off they went to find a copy. It was a musical epiphany for both.

Beijing got the beginnings of its own music scene, with Pettis opening his first club, D-22, in the heart of the capital's main student area. He also had to go out and find the acts to fill it. "In a country of 1.3 billion, there's got to be quite a few musical geniuses about."

Zhang is now the front man for the Maybe Mars label's best-selling band and China's top indie band Carsick Cars. They will draw a crowd of up to 1,000.

As a top economist, many consider Pettis a visionary, especially the hedge funds and financial forums that seek his input and boost his income. The Wall Street Journal referred to him as a "sagacious blogger" on the subject.

"Everybody wants to talk about China. It's the hot topic," he says, confident that his services will be in demand for a good while to come. While on the cultural side of life in China, he sees himself as visionary.

"China is a bit like Britain and the United States were in the late 1950s, early 1960s when there was a cultural gap between the young and the anxious and conservative generation that had gone through the war," he says. "And we got rock 'n' roll, The Beatles, Bob Dylan. That's what's happening here now with the kids born during the 1990s. And the center of the new music scene is Beijing, and it's not going to die.

"Some of our musicians, if they lived in New York, they'd be famous. When I was involved in the East Village scene in New York, it didn't occur to us we were in the midst of it, a major moment in art history. Well it's like that in Beijing now, and in 20 to 30 years time, people will look back and recognize it as such.

"I tell my students they should be out meeting with these musicians, so that they can tell their children 'I was there. I saw Shouwang, Rustic, Snapline or Xiao He'."

Pettis also believes it will help his students become better economists, or at whatever they want to achieve from their studies, and bemoans China's narrow mindset on education.

"I encourage them to take an interest in the arts and read books and take the so-called waste classes such as philosophy and literature," he says. "To be good economists or business people you need to have other interests. You can't just be good in your own field. You can't produce leaders with that."

As long as they get this message, he is happy to be known across the country as "that mad professor at Peking University".

Pettis' upbringing and education was very cosmopolitan. He was born in Spain, where his French mother ran the private school he attended, and his father, an American, was a geologist and civil engineer whose work took him and his family around the world, including to many underdeveloped countries. Pettis toyed with his own creative talents, writing poetry and songs, but these would remain undeveloped.

"I wish I could be a musician," he says. "But my love for music has to be satisfied by building the stage for others, not performing on it myself."

And that stage, he believes, has been firmly set in Beijing, where he sees his club and record label as an incubator for China's musical talents, whatever the style, and without the economic pressures of having too little or too much money.

"We're a bit perverse about how we do things. We closed D-22 after six years because it was becoming too famous, too big," he says. "It's not what we wanted. We were getting a lot of outsiders, more interested in dancing and drinking, and having a good time, than in the music. That changed the atmosphere."

It sounded like the club was a success.

"It depends how you define success - whether it is being popular with a million followers or acclaimed by a small appreciative audience," he says, adding that they do not publicize the new and much smaller XP club, and hold Sunday afternoon sessions in preference to big Saturday nights.

He is confident this long-term investment will pay off and add to China's increasing soft power, even though he thinks the cultural center will move from Beijing to Shanghai within 20 years.

As for the harder side, the country's economic power, he says: "I'm more of a skeptic about China's successful growth model. Put in the historical context, it's simply not true. We've seen it many times before with countries generating debts faster than growth. They need to change the model.

"Globally, we have a huge demand problem that's going to get worse. From an investment point of view, it pays to be conservative right now."

Whatever happens, Pettis intends to see it through.

"I don't plan very much, but it's hard to imagine me leaving in the next five to 10 years. It's my home now.

"As an economist, you can do US or European situations from anywhere in the world. But to get China right, you have to be in China."

(China Daily 08/03/2012 page28)