June 13, 2019 / 12:02 PM / 2 months ago

UBS global chief economist grilled in China for comment on pigs

BEIJING (Reuters) - A flippant reference to pigs in an inflation analysis by UBS Group AG’s global chief economist has caused a furore in China, with some in the financial community rejecting UBS’s apology and calling for a boycott.

A man walks past a UBS logo projected on a screen in Singapore, January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Feline Lim/Files

Paul Donovan, global chief economist of the Swiss bank’s wealth management department since 2016, said in a podcast that higher consumer prices due to sickness among pigs would matter to a Chinese pig.

“Does it matter? It matters if you are a Chinese pig. It matters if you like eating pork in China,” he said in the podcast on Wednesday, the transcript of which was posted on UBS’s official website and later taken down.

His comments caused a stir among Chinese finance professionals, who said they were “distasteful and racist”.

It even drew the attention of an influential state tabloid, the Global Times, which said Chinese internet users were outraged by the language used in the analysis of consumer prices.

“We apologise unreservedly for any misunderstanding caused by these innocently intended comments by Paul Donovan,” UBS said in a statement emailed to Reuters.

“We have removed the audio comment from circulation. To be clear, this comment was about inflation and Chinese consumer prices rising, which was driven by higher prices for pork.”

The bank said it was enhancing its “internal processes” to avoid any recurrence and it remained fully committed to investing in China.

African swine fever, a disease deadly to pigs, is ravaging herds across Asia. China has reported more than 120 outbreaks since it was first detected in the country in August.

Donovan did not immediately reply to a Reuters email seeking comment.

Some people interpreted his comment as a reference to people, not livestock, and questioned the bank’s sincerity. Some threatened to boycott it.

“I don’t like to deal with a bank calling us pigs, no matter what. We have a lot of banks to choose from,” said Shanghai-based Hao Dong, a portfolio manager who invests in commodities and equities.

“The apology is not sincere.”

Dong, a former UBS client, called for Donovan’s resignation and a boycott by Chinese financial professionals of UBS until it “gets more serious about the mistakes”.

The sentiment was echoed by Hao Hong, head of research and strategy at BOCOM International Securities.

“I don’t think the community accepts this apology,” Hong told Reuters.

“It’s appalling such low-quality research with cheap puns could have passed compliance. And UBS wants to make money in China,” Hong tweeted earlier.

UBS entered the China market in 2004. It is one of the largest investors in terms of approved quota to invest in mainland stocks.

It was the first foreign bank to take control of a joint venture securities firm in China.

The bank is also involved in wealth management, betting on the growing number of high-net worth individuals in the world’s second-largest economy.

Reporting by Yawen Chen and Ryan Woo; Additional reporting by Cheng Leng; Editing by Robert Birsel

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