Stabilised Growth Lets China’s Focus Switch To Deleveraging

GOVERNMENT STIMULUS KEPT GDP expanding at 6.7% for the first three quarters, as close to bang in the middle of the official target range of 6.5%-7% as makes no difference. The economy has stabilised and looks to be back on its glide path of steady but slowing growth. However, the cost has been a deceleration of the ‘rebalancing’ of the economy towards consumption-driven growth and an acceleration in the accumulation of debt, particularly corporate debt, and particularly the debt of state-owned enterprises with excess capacity and real estate.

It was state government infrastructure spending, not private investment that kept growth going in the third quarter. An uptick in the property market helped, too, though caution is advised here given there was a 34% surge in sales but a 19.4% fall in new construction starts in September year-on-year as central and provincial governments introduced measures to cool off the property market).

Overall, state fixed-asset investment grew 21.1% in the first nine months whereas private investment was up 2.5%. However, the slowing growth in private investment seems to have bottomed out in the middle of the year while state investment growth similarly appears to have topped out in the first half.

That state investment spending has been on tick. The IMF’s Financial Stability Report released earlier this month highlighted the rising gap between credit growth and GDP growth. Total debt is about 250% of GDP, with corporate debt equivalent to more than 100% of GDP.

It is not so much the size of the debt-to-GDP ratio that is a concern; the United States has a similar ratio, for example, and the eurozone’s is a bit higher at 270%. It is the pace at which China’s is growing that alarms. At the end of 2007, the year before the stimulus to counteract the global financial crisis was launched, the figure was only 147%.

History suggests that any economy that has experienced such a rapid pace of debt growth will be confronted by either a financial crisis (e.g., the United States) or a prolonged growth slowdown (e.g., Japan). It is just a massive challenge for an economy to deploy such volumes of capital productively over a short time. Either the projects available offer diminishing investment returns and more and more loans to fund them go bad; there are only so many bridges to nowhere that can be built. Or credit starts to dry up.

The interconnectedness between the banks and the government due to the centrality of the state-owned sector in the economy makes a crisis unlikely. The government is effectively creditor and debtor. Also, domestic savings, not flighty foreign capital funds the debt. There is plenty of liquidity in the financial system, the People’s Bank of China will readily supply more if needed, and capital controls are in place to check capital outflows should they start to happen on a significant scale.

That is not to say the risk is totally absent. The proliferation of shadow banking products, particularly those offered by the country’s small banks, remains a significant vulnerability that could test the resilience of the country’s capital buffers.

Nonetheless, Beijing’s challenge in managing down debt levels is to avoid the second consequence, prolonged slow growth, and to do it with one hand tied behind its back having set itself in 2010, the target of doubling GDP and per capita income by 2020.

Of late, supporting short-term growth has been given priority over deleveraging to ward off long-term financial risk. Now, that growth looks to have stabilised (and slowing GDP growth to below 8% has not brought the apocalypse of social unrest predicted in the double-digit growth days), the priorities are changing.

The IMF has long expressed concern at China’s debt levels and the perils that persist in the shadow banking system. It recommends corporate deleveraging and opening up of the state-dominated service sectors to private firms, along with a stronger governance regime and hard budget constraints on state-owned enterprises within the broader context of moving to a more market-based financial system.

New guidelines from the State Council allowing creditors to exchange debt for an ownership stake in a debtor company are likely only a first step in that direction.

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The Renminbi Ups Its Status

100 yuan notes

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY Fund added the renminbi to its basket of Special Drawing Rights (SDR) currencies at the start of this month, thus officially marking it as a member of the elite club of global reserve currencies. It is a membership of which China has long been desirous.

The IMF had decided last November that China could join at the next scheduled SDR review, and that it would constitute 11% of the basket. That gives it the third largest share, behind the dollar and the euro but ahead of the other member currencies, the yen and sterling.

Weightings are meant to reflect the use of a currency in trade and the financial system so China may have been treated generously in this regard. It share of global payments, for example, peaked at 2.8% last year and is below 2% now.

Joining the SDR basket is, at this point at least, as much symbolic as anything, an acknowledgement of the global weight of China’s economy, and encouragement to push ahead with the financial reforms that would make the renminbi the freely usable and widely adopted currency that IMF reserve currencies are meant to be.

That, in turn, would promote more foreign interest in yuan-denominated assets, particularly bonds. Central banks and sovereign wealth funds will, however, build up their renminbi-denominated holdings only gradually.

Looking back in a decades time, though, the change may look more momentous, both if China’s financial markets become deeper and more liquid or it turns out that the renminbi was just the first of several emerging market currencies (India’ rupee is another candidate) to find a place in the SDR basket.

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IMF Bangs On A Familiar But Necessary Refrain

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY Fund has left its growth forecasts for China this year and next unchanged at 6.6% and 6.2%. However, in the newly published edition of its World Economic Outlook, the IMF notes that “China’s growth stability owes much to macroeconomic stimulus measures that slow needed adjustments in both its real economy and financial sector”.

Policy support and opened credit taps stabilised growth in the first half of the year close to the middle of authorities’ target range of 6½% –7% for the full year.

The Fund bangs on a familiar drum when it calls for more decisive action in tackling corporate debt and governance issues in China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Lack of progress on these, it says, raises the risk of a disruptive adjustment from reliance on investment, industry and exports to greater dependence on consumption and services. Rebalancing could become ‘bumpier than expected at times,” the Fund warns. The current short-term stimulus on which China is relying and a still-rising credit-to-GDP ratio exacerbate that concern.

Credit dependency is increasing “at a dangerous pace, intermediated through an increasingly opaque and complex financial sector”. A combination of factors are at work here: “the pursuit of unsustainably high growth targets, efforts to prop up unviable state-owned enterprises to preserve employment and defer loss recognition, and opportunistic lending by financial intermediaries in the belief that all debt is implicitly guaranteed by the government”.

The IMF’s policy prescriptions are similarly familiar:
• address the corporate debt problem by separating viable from unviable state-owned enterprises, harden budget constraints and improve governance in the former while shutting down the latter and absorbing the related welfare costs through targeted funds;
• apportion losses among creditors and recapitalise banks as needed;
• allow credit expansion to slow and accept the associated slower GDP growth;
• strengthen the financial system by closely monitoring credit quality and funding stability, including in the nonbank sector; continue to make progress toward an effectively floating exchange rate regime; and
• further improve data quality and transparency in communications.

The medium-term outlook for China remains clouded by the high stock of corporate debt—a large fraction of which is considered at risk. And vulnerabilities continue to accumulate with the economy’s rising dependence on credit, which complicates the difficult task of rebalancing the economy across multiple fronts:

The medium-term forecast assumes that the economy will continue to rebalance from investment to consumption and from industry to services, on the back of reforms to strengthen the social safety net and deregulation of the service sector. However, non-financial debt is expected to continue rising at an unsustainable pace, which—together with a growing misallocation of resources—casts a shadow over the outlook.

Spillovers from China’s rebalancing and gradual slowdown via global trade and increasingly financial channels continue to concern the Fund. These have been significant, and China’s growing global role, the Fund says,  makes it all the more important for it to address its internal imbalances.

However, it also notes the other side of the coin:

The outlook for emerging market and developing economies will continue to be shaped to a significant extent by market perceptions of China’s prospects for successfully restructuring and rebalancing its economy.

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A Scorecard Of China’s Economic Rebalancing

A NEWLY PUBLISHED IMF Working Paper takes the measure of Beijing’s progress in rebalancing the economy away from investment and export-driven growth to high-value-add innovation-led industry and domestic consumption.

In summary, the paper says:

External rebalancing has advanced well, while progress on internal rebalancing has been mixed, with substantial progress on the supply side, moderate progress on the demand side, and limited progress on the credit side. Rebalancing on income equality and environment has also been mixed, with the energy intensity of growth falling and labor’s share of income rising, but income inequality and local air pollution remaining very high.

The author of the paper has also created a visual traffic-lights type scorecard, with data going back to 2010 and forecast out to 2021.

We have taken the liberty of taking a snapshot of where we are now based on 2015 or most recent available data (see Table 1, left).

The IMF has long been cheerily upbeat about the prospects for China’s economic development — no dramatic headlines generated by dire warnings of the rising risks of a banking crisis, as came from the Bank for International Settlements in its latest quarterly review published this week.

While the paper does acknowledge in this regard that the risk of “a disruptive adjustment” will increase significantly in the medium term, it also says that buffers such as foreign-exchange reserves are still large and able to help absorb potential financial shocks, although they will likely diminish over time, especially if reforms lag.

The paper also notes that demographic and structural changes will provide tailwinds to China’s rebalancing. It is certainly true that the rapid ageing China will experience over the next 15 years will turn the demographic dividend that has helped power growth for the past three decades into a demographic deficit.

The paper underlines that “successful rebalancing requires coordinated progress on various fronts. Going too fast on one area, while too slow on others, may derail the whole process.”

That is also not to say that significant policy efforts are not needed to get there.

Specific recommendations include:

  • continuing to move to an effectively floating exchange rate regime to prevent future foreign-exchange misalignments;
  • raising government health care spending to encourage a lowering of the savings rate (always a treat to see the austere IMF urging a communist country to increase state spending);
  • deregulating services to drive service sector productivity to offset the impact of labour being re-allocated away from the high-productivity industrial sector. This also comes with a warning of the dangers of deindustralising too early and too fast;
  • pushing ahead with the glacial pace of reform of state-owned enterprises to improve the efficiency of credit allocation.  Currently, 40% of industrial assets are managed by SOEs, with asset returns some 7 percentage points lower than their private counterparts, the paper notes; and
  • improving the redistributive role of fiscal policy through a more progressive tax structure, increased transfers and strengthened social safety net.

No surprises in that list. All the prescriptions are out of the IMF’s policy toolkit for China that the Fund has been using to cajole for reform.


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China’s R&D Gets Ever Bigger Bucks

TARIFF CUTS ON imports of some 200 IT products ranging from touch screens to semiconductors took effect on Thursday. The goal is to eliminate them within seven years.

China is one of 50 countries that signed up to a World Trade Organisation Information Technology Agreement last year to promote trade liberalisation of technology goods. China imports an estimated $325 billion worth a year of the components covered by the agreement. Reducing the duty on them will cost an estimated $2.25 billion a year, rising to a potential $8 billion a year with complete elimination.

However, the benefits of cheaper imports for the IT sector are seeing as outweighing these costs. Beijing is undertaking a drive to promote the development of technology-based industries. To this end, it is also raising research and development spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2020 from 2015’s 2.1%, a change that eventually will fatten China’s R&D pot by $50 billion a year.

Intensification of investment into R&D facilities outside China parallels this. So far this year, Chinese companies have announced nine new overseas R&D centres for a total capital expenditure estimated at $224m, according to fDi Markets, a Financial Times division, with pharma and biotech investments particularly prominent. Only Germany and the United States have spent more.

That will support the transformation of the manufacturing economy from low-end exports to self-sustaining indigenous technological innovation, an essential prop for the rebalancing of the economy overall towards being consumption-led.

Winning domestic market share is the aim for now of Chinese firms’ R&D efforts.  The success some are having is creating an indigenous innovation culture built around rapid, incremental product development that can take advantage of the economies of scale of the domestic market.

However, Chinese firms are closer than ever to competing with developed-economy companies in R&D. Products they are now selling in Africa and Asia, as well as at home, are starting to show the results of that, a harbinger of what will eventually come to developed markets, too.

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China Gets Its UK Nuclear Prize, Probably

THE UNITED KINGDOM’S decision to go-ahead with three nuclear power plants, the first at Hinkley Point, has had a somewhat surprisingly gruff welcome from state media.

Shortly after taking office in July, UK Prime Minister Theresa May ordered a second look at the projects, which were approved by the previous administration. This was to include cost and environmental concerns but also a security review of China’s involvement, which includes part-financing new reactors at Hinkley Point and Sizewell, both to be built and operated by France’s EDF, but also leading the construction and operation of a reactor at Bradwell to indigenous Chinese designs.

“However, in spite of the approval, China-phobia sentiments continue to hover and could possibly introduce more troubles as construction of the project gets underway, a Xinhua commentary thundered. “It is reported that while announcing the go-ahead, Theresa May has also promised ‘significant new safeguards’ to make sure that investment from China does not threaten national security. Of course, the British leader’s misgivings make little sense.”

The new safeguards give the British government a veto over sales of full or partial ownership of the reactors both while they are being built and then operated, and institutes national security reviews for future critical infrastructure projects, a practice that is common in most large economies, including China.

There had been dire warnings from the Chinese side when May announced her review that abandoning the projects would end the ‘golden era’ of Sino-British relations championed by her predecessor David Cameron and his finance minister, George Osborne.

“Let us hope that London quits its China-phobia and works with Beijing to ensure the project’s smooth development, Xinhua’s commentary continued.

Its testiness underlines the uncertainties that still surround the projects. China is desperate that Bradwell goes ahead to give it a key early sale to a developed nation of its still untried Hualong One reactor. Beijing hopes that will lead the way to a global export market for what a senior official at China General Nuclear Power estimates will be some 200 nuclear power plants.

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China Can Now Rattle Global Markets With The Best Of Them

Shanghai Stock Exchange seen in 2009. Photo credit: Aaron Goodman. Licenced under Creative Commons.

BOTH LAST YEAR and early this, global stock markets were fazed by a sharp fall in prices on the Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges. Chinese equity and currency movements are having an increasing impact on investors everywhere. A new working paper published by the Bank for International Settlements, ‘the central bankers’ central bank’, suggests that China’s influence in this regards is rising to the level of that of the United States in some circumstances.

Market moves in China no longer reverberate just in Asia, the authors argue. However, the growth of financial and economic linkages within Asia raise questions about the pace and extent of financial market spillovers in the region and whether there are substantive differences in those flowing out of China to those from the United States.

Empirical study is only starting in this area, though the anecdotal evidence of the effects of financial market shocks is growing steadily. Chang Shu and her colleagues in the bank’s Monetary and Economic Department conclude that China’s influence in this regard has been growing significantly in recent years. This is especially true of equity and currency movements, as increasing financial linkages supplement extensive trade ones established by China’s central position in Asian supply chains.

A working paper from the IMF published last month came to a similar conclusion.

However, that has not diminished the importance of the United States, which also has impact across all asset classes including bonds, and particularly at times of market stress. China’s global financial linkages, though growing, remain modest compared to the United States’ not least because China’s capital account is not fully liberalised. Chinese monetary policy is nowhere near as potent a driver of global liquidity as the US Federal Reserve’s.

For investors, the implication of the work is that diversification of portfolios through Asia investment is becoming less effective at mitigating risk because Asian market movements are now driven by external factors to a greater degree than before.

For regional policymakers, the findings pose the challenge that yield-seeking capital flows to their country (and their exit) will be driven by developments in both Chinese and US financial markets, often in a mutually reinforcing way that could undermine macroeconomic and financial stability in vulnerable economies. It will likely take the emergence of intraregional institutional investors to weaken that linkage.

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