When is stimulus spending not a stimulus package? When it is previously planned projects just being brought forward, apparently. State media are reporting that Beijing is saying that it is not going to stimulate the economy in the way it did after the 2008 financial crisis (via Bloomberg). That pumped 4 trillion yuan ($600 billion) in to China’s economy, an steroid-like injection of credit whose side-effects are still being felt in persistent inflation, ailing bank debt and excess industrial capacity.
With the economy again slowing, the temptation is to fall back on tried and trusted methods of state capitalism, and the devil, again, take the consequences. Up to point. Latter this year a new generation of leaders will be ushered in who will have to establish their political legitimacy and sustain the Party’s legitimacy through making all Chinese better off. A delicate balance between a quick fix and sustainable growth will have to be found that still promotes the long-term rebalancing of the economy.
So all praise to five-year plans. The National Development and Reform Commission, the agency that oversees national planning and green-lights individual projects lower down the development food chain, has the capacity to advance 1 trillion-2 trillion yuan-worth of infrastructure projects. It has already approved nearly 900 projects in the first four months of this year, twice the number in the corresponding period of last year. If anything, the pace of new approvals is gathering.
The constraint on policymakers is anunwillingness to repeat 2008s reliance on bank lending to local authorities to finance the stimulus, and a reluctance of the big-state owned banks to make their balance sheets creak any more under a further burden of new loans. Hence the talk on more private-sector financing of the proposed infrastructure investment in railways, energy, green technology, telecoms, healthcare and education.
This month, Beijing has announced a series of measures to give more scope to private capital and to expand domestic demand by subsidizing sales of consumer goods (as it did after 2008). Whether China’s private lenders will provide better judges of risk than their state-owned counterparts is yet to be seen, especially when there are national development goals breathing down their necks. Yet there is also no getting away from the fact that lending outside the state-owned banking sector is rudimentary or informal. The big state owned banks will still have to do most of the heavy lifting of a new stimulus, however it is labeled. Everyone will want to keep their load as light as possible.