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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