China’s Debt Hits Close To Home

THIS BYSTANDER HAS been far from alone in highlighting the tightrope that China’s policymakers have to walk between stimulating growth and accumulating more debt as they manage the structural slow down of an economy switching from industrial to services-led growth and facing adverse demographic changes.

Thanks in  part to the People’s Bank of China (PBOC)’s counsel of restraint, driven by the central bank’s twin concerns of the debt bubble bursting and inflation getting out of hand and its measured but steadfast drive for financial sector liberalisation, Beijing has been selective in its stimulus measures to keep a slowing economy expanding at a sufficient pace to hit the official 6% GDP growth target for this year and the larger one of doubling total and per capita GDP between 2010 and 2020.

While the plan has always been to manage a slowing of the economy as it rebalances towards a more sustainable long-term growth model, the impact of the trade and technology disputes with the United States on world trade have put at risk the 5.5-6.0% growth China needs to achieve in 2020 to hit the overarching decade-long goal.

Earlier this month, the central bank cut its lending rates for the first time in three years. The cuts were a token five basis points for the five-year, one-year and seven-day loan rates. There remains plenty of headroom for further monetary stimulus, but not the appetite, on the central bank’s part at least, to occupy it.

Taking a barb at the United States, PBOC Governor Yi Gang said in September that “unlike central banks of some other countries, we are in no hurry to resort to a considerable interest rate reduction or QE policy”. Yi is keeping his powder dry, in the event that significant rate cuts do become necessary to provide monetary stimulus. Yet his priority is to deleverage the economy, or at least in current circumstances to maintain a “stable leverage ratio…to ensure the debt sustainability of the entire society”, as he put it at the same press conference.

In its latest annual financial stability report released this week, the PBOC gave a stark warning about the potential systemic risk in the buildup of household debt, whose total now equals total household income. One figure that caught this Bystander’s eye was the central bank saying that household leverage had hit 60.4% of GDP at the end of 2018. The Bank for International Settlements had pegged the ratio at 54% (four percentage points higher than in the EU, by way of comparison).

The PBOC is particularly concerned about the growth of mortgages and consumer loans. It has warned previously of the buildup of corporate and local-government debt, but turning its spotlight on household debt is a notable change of focus. Easing of mortgage lending standards to boost property investment and the use of consumer credit to increase retail sales have been the main stimuli of growth in recent years. Rising household incomes make the rise in consumer loans manageable for now, although further buildups would test that assumption, especially among low-income households.

A new IMF working paper on China’s household debt notes that

High household indebtedness could constrain future consumption growth and increase financial stability risks…we find that low-income households are most vulnerable to adverse income shocks which could lead to significant defaults. Containing these risks would call for a strengthening of systemic risk assessment and macroprudential policies of the household sector. Other policies include improving the credit registry system and establishing a well-functioning personal insolvency framework.

Regardless, further consumer-focused fiscal stimulus is likely, perhaps a second income tax to follow last year’s 420 billion yuan ($59 billion) one, and the reintroduction of subsidies for electric and hybrid vehicles.

It is the rise in mortgage loans that more concerns PBOC policymakers. Mortgages account for more than half of all consumer debt. There is evidence that they are inflating a speculative bubble, as well a making affordable housing a politically sensitive issue. Nearly two-thirds of outstanding mortgage debt is accounted for by families owning at least two properties. Some of last year’s tax cut has gone into savings rather than retail consumption, with the saving being in the form of property investment.

This all comes against the background of the crackdown on shadow banking, which included unlicensed digital-payments businesses, online lending and other internet finance companies, in the process shutting down all cryptocurrency trading platforms and more than two-thirds of online peer-to-peer lending platforms.

This has split over into the formal banking sector. Three regional banks, Baoshang Bank, Hengfeng Bank and the Bank of Jinzhou, have needed bailouts this year. Up to 30 more have been late in filing financial accounts required by regulators, suggesting further bailouts to come. In addition, corporate bond defaults this year will likely exceed last year’s record.

The ‘big-four’ state-banks are financially robust enough that any such losses can be absorbed without systemic risk. However, having spent several years engineering higher bank asset quality and lending standards, the PBOC will not want to put the big banks in the position of having to underwrite other institutions’ bad debts. Yi has been clear that any can carrying at a troubled financial institution should be done by its shareholders, not the state via the big-four banks.

Part of the exercise in risk management will require financial-markets reform and further opening to foreign investors. China has moved steadily but cautiously on that. The addition of Chinese stocks to MSCI’s benchmark indices and the likelihood that other index providers will follow suit, adds new urgency.

The changes will bring an inflow of foreign capital into Chinese equities of at least $40 billion this year and, on best guesses, a further $30 billion in 2020. That will provide a welcome influx of capital, particularly for companies in the private sector. It will also offer some relief for a central government whose consolidated deficit, the IMF forecasts, will grow to 6.1% of GDP this year and next, from 4.8% of GDP in 2018. As the late US banker Walter Wriston famously said, “capital will go where it is wanted, and stay where it is well-treated.”

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