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Anbang Nationalisation Underlines China’s Financial Stability Priority

Logo of Anbang Insurance Group. Photo credit: Mighty Travels. Licenced under Creative Commons.

WU XIAOHUI, THE politically well-connected chairman of the giant insurance group Anbang (his wife is Deng Xiaoping’s grand-daughter), has been in detention by authorities since last June. Now he is to stand trial for economic crimes, code for fraud and embezzlement, and the company run by personnel from the China Insurance Regulatory Commission for a year or two, an extraordinary move. The state assuming control of a private-sector business, and particularly one of this size and prominence, is unusual.

Anbang has been on an aggressive international acquisitions drive, buying such foreign trophy investments as the Waldorf Astoria in New York and a string of other luxury US hotels. Chinese firms, with official encouragement, have ‘gone global’ in recent years, rapidly expanding their international mergers and acquisitions activity.

In 2016, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest overseas investor. Non-financial outward direct investment that year exceeded $170 billion, a 44% increase from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Commerce. However, such activity entails tremendous financial risk from the leverage taken on, a risk exacerbated by Chinese firms’ lack of experience with the integration and management challenges that M&A brings, especial in deals that cross national and cultural borders.

Anbang appears to fall squarely in this camp. On some estimates (its finances are notoriously opaque), it has encumbered itself with debt to the point that it is fast approaching technical bankruptcy despite having more than $300 billion of assets.

That also makes it ‘too big to fail’. State administration will provide the funding to keep its core life and non-life insurance business operationally solvent. The insurance regulator says the company’s current operations remain stable but that its solvency is seriously endangered by its ‘illegal operations’ unspecified but which presumably include its investments in prestige prime US real estate.

Last August, authorities announced a list of sectors hat should be off-limits for Chinese firms as the foreign investment spree into things like European football clubs and Hollywood entertainment businesses was exacerbating debt concerns.

More broadly, in the drive for financial stability and to forestall any systemic financial shocks, President Xi Jinping has been asserting greater control over state enterprises and reining in sprawling private conglomerates, notably the ‘big four’ — Angbang plus Dalian Wanda, Fosun International and HNA Group — that have expanded rapidly via debt-fuelled foreign acquisitions.

That quartet that accounted for 20% of Chinese foreign acquisitions in 2016. Also, there has always been a nagging suspicion that, given the quartet’s political connections, some of this M&A acted as a conduit for senior officials to get their money out of the country.

All have been ‘urged’ to sell assets and pay down their debt while state banks were told to rein in their lending to them. In January, the chairman of the Banking Regulatory Commission, Guo Shuqing, warned that ‘massive, illegal financial groups’ posed a grave threat to financial reforms and the stability of the banking system and that China would address the issue ‘ in line with the law’.

Taking Anbang into state control may be the prelude to a series of moves against the layer of private conglomerates below the ‘big four’, a group of some 25-30 companies said to be in the regulators’ sights. Despite or perhaps because of his connections, Wu’s treatment, in particular, is intended to show that no tycoon is immune from being ‘deterred’ from risky borrowing and investment overseas, or from being reminded that private M&A strategies should be integrated with national investment priorities.

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World Bank Ups Its Prospects For China’s Economy

THE WORLD BANK has become more bullish on China, at least for the near-term. In its newly published annual Global Economic Prospects, it has upped its estimate of GDP growth in 2017 to 6.8% (an 0.3 percentage point increase from its forecast a year ago and reiterated in June) and said it expects 6.4% growth this year (an 0.1 percentage point increase from its previous number).

China benefited, the Bank now says, from the recovery in world trade last year, fiscal stimulus and the rebalancing of the economy, which eased the drivers of the economy away from state-led investment. Inflation rose but was still within target and housing price increases moderated in response to policy measures.

The current account surplus continued to narrow, but the clampdown on capital outflows meant that exchange-rate pressures eased and foreign-exchange reserves recovered modestly.

On the flip side, non-financial sector debt continued to grow, reaching 260% of GDP, regardless of further monetary and regulatory tightening. Credit growth still outpaces nominal GDP growth.

The Bank says that financial sector vulnerabilities — particularly high corporate indebtedness in sectors with overcapacity and deteriorating profitability — are one of the key downside risks to growth.

Others include the possibility of protectionist policies in advanced economies (for which read the United States) and rising geopolitical tensions (for which read mainly North Korea).

The Bank also expects the economy to continue its measured deceleration, averaging 6.3% growth in 2019 and 2020, and less beyond that as adverse demographics kick in over the next decade.

A steeper-than-expected slowdown or debt- or geopolitical-driven financial stress would have impacts well beyond China’s borders.

The Bank’s view is that authorities have substantial ‘policy buffers’ to absorb financial shocks. Nonetheless, it, like others, calls for further structural reform to reallocate economic activity towards more productive sectors.

This would include financial and corporate sector reform as well as greater efforts to deleverage and improve the fiscal sustainability of provincial, municipal and local government.

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China’s ‘Achilles’ Heel’ Of Debt

THE IMF’S LATEST Article 4 consultations report on China’s economy retraces some well-trodden ground. While edging up its projections for China’s growth projections, the Fund again underlines the growing risk from debt in the medium term.

Arguably this is the greatest macroeconomic risk that China faces and which the Fund says needs to be addressed now if sustainable growth is to be sustained. It summarises that risk in a supplementary note to the main report thus:

International experience would suggest that China’s credit growth is on a dangerous trajectory with increasing risks of disruptive adjustment and/or a marked growth slowdown.

Managing the debt issue is inseparable from rebalancing the economy, away from infrastructure investment and export-led growth to domestic consumption.

Progress in rebalancing, the Fund acknowledges, is being made, particularly in reducing industrial overcapacity. Borrowing by local governments is being made more transparent, and regulators have started to address financial sector risks.

The Fund, though, calls, as it has repeatedly done in the past, for the pace of reforms to accelerate, taking advantage of the relatively robust growth the economy is now enjoying.

Its check list of five action points will be familiar:

  • boost consumption by increasing social spending by the government and making the tax system more progressive;
  • increase the role of market forces by reducing implicit subsidies to state owned enterprises and opening up more to the private and foreign sectors;
  • deleverage the private sector by continuing the recent regulatory tightening in the financial sector and greater recognition of bad assets in the financial sector;
  • ensure macroeconomic sustainability by focusing more on the quality of growth and less on quantitative targets; and
  • improve policy frameworks so that the economy can be better managed.

The fund particularly recommends accelerating the reform of state owned enterprises by moving social functions away from them and opening their protected sectors to more private and foreign competition.

There will be a cost to that which will strain the financial system. Bankruptcies will rise with the elimination of blanket state guarantees and lenders that have made uncreditworthy loans will get into trouble. The political concern is that strain on the financial system turns into social stress.

IMF China reforms scorecard August 2017

As this Bystander has noted before, policymakers have been steadily if cautiously managing down the GDP growth rate for several years, mostly by reducing too high investment and too rapid credit growth. They have been less active in opening up replacement sources of growth, notably by opening up to the private sector.

The fund also lays great importance on the need to liberate private savings for consumption by increasing public spending on health, pensions and education, three areas in which its spending is well below the OECD average, and by increasing social transfers to the poor, who are disproportionately greater savers than the poor in other countries,

Again as this Bystander and many others have noted before, the longer China delays tackling the structural underpinning of its debt load, the longer resolving them will take and the greater the risk of not doing so becomes.

This is an opportune moment from an economic point of view to do so. Growth in the first half of the year was more robust than expected with both the global economy and financial conditions being benign. Domestically, the effects of cutting industrial capacity are starting to work through, bolstering profits and areas of the private sector where state-owned enterprises are largely absent, such as e-commerce are showing exemplary dynamism.

Also, balance-of-payments and exchange-rate management have been adept while some old-school fiscal stimulus six to nine months ago has also kicked in.

Markus Rodlauer, deputy director of the IMF’s Asia and Pacific Department, put it this way:

The situation at this point right now…should be used as an opportunity…to bear down and to buckle down and continue with this financial sector adjustment, which is really the Achilles’ heel now of the economy.

Once the 19th Party Congress due to be held in October or November is out of the way, and assuming it has not changed politics appreciably, that may happen more visibly.

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IMF Sees Increases In China’s Growth And Debt

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY Fund (IMF) has upgraded both its economic growth forecast for China in 2018 and the downside risks of debt.

In its July update to its World Economic Outlook, the Fund says its projections reflect the strong first quarter growth this year and expectations of continued fiscal support.

It now says it expects growth next year to be 6.7%, the same as this year and in 2016, and 0.1 percentage point higher than previously forecast. Growth in 2018 is expected to slow by 0.2 percentage points less than previously projected, to 6.4%.

This the Fund believes will be because authorities will sustain high public investment to achieve the target of doubling in real terms 2010’s GDP by 2020. This, in turn, implies that debt levels will not be attacked as actively as needed and financial reforms delayed.

The National Financial Work Conference, the high level policymaking agency chaired by President Xi Jinping that concluded its quinquennial meeting on July 15, emphasized that policymakers’ priority was to deleverage state-owned enterprises (SOEs) within its focus on limiting systemic financial risk.

First, though, Xi has to get through the forthcoming Party plenum, which should provide clues to the strength of his position to tackle the politically powerful interests that control the SOEs.

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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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China’s State-Owned Debt Problem

WHEN, AS IS expected later this year, the U.S. Federal Reserve starts to raise interest rates, it will put renewed strain on emerging economies’ debt management. Those most vulnerable are countries with high levels of dollar-denominated external debt and those with high public debt.

Where does that leave China? As so often, slightly oddly placed.

China’s external debt exposure is low. Foreign debt is estimated to be equivalent to less than 10% of GDP. That modest figure by international standards is because China funded its infrastructure building domestically and not by borrowing from abroad. Thus it has avoided one of the textbook potential triggers of an emerging market debt crisis. It helps that China has a financial system that is semi-detached from global capital markets.

On the other hand, China’s domestic borrowing is huge. Total debt, including debt of the financial sector, nearly quadrupled between 2007 and 2014, by the reckoning of the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), rising from $7.4 trillion to $28.2 trillion, or from 158% of GDP to 282%. This increase was a consequence of the investment-driven stimulus Beijing launched to offset the 2008 global financial crisis and which was funded by bank credit, albeit domestic not external borrowing.

That new debt was largely taken on by non-financial corporations. MGI calculates that that set’s debt accounts for 125% of GDP. Rating agency Standard & Poor’s estimates that China surpassed the United States as the largest corporate debt borrower in 2013.

China’s non-financial corporations are a broad church, however. Their debt is concentrated within state-owned enterprises, not anymore in private companies with the one significant exception of firms in the property sector. MGI estimates that approaching half of non-financial corporate debt connects in some way to real estate development, with 60 firms accounting for two-thirds of it.

An IMF Working Paper on corporate indebtedness in China published by Mali Chivakul and W. Raphael Lam in March puts it thus, “while leverage on average is not high, there is a fat tail of highly leveraged firms accounting for a significant share of total corporate debt, mainly concentrated in the real estate and construction sector and state-owned enterprises in general.”

Chivakul and Lam go on to argue that development and construction firms could withstand a modest interest rate shock, but other corporations in the wider economy would feel the knock-on effect of a slowdown in the property sector. “The share of debt that would be in financial distress would rise to about a quarter of total listed-firm debt in the event of a 20% decline in real estate and construction profits,” they say.

A separate report from economists at the Hong Kong Monetary Authority comes up with a similar analysis — that China’s debt problem is largely an SEO debt problem — and points the finger at  ‘policy driven lending’. “SOEs’ leveraging has been mainly driven by implicit government support amid lower funding costs than private enterprises,” they say.

There is now less such politically driven new lending than before. That partly reflects the passing of the post-2008 stimulus but also a recognition that private firms create the new jobs that are critical to social stability. It also reflects the shuttering, particularly since 2012, of small, inefficient and heavily polluting and indebted SOEs in industries such as steel, cement and mining.

A further round of such ‘SOE reform’ seems likely. And to this Bystander, the corruption investigations into SOEs seems in part an attempt to accelerate those reforms, given that  SEOs are seen as acting as a drag on the wider push for reform and economic rebalancing.

From SOEs it is but a short step to China’s other deep pool of domestic-debt concern — local government borrowing. Outstanding debt has reportedly reached 16 trillion yuan ($2.6 trillion), up 47% from June 2013. Overall, government debt is equivalent to 55% of GDP, again not a concerning high level by international standards. But it is concentrated in pockets, closely tied to real estate, and a further drag on an already slowing economy.

Beijing has both the political will and the financial wherewithal to underwrite local government defaults and forestall any threat of financial systemic risk. However, policy makers will use the mere hint of it to push local government finance reform and deepening municipal bond markets.

Local governments have relied on land sales for revenue, and also seek to turn a yuan from commercial activities conducted through captive off-balance-sheet special financing vehicles, which have borrowed heavily from both mainstream and shadow banks. So the threat of contaigion is real. Rising interest rates will only make it more so, and aid the cause of local government finance reform.

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Beijing Calls A Halt To Direct Local Bond Issuance

China has called a halt to an experiment launched last October that let local authorities issue bonds directly. The provision permitting it was dropped from the draft budget law for its second reading earlier this week. State media quote Hong Hu, deputy director of the National People’s Congress’s law committee saying, “Considering the rapidly growing scale of local debt, attention must be paid to the accompanying problems and potential risks.”

Local authorities’ debt was 10.7 trillion yuan ($1.7 trillion), approaching 30% of GDP, as of the end of 2010, according to a June 2011 official audit, the first time the numbers were made pubic. While China’s local government debt bomb has concerned central government for some time, the roll-back follows a review of local government’s captive commercial investment companies. These take local government obligations off-balance sheet, and mostly put them in a murky world of local property development. These investment vehicles have raised 330 billion by issuing corporate bonds so far this year, compared to total new issuance of 300 billion yuan in the whole of last year.

With 28% of the local-government debt issued as part of the stimulus introduced in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis falling due this year and next, Beijing is increasingly aware of the risks of bond defaults, particularly at a time when it is seeking to expand its capital markets, including the muni-bond market, as part of broader financial reform. The World Bank has warned of systemic risk.

The finance ministry will continue to issue bonds on local authorities behalf. That issuance will reportedly increase fivefold to 250 billion yuan this year. The draft budget law includes a loophole that would let local authorities issue bonds with specific permission from the ministry, an indication that direct issuance will be reconsidered once the clear and present danger has passed.

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