Tag Archives: financial reform

Making The Half Empty Glass of Financial Reform Go Away

THAT CHINA’S FINANCIAL system is “unbalanced, repressed, costly to maintain and potentially unstable” will not brook many arguments among policymakers in Beijing. It is, after all, why they are deep into an extensive programme of financial reforms, reforms that are seen as central to the long-term rebalancing of the economy.

It is also why “a weakly regulated shadow banking system” and a tendency of “wasteful investment and over-indebtedness” that is the consequence of a “traditional investment-driven growth model shaped by heavy state intervention” are also being tackled as policy priorities.

However, it is one thing for officials to know that and quite another to have it told to them publicly by the World Bank.

The phrases quoted above were all contained in a section of the Bank’s latest China Economic Update, published mid-week, which called for a quickening of financial-sector reform. The entire section has now been removed from the update, because, the Bank says, “it had not gone through the World Bank’s usual internal review and clearance procedures.”

Whatever, this Bystander is tempted to say. Any red faces at the Bank are probably due as much to the tongue lashing that would have come from Beijing as from the embarrassment of having to redact a section of a report post-publication.

With share prices on the Shanghai exchange in meltdown and the signing ceremony earlier this week setting up the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a putative rival to the Bank’s regional clone, the Asian Development Bank, and longer term to the Bretton Woods’ multilateral institutions as a whole, there could be some understandable sensitivity on both sides. Also, China readily takes public offense at any perceived criticism by any institution seen to be in the pockets of the U.S. and the EU — and the World Bank has previous in this regard.

What, to our mind, lies behind this particular spat is that when the International Monetary Fund comes to consider in October whether to endorse the renminbi as an official reserve currency by including it alongside the dollar, sterling, euro and yen in the basket of currencies that comprise its Special Drawing Rights, progress on China’s financial reform — and particularly whether renminbi interest rates are market-based — will be a key criterion.

The IMF reviews the components of its SDRs every five years. It would be an unwelcoming rebuff for China, which is being ever more assertive in claiming its place at international top tables, if it were made to wait until 2020 for inclusion.

As recently as March, Prime Minister Li Keqiang told Christine Lagarde, the IMF’s managing director, that China intended to speed up the financial sector reforms needed to meet the stringent requirements of stability and liquidity demanded of a reserve currency.  With IMF staff preparing their internal assessments for the 2015 SDR review around now, this is not a time when Beijing will brook any public plain-speaking about the pace of financial reform.

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China’s Financial Regulators’ 2014 Priorities

CHINA’S FOUR MAIN financial regulators have outlined their legislative priorities for the year: No great surprises. The introductions of catastrophe and food liability insurance, probably the least discussed reform proposals to date, are in line with the Party’s overall top priorities for the year, food security and improving the rural environment. In summary:

People’s Bank of China: Expand cross-border use of the yuan; maintain steady credit growth; improve the multi-tier capital market; and engage further in international financial regulation policy-making.

China Banking Regulatory Commission: Pilot three to five private banks, opening up the banking sector to domestic and foreign private capital; gradually reduce the threshold for foreign banks to enter the banking sector and ease their RMB operation requirements; keep a close eye on big housing developers, and reduce the risk of default through weak links in the construction industry’s money chain; restructure overcapacity industries, liquidating their assets and reducing the risk of default.

China Securities Regulatory Commission: switch IPOs from the current approval system to one based on registration; let the timing of IPOs and how shares are issued be determined by the market, as long as issuers disclose all relevant information as required; abolish approval requirements on 21 items over the next three years starting from 2014.

China Insurance Regulatory Commission: work with the finance and other ministries to implement catastrophe insurance; set up food liability insurance, given the importance of food safety in China.

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Banking On Privately Owned Banks

THE ANNOUNCEMENT EARLIER this week of a pilot programme to establish three to five private banks this year is a tiny first step towards providing competition to China’s giant state-owned banks and easier access to mainstream banking services for small businesses. Don’t forget that many of China’s 3,000 banks are already majority privately owned but they collectively account for just 11% of the banking sector, underlining the embedded advantage the big state-owned banks derive from their national branch networks and the immense deposit bases those provide, as well as from their political connections and implicit state guarantees.

The pilot scheme is another piece in the mosaic of financial reform that is itself part of the grander design for rebalancing China’e economy. It starts to fulfill one of the pledges made at last November’s Third Plenum policy meeting, though the qualification requirements to establish one of these new banks remain unclear. But broadly what will make them different from existing private banks is that they are intended to be entirely privately financed, and would “bear their own risks” — no de facto policy role nor implicit state safety net.

Another way to further open up the financial sector, increase competition, and provide small businesses with an alternative source of finance to the shadow banking system would be to make it easier for foreign banks to enter or expand in the industry. The state’s banking overseer, the China Banking Regulatory Commission, is looking at that but it wants to let some home-grown “trusties” to get established first.

That could include restructuring some existing state owned local and regional banks under new private ownership. A range of non-financial sector players have expressed interest in getting into banking since the possibility was floated last year. Among them are Wang Jianlin, chairman of Dalian Wanda, one of China’s biggest property developers. Others include another developer, Macrolink Real Estate, retailers Shanxi Baiyuan and Suning, which already has millions of customers using its online payments system and a network of 1,700 stores, and Internet giant Tencent.


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A Key Question For China’s Financial Reform: How Small Is A Large Role For SOEs?

Prime Minister Wen Jiabao’s comment about breaking up what he called the monopoly of the four big state-owned banks is the tip of the iceberg in the fierce internal debate about the role of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in China’s economy. That debate falls under the general but misleading rubric, financial reform. Yet it is not about privatizing the banks and the SOEs. Nor is it about replacing China’s model of state-driven capitalism with a free-market version. It is, instead, about two critical but related political questions. First, can the Party can still achieve its policy goals–of which the overriding one is maintaining its monopoly on political power–while controlling, through the state, a smaller share of economic output? Second, how far dare it go in risking loosening its political control by shrinking the state sector in order to let the private sector create more of the economic growth it needs to legitimize its monopoly on power?

This debate is going on against the backdrop of a leadership transition, always an unsettling time, and compounded by now being in conjunction with a critical transition in China’s economy. It is widely if not universally accepted among the top leadership, that China’s three decades of rapid fixed-investment and export-fueled growth are coming to their close. The country needs to rebalance its economy to get the sustainable growth that will let it slow the economy without coming to a full-stop, to defuse the debt bombs and deflate the asset bubbles caused by its investment-fueled growth, and to make the great leap forward to clear the middle-income trap and land as a developed economy.

How much structural change does that require, not just economically, but politically? More pointedly, how much further can economic reform go without political reform? It is a debate that has been off-limits, in public and much of the Party, since 1989, not least because it questions the trade-off of continuing rising living standards for living under of one-party rule (with the acceptance of the corruption and cronyism that involves rather than concern for the absence of Western-style civil rights and liberties.)

Hard-line statists and Mao revivalists, the so-called neo-Comms, maintain that the SOEs–and a firm stabilizing social hand–are a tried and trusted means to steer the economy through its present challenges, validated by the 2008 global economic crisis that laid low Western free-market economies. They provide the Party through the state with a mechanism for the administrative guidance of the economy. In the absence of market-based monetary policy tools, the big four banks sit at the center of this web of control dialing up or down the available supply of funds to their SOE customers as required to regulate investment levels.

Economic reformers fear This model are no longer fit for the new task at hand. The banks are inefficient allocators of capital, as the mounting piles of bad bank debt attest, while the SOEs crowd out the private sector, notably small and medium-sized enterprises that will be needed to create the productivity growth, jobs and innovation that China will need for the next stage of its economic development. With the inopportune political demise of Bao Xilai, the ex-boss of Chongqing and poster boy for the post-Maoist revivalists, putting the old guard on the back foot for now, the reformers are taking the opportunity to press their case. They are not calling for the abolition of SOEs, but saying that they need shaking up and scaling back, a case also argued by the Development Research Council/World Bank report on China in 2030, which we described as a “political manifesto disguised as an economic blueprint”.

China has more than 110,000 SOEs, but the 121 “national champions” in the strategically important “pillar industries” that report to the State Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) and their big state-owed lenders (separately regulated) are the nexus of the country’s state-directed capitalism. They have a sway over the economy disproportionate to their number–5% of corporations but 40% of GDP at best guesses (nearer 50%, if thousands of small rural local-authority-controlled enterprises are included). In the pillar industries, which include both strategically important sectors and emerging technologies, SOEs control more than 90% of the assets. Their political and economic power have become so entwined at all levels that they have become deep redoubts of vested interest.

Consolidation, driven by merger and acquisition (the number of national champions, for example, has been reduced from 193 in 2003), now means that 40 or the 46 Chinese companies that rank among the world’s 500 largest corporations are SOEs. That only gives the biggest even more economic and political clout with which to defend the privileges they enjoy. The most topical of these is their ready and cheap access to loans from the big state-owned banks. Private companies are mostly forced to turn to unofficial sources and pay usurious interest rates–the issue Wen highlighted and the experiment in Wenzhou is seeking to address. SOEs get favorable tax treatment, and land and raw material subsidies. They are first choice when it comes to government procurement. As with bank loans, it keeps it all within the club. SOE staff have a powerful incentive to defend their turf, too: salaries are five times the average in the non-state sector. The benefits are better, too, and the political access unrivaled.

With the caveat that SOEs as a group are no more monolithic than any other large group of companies across multiple industries, privilege has not turned into performance. Qiao Liu of the University of Hong Kong has calculated that the average return on equity for SOEs to be 4%, compared to 14% for unlisted private firms. But there is a great range among the profitability of SOEs: those in industries dominated by the state are highly profitable; those in sectors with high levels of competition, not so. (Gao Xu, while working as an economist at the World Bank’s Beijing office, made a detailed analysis of SOE performance by industrial sector.)

China’s WTO membership committed Beijing not to interfere in the commercial decisions of SOEs, but as top executives are appointed by the Party, SOEs tend to be politically self-regulating. They take it as a patriotic duty to fall in behind the goals of five-year plans. That is not to say they are docile handmaidens. As players in the patchwork of power and patronage that rules China, they have their own agendas to promote and turf to defend, as well as those of factional interests allied to them. One reason that the pace of financial reform has been so glacial in recent years is that it is seen by SOEs as a threat to their position.

That has not prevented reformers’ long-standing efforts to at least improve the governance of SOEs, by structuring them less like ministry departments and more like shareholder corporations, even if government at some level is the sole or controlling shareholder. The creation of SASAC in 2003 was an attempt to provide external institutional oversight that would promote more professional management of SOEs. More recently, foreign investors have been brought in via offshore listings of SOE subsidiaries in the hope that international management best practice will arrive along with new equity. The biggest SOEs have been pushed overseas in part to experience business in competitive, rule-bound markets that China will, eventually, have to create at home if it is to have balanced growth. This experience has also provided them with a stark lesson in how the rest of the world assumes that even the most commercially-oriented SOEs are an arm of government, as companies like Chinalco and Huawei have recently found out.

Loosening the ties that bind SOEs to state and Party is necessary if China is to give the private sector more scope to drive the growth the county needs to move to the next phase of its development. This goes far beyond just making more credit available to small and medium-sized enterprises, a welcome start though that would be for China’s entrepreneurs. However, socialism with Chinese characteristics, or even capitalism with Chinese characteristics, means that state-owned companies will continue to play a large role in the economy. Privatization, as happened in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, is not on the cards. It is a matter of how small is large.

For foreign companies and investors, some sectors will become more open to them as they will to private Chinese companies. Others, strategically important, will remain off-limits not just to foreigners but domestic private firms as well. SOEs will strongly resist being reined in, as they have successfully done before. They may find the fight tougher this time. The political stakes are certainly higher as the Party confronts its defining dilemma: how to loosen the ties that bind without endangering either economic or, worse, political stability.

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Breaking Up China’s Big Banks

Every leading nation’s big banks wield political clout. China’s, being state-owned and run by big political players in their own right, sit more easily at the center of power than most. They see it as their rightful place. Both they and the government see their role as providing conduits of national policy. Administrative guidance to the banks sets the course for their customers in business and industry in the cause of economic growth, be that slowing inflation, deflating bubbles or stimulating growth. So when Prime Minister Wen Jiabao says the big banks’ monopoly needs to be broken as they make easy money for themselves while denying loans to cash-strapped small and medium-sized enterprises he needs to be assured that he is safe in rattling such powerful cages and that the need to do so is urgent.

In the words of the song, breaking up is hard to do. Yet Wen’s words at least get the idea on the table and add to the determined thrust by the economic reformers to use the leadership transition now underway to revitalize near moribund financial reform. Wen again pointed to the pilot scheme in Wenzhou to create alternative financing channels for small and medium-sized enterprises in the city that have hitherto been forced into the usurious shadow banking system. This is being seen by some as an experiment that if successful will be expanded more broadly as a necessary underpinning of the rebalancing of the economy towards domestic demand.

The prime minister’s words came as regulators further opened capital markets to foreign investors. That, though, is politically easier to do than taking on the big banks, large redoubts of vested interests that they are. The opportunity to do so may lie in the slowing economy turning more bank loans sour. Government has had to step in once before to clean up the state-owned banks’ balance sheets. The price for doing so again could be more conditional. And might it even include the big banks improving their rudimentary credit-risk analysis? A bit more competition wouldn’t go amiss in that regard, while plenty of entrepreneurs would be happy to have their creditworthiness judged on their business prospects rather than their political connections.

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Bringing Wenzhou’s Black Lenders Out Of The Shadows

Wenzhou is a case study in the deep fault lines underlying China’s financial system. While big state-owned enterprises could get credit easily and cheaply, even in the face of the official squeeze on bank lending to cool inflation, small and medium sized company owners and entrepreneurs had to turn to the underground banking system where interest rates can top 60%. In Wenzhou, it is estimated that lending through the shadow banks, also known as black banks and which run from unregulated lending pools to loan sharks, amounts to $78 billion a year — accounting for a fifth of the lending in the city. Some 90% of its households supply the capital in an attempt to get a higher yield on their savings than is available from official banks.

Yet the city, which prides itself on its entrepreneurial flair, has also seen a rash of suicides and absconsions by heavily indebted borrowers unable to meet their crushing interest payments, especially as the economy slowed and speculative real estate and stock market investments, into which much of the borrowed money had been directed, fell in value. Around 100 business owners from the city disappeared or declared bankruptcy. Though only a few firms have collapsed, the interconnectedness of small businesses causes cash-flow reverberations up and down supplier and customer chains. One in five of Wenzhou’s  360,000 small and medium-sized enterprises reportedly stopped operating last year due to cash shortages.

So serious has the credit crunch and the risk of a bad-debt implosion become in Wenzhou that, a police crackdown on borrowers having failed to deter the lending, the State Council has now approved a pilot project to bring this shadow system into the light. Some lenders will be allowed to convert to rural banks or micro-finance companies, big state-owned banks will be directed to make more credit available in the city (as they already have been), and new savings and investment vehicles, including offshore ones, will be opened up to city residents and small and medium-sized enterprises. These vehicles will offer potentially better returns than bank savings accounts. (With the persistence of inflation over the past 18 months, real interest rates have been negative.)

The proposals are also intended as a test of expanded financing channels for small and medium-sized businesses, as well as an attempt to drain the property and stock markets of speculative capital that authorities would prefer used to keep growth and employment going in the real economy. What is not yet clear is whether these new  institutions will experiment with market-set interest rates, as the original set of proposals put forward by the city government last November had called for. That may still be a reform too far.

Nationally, the underground banking system was officially said last year to have $470 billion in outstanding loans, though unofficial estimates are half as much again. Fitch, a U.S. ratings agency, has estimated that every other yuan now lent in China comes through a shadow bank. That is a scary share for an unregulated sector surrounded by still inflated asset bubbles. It is fault line that runs deep and far beyond Wenzhou.


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China’s Reform, The World Bank And Vested Interests

The World Bank’s report on China in 2030 is a political manifesto disguised as an economic blueprint. Even the title, Building a Modern, Harmonious, and Creative High-Income Society, hits political not economic buttons. Not that the Bank casts it in that light, but it does provides China’s reformers with both strong arguments and influential backing to press ahead with reviving the economic reform. That has slowed to a glacial place now it has hit the hardest rocks of vested interest.

The World Bank gives the document intellectual and international heft. The participation of the State Council’s Development Research Centre, a prestigious government think tank, and with that the involvement of some of the most prominent technocrats who drafted the current five-year plan, lets the report avoid criticism leveled at recent International Monetary Fund recommendations for stepping up economic reform. That was castigated for being being an outside view that didn’t understand the realities of China. That can’t be said of the Bank’s report. It also gives it the implicit imprimatur of Li Keqiang, the man expected to take over from Wen Jiabao as prime minister in the current leadership transition and thus the Politburo member in charge of the economy. He signed off on the current five-year plan. He also told World Bank president Robert Zoellick, in Beijing to present the report, that China has “a long way to go before realizing modernization”.

Li is being realistic about the challenge ahead for China’s reformers. The World Bank report offers them a strategic description of the way forward rather than policy prescription. Its six strategic directions for China’s future are:

  • Completing the transition to a market economy;
  • Accelerating the pace of open innovation;
  • Going “green” to transform environmental stresses into green growth as a driver for development;
  • Expanding opportunities and services such as health, education and access to jobs for all people;
  • Modernizing and strengthening its domestic fiscal system;
  • Seeking mutually beneficial relations with the world by connecting China’s structural reforms to the changing international economy.

They are goals familiar to anyone who has read China’s current-five year plan, even if that couches them in terms that give more prominence to reductions in income inequality, universal social services, greater environmental protection and more energy efficiency. The Bank’s overarching message, though, lays out the unstated sub-text behind the five-year plan: structural reform is needed to promote a market-based economy, redefine the role of government, lessen the power of state enterprises and develop the private sector.

There is no doubt that China’s economy has reached the point in its development at which the dirigiste methods that have delivered 30 years of double digit growth need to change. Growth will inevitably slow in the coming years. All industrializing nations run into the law of large numbers. The exports and fixed asset investment that have driven growth cannot be sustained at that pace. Growing a $6 trillion economy by 10% in a year is a far greater task than growing a $350 billion one that much. That latter number is, best guess, roughly the size China’s economy was in 1981 in nominal terms. That is was 30 years of 10% growth does to $350 billion economy: turn it into $6 trillion one.

It is a remarkable achievement. Yet the arc of China’s development is not that different from the rapid industrialization phase of countries such as South Korea, Japan or even, much earlier, western Europe and the U.S., even if the magnitude of China’s arc is on an unprecedented scale. The country’s well of cheap labor, transferred from farm to factory, is starting to run low. Demographics, too, are working against growth. The value of foreign-developed technologies diminish as they age. Most of all, the economy needs to move up the value chain if it is to clear the barrier at which so many developing economies fall, that point where per capita income reaches at $10,000-12,000 a year. Vault it, and a nation becomes a middle income country on the road to being a rich one. Fail, and the country ends up stuck on a plateau of disappointed expectation.

China needs to do all that is recommended in the World Bank report if it is to clear that so-called middle-income trap, or economic Great Wall. The report doesn’t put it in these exact terms, but its message is that without reforms, growth will slow to the point where there isn’t the momentum to make the leap. This in not about whether there will be a hard or soft landing in the near term, though the Bank warns that responses to short term problems could undermine long-term strategy.

It is the politics that is the quagmire. There are clear implications for the Party in adopting market reforms. No country has done so successfully and remained a one party state. Even Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, the closest approximation any democracy outside a city-state has had to one-party government, was eventually put into opposition at the ballot box. There is a difference between political rights and civil liberties, and the Party may find a seam in that distinction in which to work. But it would be a brave Bystander that bets on it.

The Bank does not push an overtly political agenda of what elsewhere in the world would be seen as neoliberal reforms. It hopes instead to push on an open door, offering practical steps to further an agenda China’s economic policymakers, if not all its leaders, have frequently endorsed. It does, though, call for the government “to redefine its role to focus more on systems, rules and laws” and for “redefining the roles of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and breaking up monopolies in certain industries, diversifying ownership, lowering entry barriers to private firms, and easing access to finance for small and medium enterprises.” Those are all overtly political acts. The Bank recognizes the extent of the political opposition from vested interests to its proposed reforms. Even getting to this point with its report has been a political to and fro. The text is still a “conference edition”, i.e. subject to further revision, for which read political to and fro. State media’s reports on the report are low key (you’ll have to read to the final paragraph to find mention on it).

Reining in the power of the SOEs provides a particular challenge to the reformers. SOEs, like the military, are a source of power, money and influence for the princelings, the descendants of Mao’s original revolutionary leaders, an elite collective dynasty of some 400 families who hold extensive sway over the Party, army and the economy. Xi Jinping, the assumed successor to Hu Jintao as president, is one of their number. The princelings are neither a monolithic block nor are all opposed to reform. But modernizing the governance of the PLA to make China’s military internationally competitive is an easier sell for the reformers, and a creates more winners among the incumbents, than modernizing the state-owned enterprises and banks to the same end.

Yet without removing the structural distortions that the increasing sway of the of SOEs and banks hold over the economy, the sustainability of China’s growth remains in doubt. The double challenge is that the side effects of the twin forces of untrammeled infrastructure investment driven by SEOs and local governments that are little more than property developers–high energy consumption, inefficient capital allocation, unfettered real estate development and environmental degradation–also put economic growth at risk and threaten greater social unrest and thus the Party’s political legitimacy. Breaking the vested interests will be extremely hard for the reformers. Where they are not corrupt, they are systemic. Or both. That is one reason that reform has slowed to the extent it has.

Development of the private sector, giving more freedom to businesses to be innovative, changing the deeply rooted attitude of officials at the lower levels of the Party and government that quantity of economic growth matters more than quality of growth, more transparency to local government finances and governance, are all big changes from the way officials have done things for 30 years, 30 years that from inside China look immensely successful. China’s resilience to the post-2008 global financial crisis, and the authorities response to it, has, if anything, only further set back the case for structural reform.

That changes that China needs to rebalance its economy and go to the next phase of development go the nub of the nexus of government, Party and state, don’t make them any less necessary. How the new leadership handles it will be the measure of its success as custodian of the Party, state and government for the next ten years. The Bank is being politically adroit in casting its timetable for reform to well into the leadership term of those now about to assume the reins of power. Yet how, and whether, President Xi resolves the inevitable factional infighting between the inevitable winners and losers from reform, will determine the cast of his successors long before then.

If there is one thing a state-planned economy should be good at it is producing plans. Beijing has so many accomplished technocrats, and especially among its economic policymakers, that producing really good blueprints for change isn’t a problem for it. Implementing them is the challenge. For all the World Bank’s backing, an institution that may well be led by a Chinese before 2030, these are going to need strong domestic political leadership to be brought to fruition. That means the emergence of a modern-day Deng Xiaoping figure, singly or collectively, or, what no one wants, wrenching crisis. Otherwise China’s economy will stall, and wrenching crisis of another kind ensue. China will then look very different in 2030 from what anyone now is planning for.


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