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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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China’s First-Quarter GDP Growth Highlights Rebalancing Shortfalls

MORE UNRUFFLED WATERS for the Chinese economy–at least on the surface. First-quarter GDP growth, as reported by the National Bureau of Statistics, came in at 6.9% year-on-year.

That is its fastest pace in six quarters and the first back-to-back quarterly increase in GDP in seven years. The first-quarter number is also well in line with the 6.5% official annual growth target set last a month.

However, a closer look at the components of growth suggests that deeper currents swirl dangerously, and particularly that the old-school model of state investment-led growth still holds sway. Fixed asset investment in the first quarter, up 9.2%, was an acceleration from 2016’s 8.1% growth rate. Infrastructure investment rose by 23.5% while real estate development was up 9.1%. Industrial production also rose.

Worryingly for the rebalancing of the economy towards greater domestic consumption, retail sales growth slowed to 10% in the first quarter from 2016’s 10.4% expansion.

US President Donald Trump’s backing off from threatening a trade war with China because he needs Beijing’s cooperation in dealing with North Korea has provided breathing room for China’s economy, which it appears to be exploiting with some gusto.

The stimulus that Beijing has given the economy has led the International Monetary Fund to raise its forecasts for China’s growth this year and next in its latest World Economic Outlook to 6.6% and 6.2% respectively. That is 0.1 and 0.2 percentage points higher than its January forecasts and 0.4 and 0.2 percentage points higher than its October 2016 forecasts.

The question remains, however: how sustainable can this pace of growth be long-term without rebalancing taking more substantial hold and the problem of excess leverage being tackled?

As the IMF puts it:

The medium-term outlook, however, continues to be clouded by increasing resource misallocation and growing vulnerabilities associated with the reliance on near-term policy easing and credit-financed investment.

At some point, as prime minister Li Keqiang again emphasised, Beijing will have to switch growth gears. That will mean unwinding its most recent stimulus–very carefully. But that is unlikely to start happening until after President Xi Jinping has consolidated his political control at the critical Party plenum later this year.

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The Renminbi Ups Its Status

100 yuan notes

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY Fund added the renminbi to its basket of Special Drawing Rights (SDR) currencies at the start of this month, thus officially marking it as a member of the elite club of global reserve currencies. It is a membership of which China has long been desirous.

The IMF had decided last November that China could join at the next scheduled SDR review, and that it would constitute 11% of the basket. That gives it the third largest share, behind the dollar and the euro but ahead of the other member currencies, the yen and sterling.

Weightings are meant to reflect the use of a currency in trade and the financial system so China may have been treated generously in this regard. It share of global payments, for example, peaked at 2.8% last year and is below 2% now.

Joining the SDR basket is, at this point at least, as much symbolic as anything, an acknowledgement of the global weight of China’s economy, and encouragement to push ahead with the financial reforms that would make the renminbi the freely usable and widely adopted currency that IMF reserve currencies are meant to be.

That, in turn, would promote more foreign interest in yuan-denominated assets, particularly bonds. Central banks and sovereign wealth funds will, however, build up their renminbi-denominated holdings only gradually.

Looking back in a decades time, though, the change may look more momentous, both if China’s financial markets become deeper and more liquid or it turns out that the renminbi was just the first of several emerging market currencies (India’ rupee is another candidate) to find a place in the SDR basket.

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IMF Bangs On A Familiar But Necessary Refrain

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY Fund has left its growth forecasts for China this year and next unchanged at 6.6% and 6.2%. However, in the newly published edition of its World Economic Outlook, the IMF notes that “China’s growth stability owes much to macroeconomic stimulus measures that slow needed adjustments in both its real economy and financial sector”.

Policy support and opened credit taps stabilised growth in the first half of the year close to the middle of authorities’ target range of 6½% –7% for the full year.

The Fund bangs on a familiar drum when it calls for more decisive action in tackling corporate debt and governance issues in China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs). Lack of progress on these, it says, raises the risk of a disruptive adjustment from reliance on investment, industry and exports to greater dependence on consumption and services. Rebalancing could become ‘bumpier than expected at times,” the Fund warns. The current short-term stimulus on which China is relying and a still-rising credit-to-GDP ratio exacerbate that concern.

Credit dependency is increasing “at a dangerous pace, intermediated through an increasingly opaque and complex financial sector”. A combination of factors are at work here: “the pursuit of unsustainably high growth targets, efforts to prop up unviable state-owned enterprises to preserve employment and defer loss recognition, and opportunistic lending by financial intermediaries in the belief that all debt is implicitly guaranteed by the government”.

The IMF’s policy prescriptions are similarly familiar:
• address the corporate debt problem by separating viable from unviable state-owned enterprises, harden budget constraints and improve governance in the former while shutting down the latter and absorbing the related welfare costs through targeted funds;
• apportion losses among creditors and recapitalise banks as needed;
• allow credit expansion to slow and accept the associated slower GDP growth;
• strengthen the financial system by closely monitoring credit quality and funding stability, including in the nonbank sector; continue to make progress toward an effectively floating exchange rate regime; and
• further improve data quality and transparency in communications.

The medium-term outlook for China remains clouded by the high stock of corporate debt—a large fraction of which is considered at risk. And vulnerabilities continue to accumulate with the economy’s rising dependence on credit, which complicates the difficult task of rebalancing the economy across multiple fronts:

The medium-term forecast assumes that the economy will continue to rebalance from investment to consumption and from industry to services, on the back of reforms to strengthen the social safety net and deregulation of the service sector. However, non-financial debt is expected to continue rising at an unsustainable pace, which—together with a growing misallocation of resources—casts a shadow over the outlook.

Spillovers from China’s rebalancing and gradual slowdown via global trade and increasingly financial channels continue to concern the Fund. These have been significant, and China’s growing global role, the Fund says,  makes it all the more important for it to address its internal imbalances.

However, it also notes the other side of the coin:

The outlook for emerging market and developing economies will continue to be shaped to a significant extent by market perceptions of China’s prospects for successfully restructuring and rebalancing its economy.

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A Scorecard Of China’s Economic Rebalancing

A NEWLY PUBLISHED IMF Working Paper takes the measure of Beijing’s progress in rebalancing the economy away from investment and export-driven growth to high-value-add innovation-led industry and domestic consumption.

In summary, the paper says:

External rebalancing has advanced well, while progress on internal rebalancing has been mixed, with substantial progress on the supply side, moderate progress on the demand side, and limited progress on the credit side. Rebalancing on income equality and environment has also been mixed, with the energy intensity of growth falling and labor’s share of income rising, but income inequality and local air pollution remaining very high.

The author of the paper has also created a visual traffic-lights type scorecard, with data going back to 2010 and forecast out to 2021.
untitled-2

We have taken the liberty of taking a snapshot of where we are now based on 2015 or most recent available data (see Table 1, left).

The IMF has long been cheerily upbeat about the prospects for China’s economic development — no dramatic headlines generated by dire warnings of the rising risks of a banking crisis, as came from the Bank for International Settlements in its latest quarterly review published this week.

While the paper does acknowledge in this regard that the risk of “a disruptive adjustment” will increase significantly in the medium term, it also says that buffers such as foreign-exchange reserves are still large and able to help absorb potential financial shocks, although they will likely diminish over time, especially if reforms lag.

The paper also notes that demographic and structural changes will provide tailwinds to China’s rebalancing. It is certainly true that the rapid ageing China will experience over the next 15 years will turn the demographic dividend that has helped power growth for the past three decades into a demographic deficit.

The paper underlines that “successful rebalancing requires coordinated progress on various fronts. Going too fast on one area, while too slow on others, may derail the whole process.”

That is also not to say that significant policy efforts are not needed to get there.

Specific recommendations include:

  • continuing to move to an effectively floating exchange rate regime to prevent future foreign-exchange misalignments;
  • raising government health care spending to encourage a lowering of the savings rate (always a treat to see the austere IMF urging a communist country to increase state spending);
  • deregulating services to drive service sector productivity to offset the impact of labour being re-allocated away from the high-productivity industrial sector. This also comes with a warning of the dangers of deindustralising too early and too fast;
  • pushing ahead with the glacial pace of reform of state-owned enterprises to improve the efficiency of credit allocation.  Currently, 40% of industrial assets are managed by SOEs, with asset returns some 7 percentage points lower than their private counterparts, the paper notes; and
  • improving the redistributive role of fiscal policy through a more progressive tax structure, increased transfers and strengthened social safety net.

No surprises in that list. All the prescriptions are out of the IMF’s policy toolkit for China that the Fund has been using to cajole for reform.

 

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IMF Ups Its Economic Outlook For China

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY Fund exempted China from its ‘Brexit’-induced downgrades to its global economic forecast. In its mid-year update to its World Economic Outlook it has raised its forecast for China’s growth this year by 0.1 of a percentage point from its April projection to 6.6 percent and left its forecast for 2017 unchanged at 2.2%.

The Fund notes the effectiveness of the infrastructure spending stimulus in the first half of this year and the relative isolation of China’s economy from Brexit effects. However, it does warn that China would not escape the effects of a severe downturn in the European economy should that happen as a result of Brexit. And this Bystander has noted some of the risks to stimulus spending.

The IMF’s key paragraph:

In China, the near-term outlook has improved due to recent policy support. Benchmark lending rates were cut five times in 2015, fiscal policy turned expansionary in the second half of the year, infrastructure spending picked up, and credit growth accelerated. The direct impact of the U.K. referendum will likely be limited, in light of China’s low trade and financial exposure to the United Kingdom as well as the authorities’ readiness to respond to achieve their growth target range. Hence, China’s growth outlook is broadly unchanged relative to April (with a slight upward revision for 2016). However, should growth in the European Union be affected significantly, the adverse effect on China could be material.

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