When a Bad Loan Isn’t Really a Bad Loan

I recently finished a report on Chinese banks and one of the most surprising discoveries are how Chinese banks think about bad loans and data.  In most of the world, definitely those with large financial markets, the definition of a non-performing loan is taken for granted.

What is probably the most surprising revelation in recent IPO prospectuses is just how honest Chinese banks are being in admitting that their definition of a non-performing loan differs significantly from international standards.  Huishang Bank in their prospectus states that a major regulatory risk is that “our loan classification and provisioning policies may be different in certain respects from those applicable to banks in certain other countries or regions.”  The Bank of Chongqing says nearly the same thing noting that “our loan classification and impairment loss provisioning policies may be different in certain respects from those applicable to other commercial banks and banks in certain other jurisdictions.”   Harbin Bank take this warning one step further writing in their recent IPO prospectus “…profits of our Bank may decrease significantly, and our business financial condition, results of operations and prospects could be materially (emphasis added) and adversely affected…” due to non-standard non-performing loan definitions.  In short, Chinese banks are telling you that their non-performing loan classifications are not standard or accepted outside of China.

Chinese banks go to great lengths to avoid classifying a loan as non-performing with very different standards.  A 2012 NBER paper led by Franklin Allen from the Wharton School noted that “…the classification of NPLs has been problematic in China.  The Basle Committee for Bank Supervision classifies a loan as “doubtful” or bad when any interest payment is overdue by 180 days or more (in the U.S. it is 90 days); whereas in China, this step has not typically been taken until the principal payment is delayed beyond the loan maturity date or an extended due date, and in many cases, until the borrower has declared bankruptcy and/or gone through liquidation.”

Amazingly, Chinese banks not only admit their loan classification standards leave something to be desired but give specific examples.  Let me give you a couple of especially egregious examples.  Harbin Bank classifies a loan as doubtful if after a loan restructuring still cannot pay back the loan.  Bank of Chongqing classifies a loan as substandard if a building project has had no activity for at least one year and doubtful if the business has not been operational for at least 6 months.  Huishang classifies a loan as substandard, with at least a 40% loss, if the borrower is unable to obtain new funding to service their debt obligations. To summarize Chinese loans are classified as non-performing if after restructuring a firm still can’t pay, you have been out of business for at least six months, and your situation is so dire you can’t find another lender to roll over your loans.

Chinese banks however are not just defining away the problem of NPLs does arise they play accounting merry-go-round to make them disappear.  The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about a plan by large Chinese banks with investment banking arms to sell bad loans to the investment banking arm, taking the troubled off the traditional banks books, and then let the IB arm try to turn it around.  The bank does not have to report the NPL, even with incredibly loose definitions, and gets a higher than market price for the loan.  The investment bank get deal flow to boost numbers.  This however, continues to push the risk further down the road and continue the build up.

There are three final points.  First, banks appear to structure products to avoid NPL classification.  When lending for advances, the first payment will not be due for an extended period of time allowing the very real possibility for very real delays.  How long exactly?  To use a recent example, when Shanxi Zhenfu Energy roiled global financial markets with the possibility of a default on a product created by China Credit Trust, this overlooked a key fact.  Shanxi Zhenfu Energy had been bankrupt for nearly a year when the technical default occurred due to the fact that the original loan was made in the second half of 2010 but the first payment was not due until February 1, 2014.  This means that much of the debt incurred during the worst excesses of the credit expansion may not even require repayment yet, further masking loan quality.

Second, amusingly, for me anyway who has written about GDP and inflation irregularities, a major risk identified by Huishang is that “we cannot assure you of the accuracy of facts, forecasts, and statistics derived from official government publications contained in this prospectus with respect to China, its economy, or its banking industry.”  In other words, Chinese banks don’t believe official statistics.

Third, this is the reason the Chinese market and international analysts are so worried about finances in China.  For quite some time, Chinese banks stocks have hovered around P/E between 4 and 5 because the market doesn’t believe the NPL data. Banks with secondary offerings have been accepting large discounts with IPO’s cheaply priced to traditional models and falling post-IPO due to the large doubts about the accuracy of NPL data.

There are enormous financial risks and one of the largest is the lack of reliable data as described by Chinese banks about their own finances and the overall Chinese economy.

Note: This is the first post in a series of posts about the Chinese banking industry based on my paper.

Speaking on Chinese Banks

Last week I had the privilege to speak at the China International Banking Conference(in Chinese) organized by Asian Banker.  Though they did not know it when they invited me to speak, I had just finished a report on the Chinese banking system focusing on some of the unique risks.

The presentation I gave to the largely Chinese crowd is here.  While I believe there are significant risks that have not been addressed, I also try to moderate those who write like the building is on fire and everyone should leap from the building.  I will write later this week about the specifics of what I found but needless to say, there are significant risks in the Chinese banking system that simply are not being addressed.

When I spoke, a senior Chinese banker took some offense to my characterization of the risk build up in the system and what the data indicates.  After giving my data based talk with lots of information culled from IPO prospectuses and annual reports, you could sense the tension in the room.  A Chinese economist from a Chinese bank proceeded to talk and agree with many of the issues I had raised.  The tension deflating impact of these comments was palpable.

Potentially the most concerning issue to me is not the specific risks within the Chinese banking system but the current psychology of risk in China today.  China has enjoyed rapid and sustained economic growth for so long that most people seem to have forgotten the idea of risk.  If there was ever a seemingly text book case of This Time is Different psychology, modern day China is it.  The Chinese banking official who took exception to my comments about risk did not even wait for my data from Chinese sources or citations of annual reports and IPO prospectuses, but complained about my lack of understanding of Chinese culture and how this time is different.

Maybe this time will be different, but risk continues to exist and will catch up with you one way or another.

Note: I will be writing specifically about my Chinese banking report later this week covering some of the highlights in a couple of different posts.

China News

Seems like everyone is watching real estate in China.  A glut of real estate that it outpacing urbanization and real estate firm debt equal to 55% of GDP is stressing the system.  Even developers that advertise their apartments only get down to -22 C, are having a tough time selling apartments.  However, it isn’t just individuals but also business and specifically trusts that are getting cold feet about Chinese real estate.  Developers raised 49% less through trust products than in previous quarter.

Credit is even dropping for other sectors and ones that need it.  With shipbuilding facing enormous over capacity and buyers not waiting to reject ships, banks are facing the risk of losing twice on a loan: first to the shipbuilder and the second to the buyer if they reject the ship if it is late or defective.  This is causing banks to rein in credit growth to ship yards putting even more pressure on the system.

Wal-Mart is pushing back against Chinese government harassment.  They say that manufacturers that fraudulently label products they sell should be held responsible.  Did you notice Beijing has only gone after foreign firms?

Capital Use and Measuring GDP in China

A more arcane but incredibly important area of economics, that gets overlooked, is how to measure GDP.  The classical example goes like this.  Assume you have two guys who live in a country and each guy has $100.  The first offers to pay the second guy $100 to dig a hole.  The second guy tired from digging the hole, offer the first guy $100 to fill the hole back up.  According to economic accounting, this accounts for $200 of GDP even if nothing was actually accomplished.

Theoretically, GDP growth of this nature can continue infinitely.  However, in reality, this type of GDP growth results ultimately in significant losses, though it can continue for some time before it collapses.

The reason I mention this relatively arcane discussion about how to calculate GDP is that this problem is incredibly relevant to understand the potential difficulties facing China.  Let me emphasize that I do not have a good answer and the data on more esoteric  or politically sensitive issues is even worse than the baseline numbers.

In the past week there have two pieces in Quartz about the poor quality of older Chinese housing that is now collapsing and another on whether China actually has a housing bubble because so much of the housing stock is being turned over.  While it is perfectly reasonable to ask what impact China’s existing housing stock has on promoting or preventing a bubble, this overlooks two much more fundamental and important issues.

First, how efficiently is capital being allocated in China?  Analysis of Chinese finances and a potential bubble typically focuses on a housing bubble or over capacity in specific industries like steel or solar.  However, there is evidence that there is wide spread misallocation of capital throughout the Chinese economy and that the capital is poorly utilized.  Houses are being built, torn down, and rebuilt and GDP goes up but the quality of that GDP, similar to the example of holes, is in real doubt.

Second, if capital is being poorly allocated, for instance in the case of substandard housing that is destroyed relatively soon after being built, what does that say about historical GDP and capital accumulation?  Put another way, if capital is being consumed or is idle rather than deployed into productive purposes, this has the net effect of raising past GDP while depressing current or future GDP.

Let me build on the simple example from earlier about two guys digging and filling in holes.  Now let’s assume the first guy builds a house and sells it to the second guy who takes out a 30 year mortgage to pay for it.  Then after 10 years the house starts falling apart and guy #2 has to move and buy a new house.  There will be a large capital loss by the owner, a developer to purchase the house at market rate to build a new house, or an insurance company.

Consider a second scenario where the house is fine but after 15 years a developer or the city want to tear it down to build bigger, nicer, and newer houses, a very common phenomenon in China.  The developer will have to purchase at near market rate the old house in order to build a new one.  This capital cost will then be passed on to the new purchaser.

This poor allocation or destruction of capital is not limited to real estate but carries over into all other industries.  Over capacity in solar and steel where $500 billion in debt gets you $300 million USD in profits, are the obvious culprits, but under utilization of capital is rampant in China.  According to S&P data, Sinopec and PetroChina pay less than what many governments pay on their debt but also earn an incredibly low rate of return on capital and half of what ExxonMobil earns.  Put another way, in the most capital intensive industry on the planet, Sinopec and PetroChina earn a rate of return on capital that would barely break even for most competitors.

Chinese companies are coming up with ever new and creative ways to hide these capital losses.  The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Chinese banks have devised a plan to sell bad loans to their investment banking arms to try and restructure them.  The bank does not have to report a non-performing loan and receives a higher price for the soured loan than it would on the open market allowing the bank to mask the true picture.

Having lived in China, I can personally attest to the amazing misuse of capital.  Whether it is buildings being torn down ten years after being built or looking out my window and seeing half empty office buildings.  Unfortunately, measuring the “misallocation” of capital is an incredibly hard thing to do

Capital ultimately represents a cash flow, whether that is a machine that makes things or an apartment that someone lives in.  Imagine the losses incurred when you learn that more than 70% of Chinese airports are operating at a loss.  China Railway Corporation announced plans to put together a private investment fund after corruption scandals and losses forced it to give up its status as the Railway Ministry.  The losses it currently sits on are enormous and there is valid concern over its ability to profitably exist without government handouts.  The capital has to receive a stream of cash to pay for the investment or revalue the investment and the cost of the product.

Despite the pictures of gleaming skylines, brand new airports, and bullet trains the cash flows are struggling to pay for the capital used.  Whether through banks, surplus capacity, or a revaluation of the asset and the product, at some point this is going to result in significant losses.

Deutsche Bank Suspends Employee for MAS Contact

Deutsche Bank has suspended an employee for “improper communication” with the Monetary Authority of Singapore.  This comes after a wide ranging investigation by large investment banks into suspected employee rigging of the foreign exchange market.

There are a couple of interesting aspects to this case.  First, according to the article, Deutsche Bank informed MAS of this decision and reasons behind this decision, but MAS has so far opted not to disclose this to the public.  Given that the other central bank notified of potentially improper behavior, the Bank of England, “suspended a staff member” and hired an outside law firm to conduct a full investigation, it is troubling that MAS has so far avoided any disclosure of this event or outside investigation.

Second, as Deutsche Bank suspended the employee for “improper communication” with MAS, this implies some type of unethical behavior by MAS or an employee of MAS.  The report does not say that the employee passed on sensitive information to other DB employees, other banks or traders.  While MAS may be faultless, it is likely given what is known so far that there is some improper behavior by MAS or an employee of MAS.

Third, given that MAS has announced its investigation of potential foreign exchange market manipulation, it presents a clear conflict of interest to both be investigating and the investigated.  I have absolutely no sympathy for banks or traders that attempt to manipulate market prices, however, I harbor similar levels of disdain for bodies that investigate themselves and find themselves clean.

Why listen to me though, I am just an academic and a quack according to the Singaporean powers that be.

 

Credit Ratings in China and the World

Last week I was interviewed by Agence France Presse about my thoughts on Dagong, the Chinese credit ratings agency, that last week gave a press conference about its plans to revolutionize the credit ratings world.  Before I give my specific thoughts, I want to emphasize a couple of things.

First, I am not writing this because I feel I was misquoted in anyway, only that I want to add more detail to my thoughts.  I have been lucky to work with journalists that I feel are trying to accurately represent my opinion and better understand a story, this is no different.  Second, I am not in any way trying to defend the existing major credit ratings agencies.  I think even their most ardent supporters would admit they made significant mistakes and that the entire system needs work.

Dagong is a Chinese credit rating agency that rates a large number of Chinese bonds, a symbolic rating on the US government sovereign debt, and virtually ignored outside of China.  Dagong is seeking to make a name for itself by pounding the table about the existing major credit ratings agencies and trying to reinvent credit rating.

I have a number of thoughts on the matter.  First, I think there is a real need for increased competition in the credit rating agency world.  The three major agencies S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch dominate the credit rating world due to the quasi-monopoly they have been granted by the US government in the United States.  Given the importance of this work, this has carried over into a domination of the credit rating world in other ratings work and in other parts of the world.  Unfortunately, this has led to low quality ratings, group think, and conflicts of interest which have been detailed else where.  I think it is important to bring new entrants into this arena.

Second, the Dagong release on the “Guiding Principles of Credit Ratings” has got to be one of the most non-sensical things I have ever read.  There are three points here I would like to highlight.

  1.  It borrows major portions directly out of the communist party handbook on how to analyze the economy. It literally talks about “dialectical materialism” and credit ratings as if Marx and Engels were analyzing cash flows and repayment risk.  The document is filled with communist and party sounding gibberish that means nothing to savy investors around the world.
  2.  When it does directly address non-gibberish issues, it talks only about factors that are well known to credit analysts and economists the world over.  The counter cyclical nature of credit and industry risk outside the specific firm of repayment.  Memo to Dagong: you aren’t the first people in the history of mankind to discover the counter cyclical nature of credit expansion and contractions.  In short, despite their claims to developing a new theory of credit rating, I see absolutely nothing new in their work.
  3. Most importantly, while Dagong talks about the importance of rigorous ratings as building trust it is completely divorced from this in reality.  Just how divorced you ask?  Dagong  lowered its rating on US Federal Government sovereign debt to an A- in the fall last year.  To put that in perspective, according to JP Morgan, there is only one bond in all of China with a lower rating.  99.9% of all bond issuances in China receive a AA or higher.  Now let me emphasize, I do not approve of US fiscal policy and public finances.  There are enormous problems.  However, it strains all credibility to believe that the US government is a worse credit risk then all but one bond issuance in China.  The point being: while making headlines on the US government rating cuts may make for good headlines, they do nothing for Dagong credibility.

I believe strongly in the need for additional credit ratings agencies.  However, if Dagong wants it self to be taken seriously: stop sounding like the propaganda department in the Finance Ministry for Beijing, establish credibility with your ratings, take out the Marxism, and be willing to rate a Chinese firm as junk debt.  Then, you will be taken seriously outside of China.

Recent Academic Work on Temasek

A few days ago I received a copy of a paper appearing in the journal World Economics from Friedrich Wu a professor at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore about his recent research on Temasek.  Now before I talk about the paper, I want to emphasize something.  I had never seen this paper before a couple of days ago, never corresponded with Dr. Wu before the other day, or provided any input on the paper.

To most in Singapore who know about Temasek, much of the material will be familiar with a significant portion of the material covered.  The strengths of this paper, and worth reading to even the knowledgeable Singaporean reader, are its analysis of the shift in investment strategy prior to the 2008 global financial crisis and the subsequent changes in their capital allocation.   The paper notes among other things that:

“The GFC highlighted Temasek’s overexposure to the financial services sector. This could have prompted it to decrease the share of its holdings in this industry from 40% in 2008 to 31% in 2013… Standard & Poor’s, however, insists that Temasek is still overexposed to financial services.”

The paper also notes the relatively higher level of political risk Temasek accepts.  Not only is Temasek filled with PAP party favorites and relatives, but its investments are increasingly tied to political questions.  The recent failure of the Indonesian bank take over which the Indonesian government tied to opening up the Singaporean banking market, something the Singaporean government refused, fail to assuage foreign governments that Temasek is a purely commercial government owned enterprise.  Though Temasek appears to have gotten a good deal in its purchase of Watson’s Drug from Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-Shing, it won’t comfort Singaporean’s to others to note that Mr. Li said in a press conference that “the transaction wasn’t based solely on pricing…”.

Prof. Wu even mentions me fairly writing about my work that “As Temasek is not required to file its audited financial statements with the public registry, there are no concrete means of ascertaining the validity of either Temasek’s TSR claims or Balding’s argument.”  I think is an entirely fair statement to make because until Temasek actually reveals information about its financials and returns, we cannot make a definitive assessment of the truth of their claims.  I believe very strongly that the overwhelming evidence supports the idea that Temasek has not and continues to misrepresent its long term returns and financial health, but that we cannot know with absolute certainty at the moment.

I believe there are two fundamental problems, which to this date neither Temasek nor anyone defending them, have been able to address.  First, Temasek is claiming long term annual returns which are double what virtually every stock market in the world has earned.  Add that up since 1974, the year of Temasek’s inception, and the differences are just enormous.  Let’s begin by looking at Figure 1 which plots major stock markets and Singapore stock returns since 1974.

As you can see, most stock markets have returned pretty similar annualized rates of return which average out to 7-8% annually.  Hong Kong with its own rapid expansion and then the inflow from Chinese listings is the outlier, coming in at 9% annually since 1974.  Now let’s put it into perspective, just how large a difference Temsek is claiming below in Figure 2.

Temasek is claiming not that they did a little better than every major stock market, and the Singaporean index, since 1974 but that they simple obliterated it.  According to Temasek they beat indexes every year by a factor of about 2 to 1, which over 40 years adds up to Temasek beating global stock by a factor of nearly 20.   This is truly astounding performance and Temasek should just start giving investment lessons to Warren Buffet and every other investor in the world.

The second major problem is the large public surpluses and investment capital from CPF that has flowed through the Singaporean public purse.  Since 1974 Singapore in adding up operational government surpluses and investment capital from CPF, received more than $700 billion SGD in total yearly inflows.  Temasek and GIC claim they have earned 16% in SGD terms and 7% in USD terms over the long run.  Astoundingly, the Singapore balance sheet as of March 31, 2012 listed only $765 billion in assets.

The discrepancy between the financial assets Singapore has and should have based on the inflows it received, is enormous.  If GIC and Temasek are earning what they are claiming, even after subtracting out currency losses and interest on CPF capital to savers, Singapore should have approximately double the financial assets it lists on its balance sheet.  This is not unique financial theory but simply the laws of mathematics and the public data provided by the Singapore government.  Surpluses do not disappear and investment capital from CPF has to go somewhere.

 

I am sure that Temasek senior management thinks I am a quack.  However, this merely pushes me on because I know that they could prove me wrong and embarrass me easily by proving me wrong with minimal data releases.  They have chosen not to because, as I strongly suspect, they know that the evidence supports my version of events, even if imperfectly, much more than their version.  I have offered time and time again to publish a full retraction and apology to the Singaporean government, Temasek, and the Singaporean people if Temasek can provide data that proves I am wrong.  They have not.

 

You be the judge of what they believe that means.

Investment Bank Chatter on China

Goldman Sachs: We revise our Q1 sequential Chinese growth forecast down to 5%.

 

JP Morgan on Chinese banks: the speed up of financial and capital account reforms (e.g., widening the Rmb trading band) induces higher volatility on system liquidity… We believe banks may continue to find ways of regulatory arbitrage even if policymakers announce regulations on shadow banking products; nonetheless, the announcement of regulation may be negative for sentiment. Following the first default on corporate bonds in China during the NPC period, we expect policy makers to “allow” the first default of trust/WMP products in coming months. This could reduce fund flows from retail investors into such products and induce liquidity risks on shadow banking if the defaults are not

handled well.

 

JP Morgan on Chinese economic growth: We forecast the authorities will respond to slowing growth with a mini-stimulus in 2Q (frontloading in fiscal expenditure, especially regarding infrastructure projects and affordable housing)… Our base case is a mini-stimulus in late 2Q14. The earliest date could be following the release of 1Q14 GDP (mid-April). Based on 2012 and 2013 stimulus, we advise investors to prepare for trading opportunities in the J.P. Morgan China Growth Floor Winners Basket.  The risk to this strategy is the diminishing returns of the stimulus with building investor skepticism.

 

Bank of America on the falling RMB: We believe these moves were engineered and coordinated by the PBoC to solve the dilemma (rising rates, rising hot money inflow and rising CNY) it was facing in 2013… Chinese exporters will overall benefit from the band widening which sends strong signal of the end of one-way appreciation of CNY/USD. Note last year CNY appreciated around 6% against its basket, putting big pressure on Chinese exporters.

 

Credit Suisse on surging foreign borrowing by Chinese firms: In recent years, the foreign currency borrowing by Chinese entities has risen significantly, probably as a “carry trade” to take advantage of the higher interest rates in China amid appreciating RMB. We believe that the recent volatility of RMB is a policy measure introduced by the Chinese government to create uncertainties in exchange rate movements among market participants, in order to avoid the continued sharp growth of such “carry trade” activities. We do not think RMB movements are a deliberate measure to boost exports, given the export structure of China. To achieve the purpose of boosting exports, RMB would need to be devalued very significantly, which is not in the government’s interests.

 

There is one major point: there is increasing concern about the Chinese economy by the people who are normally the biggest cheerleaders of the Chinese economy.  QOQ growth to 5%, advice to expect a mini-stimulus, and Chinese companies engaging in a carry trade to make some money?  None of this is a sign of a healthy economy.

 

Here are my comments in the South China Morning Post about the protests in Taiwan about the trade deal focusing on services and investment.  These protests aren’t about the economics of a trade deal but about what Taiwanese see as a quiet annexation by Beijing.  If you want to ask how rational their fears are, maybe you should ask the average Hong Konger their thoughts on the matter.

The Thankless Job of a PR Frontman

As an academic who only has to deal with an institution that just wishes I kept my mouth shut more but doesn’t really press the issue (with some very real exceptions), I have the ability to speak the truth as I see it and not worry about public relations.  In a way I feel bad for public relation guys that have to spin indefensible positions at the behest of their masters.  Today we have two great examples.

Last week after hearing about the impressive run up of Olam prior to the Temasek buyout, I raised the possibility that the price gains prior to the buyout raised concerns.  Enter the Singapore Stock Exchange, who released a statement saying that there was no concern about information leaks because analysts had raised their price target for Olam.  This is a weak response at best because as the Wall Street Journal noted “Even after all those upgrades, the consensus target was only 1.68 Singapore dollars (US$1.33), according to FactSet, just a single Singapore cent higher than at the start of the year and far below the S$2 the stock hit just before the deal was announced.”  Just to be clear, the Singapore Stock Exchange is claiming that an increase in the consensus estimate to $1.68 explains the one month move from $1.43 to $2.  Interestingly, according to Thompson/FirstCall, only two brokers changed their hold recommendations to buy out of a total of 18 with buy/sell recommendations.  Let’s look a little closer at the how fast the price moved presented below in Figure 1 with all data normalized to 100 for ease of comparison and the data spreadsheet here.

After hitting its recent low on February 4, Olam began an unprecedented and rapid price increase.  During the same time that Noble Group and Wilmar were enjoying 12 and 14 percent increases, while Olam enjoyed a 40% rise.  Which if you believe the Singapore Stock Exchange, was due solely to analysts raising their consensus estimate to $1.68.  Not only is the rapid and large price movement suspicious, but so is the change in volume presented below in Table 1.

Wilmar and Noble both had month month changes in their average daily volume, but nothing that would raise alarms.  Olam volume, however, was quite steady until the month before the buyout.  During the month preceding the buyout, average daily volume more than tripled.  During the same period, when Noble and Wilmar received price upgrades, their volume increased but by significantly less.  It is a strains all credibility to the breaking point to claim that daily volume and price movements in Olam in the month prior to Temasek buyout are due solely to analyst upgrades which priced Olam at 25% less than the buyout price.  If the Singapore Stock Exchange wants to maintain any credibility it will look into settlement data about who was buying Olam in the month prior to the buyout.

The Wall Street Journal said it well writing “Nobody said explaining markets is easy, but this begs another look.” Indeed.

Last Friday CCTV News, the propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party, hosted Sheng Laiyun, a spokesman for the National Bureau of Statistics and Director of the Department of Comprehensive Statistics of the National Economy (another propaganda arm of the Communist Party), for a question and answer session.  One of the topics covered was the quality of data and statistics produced by the NBSC.  (The Q&A is on the CCTV Facebook website here on the evening of Friday March 14…let’s try to ignore the irony of a CCTV Facebook website for the moment).  The answers are classic examples of how to avoid saying anything.  The first question focusing on the quality of data issue was question 8 of all questions asked is truly Kafka-esque.

Q8: Critics have accused China of #inflating #growth #statistics in recent years. Has there ever been a domestic investigation of the matter? How do you ensure the accuracy of the data being collected? Has anyone at your bureau ever been punished for falsifying numbers?

A8: Many people are involved in validating the data. We live in an information age. We deal with data every day. Everybody wants accurate data. Not just Chinese but foreigners too asked this question. Spokesperson of some foreign statistic departments also asked me about this question.

Just to be clear, he answers the question about whether Chinese data is accurate by telling us only that he gets asked this question.  That is one of the best non-answers ever.  Later when asked why provincial GDP does not sum to national GDP he says:

The State calculates the national GDP. The province calculates the provincial GDP. But due to technical reasons, we fail to pick out the overlap part in the provincial GDP calculation. For example, the subsidiaries of a company are in Wuhan and Shanghai while the parent company is in Beijing. So when calculating the GDP, we calculate the GDP of the parent company to Beijing’s GDP. But we may also calculate the GDP of subsidiary company in Shanghai and Wuhan to the GDP of Shanghai and Wuhan. When calculating the national GDP, we need to pick out the GDP of Shanghai and Wuhan. So the national GDP is less than the total GDP of all provinces. This result is caused by technical reasons.

This is like saying China is calculating economic growth without subtracting imports.  This would be one of the most meaningless statistics ever and it seems a stretch at best to say that provinces only import 3% of their GDP from other Chinese provinces.  Finally, he tried to say that no less than the US Federal Reserve had agreed with Chinese economic data saying they “reflected the economic trend”.  This is a gross overstatement.  The study by economist says that China has grown but that data indicates significant manipulation and greater weakness in the overall economy that officially stated.  This correlates with my own work where the NBSC claims that housing price inflation has totaled 8% since 2000.  I’ll let you decide if the price of housing in China has increased 8% since 2000 and let his credibility stand against his own data.

Temasek and Chinese Banks

Just had to write about this interesting little tidbit I saw today about Temasek and Olam.  According to news reports, Temasek through a subsidiary is going to buy Olam at a 12% premium to the current share price.  This is an interesting development and to me raises a couple of questions.  First, I am intrigued that Temasek is paying a 12% premium after the stock has already increased 30% since the first of the year.  This means that Temasek is either paying nearly a 45% premium to what it could have paid just two months ago and is really slow to spot a value in its own portfolio or insiders were buying the stock in advance of a buy out offer they knew was coming.  This 30% increase is even more abnormal considering the Straits Times is essentially flat for the year.  Neither scenario is particularly attractive.

Second, this seems like a very oddly timed buy out.  Prior to the first of the year, Olam had traded primarily in the $1.50-1.75 SGD range and this follows on the announcement that profit declined 13%.  If Temasek felt this strongly about Olam and its long term business prospects, it would seem to be a better proposition to buy at the bottom of the market because you know the business well and believe the market is undervaluing the business.  Not wait until there is a 30% increase in two months and then offer a 12% premium.  The general philosophy of long term investors is buy low and sell high.  I am just a professor though, so what do I know.

Switching topics, for all the China bulls consider this, the market is valuing the big four banks at such an enormous discount because of the known unknowns of Chinese banks.  According to this Bloomberg article, $70 billion has vanished from the Big 4 Chinese banks market capitalization due to concerns over their asset quality.  Despite assurances about the health and capital adequacy, investors continue, rightfully I believe, to fear they are not being told the real state of Chinese banks.  Memo to Chinese state owned companies: you can lie to your own people, international investors aren’t quite so forgiving.