The big news in Chinese financial markets is that the local government bond offerings designed to refinance off-balance sheet high interest short term borrowing into market based low interest long term products have hit a snag.
Chinese banks are refusing to buy local government bonds at the price on offer. As the Financial Times noted, the trouble with market based financing is that it doesn’t always do what you want it to do.
There are a number of important issues however, that are largely being overlooked. First, despite all the sooth saying of Chinese and international pundits that the government is not debt burdened, that is really only partially true. While the Chinese central government has a relatively low debt load, the real burden is held by the provinces. Seven provinces have debt to GDP ratios above 80% with Beijing coming in at 100%. According to the FT, Standard and Poors estimated that half of all Chinese provinces would receive a junk rating. Just because the official national government debt load is low, doesn’t mean government debt is low.
Second, from the banks perspective, the bond program makes no sense. Let’s take a simple scenario of what the banks are being asked to do. The bank has a loan that is paying probably 6-10% (as it is an off-balance sheet project with only implicit government support) with a 1-3 year duration. They are being told to transform that into a bond with a 5 year duration paying 3.6-4%. This is a losing proposition for the bank.
Third, there is a major information asymmetry involved between China financial analysts and banks. Chinese banks which are being asked to purchase the bonds from the same underlying borrower with the same underlying asset as existing loans, presumably have much more information than anything a journalist or professor has access to. Their level of reluctance reveals their concern about the debt quality from largely existing assets.
Fourth, despite some arguing this represents normal financial development, this quite potentially represents something much more ominous. During the Greece debt crisis that continues to drag on, a key question has been whether a forced duration extension and lower interest on original debt qualifies as a default. For some the important question here focuses on the level of coercion involved in exchanging liabilities with the same underlying borrower. The key point here is that there appears to be a fair amount of coercion involved to force banks to renegotiate existing debts from short term high interest into long term and low interest. The Financial Times sums it up perfectly quoting one analyst saying “This isn’t really about adding liquidity. It’s aimed at alleviating debt pressures on local governments and reducing financial risks.” If we changed the names from Chinese provinces to Greece, we would be discussing whether this constitutes a default.
Fifth, as I have noted, the Chinese response worryingly seems to be to try and sober up a drunk with more Baiju. The Financial Times writes “China’s central bank is considering extraordinary measures to boost credit flows to heavily indebted local governments…”. Reuters writes “China’s Ministry of Finance has warned of slowing tax revenue growth and told local authorities to hasten issuance of newly-approved municipal bond debt.” China’s problem is not lack of credit but firms and provinces with unsustainable debt loads. This explains the push into long term low interest bonds.
Taken in isolation, this might be seen as standard growing pains. However, the recapitalization of policy banks, recent defaults, and semi-coerced refinancing paint a grim picture of Chinese finances.