The Financial Times at Alphaville has a great piece on how recent policy changes surrounding the nascent provincial bond market are being interpreted covering a range of thinking, even if I am labeled the resident crank a role I accept with relish. They do raise some very valid issues which deserve attention.
Anything Deutsche Bank says about China should be read skeptically as it acts as little more than a public relations arm and recruiting ground for the PBOC. However, more specifically, DB makes two illogical arguments about Chinese debt and the economy. First, it argues that the slowdown in the Chinese economy is attributable flat government spending. Considering DB was overestimating Chinese growth by more than 1-2% recently, the fact they even say slowdown is remarkable. Second, DB believes that even more provincial led investment through additional debt, either by LGFV or bond sales, will continue to drive the Chinese economy.
Even mathematically it is difficult to reconcile the DB claims. LGFV investment, which is responsible for 20% of the national total according to DB, has contracted so enormously to cause the national slowdown. With YOY fiscal spending, again according to DB, essentially flat at -0.2% it is difficult to see how this would cause the national slowdown when it was up only 6% last year.
Additionally, the flat spending conveniently overlooks the fact that local government revenue is falling. Nationally land revenue to local governments is down 30% and given that on average about 50% of government revenue comes from land sales, this significantly impacts spending ability. This tracks with something else in the FT piece that estimated growth, by one calculation 5.3%, is significantly lower than official estimates. Finally, provincial borrowing is only implicitly allowed for LGFV and not operational spending of governments. Lending guidelines should have minimal impact, according to Chinese law, on general spending.
If Deutsche Bank research economists believe this is such good policy and the financial risks are low, then may I suggest using DB capital to purchase some of the newly issued provincial bonds?
There are two larger points however that are somewhat acknowledged. First, in China there is an enormous difference between lip service to addressing a problem and enduring the pain (structural reform) required to addressing a problem. As GaveKal rightly notes about the nascent bond market, “opening the front door and closing the back door” was intended to introduce transparent financing and market risk to local government debt. However, what we have witnessed has been the complete opposite of this. Banks being ordered to continue lending leaves the back door wide open. The price on the bonds is not commensurate with the risk, which is why the bankers held out so long. There is no transparency on the financing as it is all private placement offerings. Then the PBOC is essentially buying any debt the banks decide not to hold.
Economically this means asset prices need to decline and surplus capacity needs to be reduced. Given Beijing tacit encouragement of the stock and housing market, it appears they have little interest in reigning in asset prices. The drive to encourage more infrastructure investment and lending to favored companies or SOE’s indicates they have little interest in addressing the capacity issue. The rising asset prices and declining producer prices, and the policies driving these trends, will only create additional problems later on. The fundamental take away here is that there remains an enormous gulf between the press releases and the actions. The policy itself is fundamentally sound but if there is never an adherence to the policy and the restructuring involved, it is worthless.
Second, there remains no plan to address these problems. The entire plan, and the only reason the banks are not in outright revolt, is that the PBOC is allowing the banks to use the bonds as collateral to prompt further lending to favored industries and firms. This isn’t addressing the problem, this is doubling down on the strategy that created the problems in the first place. Citi, in the FT piece, addresses the issue quite delicately writing that “…if there is no efficiency gain in coming years, some local governments may become insolvent….”. GaveKal notes the lack of a strategy writing “Beijing will not admit there is a big solvency problem and cut lending to entities who have trouble. Instead Beijing wants banks to keep lending in the hope that one day the borrowers may get better.”
As I have noted, Chinese banks were able to outgrow some of the bad debt problems a decade ago, however, hoping for the same a second time is an incredibly risky proposition. As of yet, there has been no plan even floated to reduce the debt burden or impose the type of discipline required to delever. In fact, it has been just the opposite. The plan so far has been to increase lending and investment even more and hope that things work themselves out.
In closing, I want to make two final points. First, I should note that the PBOC and CBRC by forcing the debt restructure have used standard strategies with distressed borrowers whether they be firms or governments. They are to be commended for taking decisive action. However, the very real concern is that they won’t take the necessary follow up steps. Think of a patient that undergoes heart surgery to prevent a heart attack but returns to a diet of sweets and red meat with no exercise. The surgery prevented a heart attack but only put off the reckoning without real changes.
Second, I think a financial crisis scenario is much less likely than a zombie scenario. I have heard from some that I am predicting a financial crisis and I want to make clear that is not what I am predicting for many reasons. From the political risks Beijing sees in a financial crisis to the willingness to bailout everyone by Chinese policy makers, I believe a financial crisis is not the most likely scenario. High debt levels with ongoing problems for many parts of the economy is the bigger problem.