Technical Follow Up to Hidden Chinese Debt

There have been some questions posed about some semi-technical issues regarding my last blog post on how large are Chinese debt numbers.  Let me note a couple of things before with hit the good stuff. First, regardless of how much we advance the knowledge base, there is vast amounts of unknowns here.  We are literally talking about a nearly $40 trillion USD pile that the PBOC dropped into conversation. There is a lot of information that needs to come out about what this means.  Second, I am willing to change my mind but at the same time, I telling you what I think based upon what we have been told this means.

  1. Is there really a difference between the on and off balance sheet assets? I would argue based upon the evidence we have now that yes, the on and off balance sheet assets refer to two separate assets or pools of assets. I say this for a few reasons. First, the PBOC calls them different pools of assets. The PBOC is most definitely drawing a distinction between the two groups of assets in labeling some as on balance sheet and others off balance sheet.
  2. Second, because they are labelled as on and off balance sheet, there is a legal distinction between an on and off balance sheet asset. Using simple examples, if a bank loans money to a company that loan is on balance sheet. However, if that bank arranges an asset management product where lots of investors buy a 90 day fixed income product which channels money to another company, financial or non-financial, the originating bank does not bear the legal requirement to bear that loss. This seems to fit both the requirement of legal difference for an asset to be considered on or off balance sheet but also matches the scant data we have given that roughly 65% of off balance sheet assets are asset management. Now it is unclear whether banks directly hold those assets using accounting rules trickery to ensure they are considered off balance sheet or if banks were acting as the originator and distribution entity and would consequently face significant pressure should defaults occur. Given bank asset holdings, they are likely holding some of this but it would necessitate enormous amounts of onward sales rather than acting as the primary investor.  This would also seem to match a point of confusion in the Chinese version of the FSB report where it refers to the “off balance sheet business” rather than assets.  Business here might imply that the banks were selling products presumed to have bank backing by investors even if there is not a legal obligation.  In all probability, off balance sheet assets here are some combination of both bank owned assets held off balance sheet and bank products sold to investors that banks would be expected to stand behind.  This also matches a CBRC document sent to me by Andrew Polk.  From Google Translate, the CBRC says this about off balance sheet obligations and products:

Article 2 (Definition of Off-balance-sheet Business) The off-balance sheet business referred to in these Guidelines refers to the business done by a commercial bank that does not include real assets and liabilities in accordance with the current accounting standards, but which can cause the current profit and loss changes

Article 3 (Classification of off-balance-sheet business) According to the off-balance sheet business characteristics and legal relations, off-balance sheet business is divided into guarantee commitments, agency investment and financing services, intermediary services, and other categories.

According to this, banks can engage in off balance sheet activity that matches the two basic types of off balance sheet activity we have defined as the Enron SPV or the investment intermediation.  In short, the PBOC is telling us these are two separate asset pools and the CBRC has defined legal distinction between the on and off balance sheet asset.

  1. Is it possible that the on and off balance sheet assets are double counting the same assets on both sides? Quite possible to a small extent but that does not change the fundamental conclusion and actually, most likely makes the situation even worse.  Let’s walk through an example of how might an asset be counted on both the on and off balance sheet side and how that might actually make it worse before turning to whether or not there is evidence of this happening.  Assume for a minute Asset A is held in an off balance sheet entity. For that asset to go from off balance sheet to on balance sheet, that means the on balance sheet entity is incurring a liability. As a real world example, assume a bank sells a wealth management product to investors that gets counted as an off balance sheet liability. The WMP is actually just channeling money into the banks on balance sheet asset base. In this case, moving the money from off balance sheet to on balance sheet creates a liability from the on balance sheet entity to an off balance sheet entity. In other words, this would raise the on balance sheet liabilities if the off to on balance sheet transfer was actually recorded.  This would all reverse banks were moving on balance sheet holdings into off balance sheet holdings.
  2. On a slight tangent, it would then help to know whether banks are looking to move assets from off balance sheet to on or from on balance sheet to off. This is semi-speculative, anecdote and nothing more, but probably both but in a way designed to make banks look better than they really are. Simple example, bad debts are siphoned off into off balance sheet holdings while capital disguised as deposits is moved on balance sheet. Net result is to make the bank look better.
  3. Before we turn to the empirics of whether the assets might be double counted, let us look at why it is almost worse if they are not. Let us assume there is 250 trillion in underlying assets banking system assets. For any number of reasons, now let us assume that the asset is held off balance sheet and circulated on balance sheet (or vice versa). This implies that there is effectively much higher leverage in the banking system than recognized. Take a simple example of how this might work. Assume a bank has 100 RMB in deposits and makes a loan for 90 RMB. They want to make more loans so they turn the loan into a structured WMP and sell it through their asset management division to private investors. That loan is now off their balance sheet and the 90 RMB in cash comes back and they again have 100RMB to lend. If, and this is the key part, if the bank just holds cash on the balance sheet instead of relending the money, there is no net change in risk. If the off balance sheet product collapses the bank can cover the losses. However, if the bank then relends the cash which they have done according to financial data, this means, in our simple example, that there is now another 90 RMB loan made by the bank for total loan assets of 180 RMB (90×2) and 10 RMB in cash lowering the capital reserve ratio if on and off balance sheet assets are counted. The beauty of this explanation is that it matches what little we know about these off balance sheet assets. The scary part is that means that the Chinese banking system leverage is enormous. To provide some perspective, the official capital adequacy ratio for banks is bouncing between 11-11.3%. Now it should be noted for various reasons, the CAR in China excludes a lot of loans made by banks, which Chinese banks know and use these loopholes to boost their CAR. Some research has been done by different people that if off balance sheet items for instance are counted, many small banks especially see their CAR fall dramatically. If I take a simple metric of commercial bank net capital of 15.5 trillion RMB and divide it by on and off balance sheet assets of 485 trillion, this gives the Chinese banking system a net capital to total asset ratio of 3.2%. Should be noted this is not a strict apples to apples comparison. However, it does clearly illustrate what happens if we claim that there is some double counting. One final point about the double counting issue. Let’s assume that all assets overlap or are double counted. Because an asset cannot simultaneously be held off balance and on balance sheet it must be either or, the only way this does not dramatically increase leverage is if the Chinese bank is holding cash offsetting an off balance sheet asset.  This would imply that Chinese banks are holding mostly cash or cash like instruments. Well we know that Chinese banks are not holding mostly cash so this leads to the conclusion that Chinese banks have used off balance sheet transactions to further lever up and make their on balance sheet assets appear safer than they really are.
  4. This track to find double counting gives us a method to follow the bread crumbs of how we might find evidence of double counting. The primary asset class we are going to focus on are flows to/from banks to other financial institutions or other asset holdings. There is a simple reason for this. Again, take the extreme example that on and off balance sheet assets are the exact same assets. In this case, the on balance sheet financial data should be a record of those assets churn between on and off balance sheet. That would mean that the entirety of official bank data is fraudulent. By that I mean, to take a simple example, the category of lending to household is completely fraudulent because all bank assets are channeled through off balance sheet vehicles prior to consumers. That means all numbers should be recorded differently as being channeled through off balance sheet vehicles and not going to consumers. So the key question then is what is the flow between financial institutions and other financial institutions and or categories that might represent this type of vehicle? For instance, we are going to exclude household consumer bank assets or liabilities assuming that banks are recording loans to consumers as a consumer loan. The primary data source is a PBOC monthly dataset of depository corporations balance sheet.  We add up Claims on Other Depository Corporations, Claims on Other Financial Institutions, Claims on Other Resident Sectors, and Other Assets. We then do the same for the corresponding liability line item.  According to this, Chinese depository corporations have 106 trillion in assets under these line items but 54 trillion in liabilities for a net holding of 52 trillion.  Let’s start with the most generous of parameters by assuming that all 106 trillion in assets here are held in off balance assets so it is effectively double counted. That significantly reduces the 253 trillion we started with to 147 trillion in uncounted off balance sheet assets but that still leaves us with an enormous amount of uncounted assets. Next let’s use the slightly more conservative net asset number of 52 trillion assuming that is entirely double counted assets.  This still leaves us with 201 trillion in previously unknown assets.  Other datasets which cover financial institutions and depository financial institutions on sources and uses of funds provide smaller corrections, so I will not use those here.  If we use the primary line items that would correspond with off balance sheet activities and be very generous in our interpretation, we still are left with a very large amount of uncounted assets.
  5. There are a couple of enormous problems with the double counting theory. First, is what I will call the flow mismatch. An asset is categorized on balance based upon where it is deployed. Assume a bank makes a loan to a coal company, that is categorized as a bank asset as a loan to a non-financial corporate. Even if we generously assume all assets from multiple potential line items are deployed as off balance sheet assets, this still leaves us enormously short of double counting even a majority of off balance sheet assets. To claim that all or most all balance sheet assets are simply double counted, you are subsequently required to believe that all on balance sheet financial data is false. Consumer loans should be recorded as loans to consumers. If a bank makes a loan to an off balance sheet SPV that makes loans to consumers, that should be recorded as a loan to a non-bank financial institution or as a portfolio investment depending on how the deal is structured. Remember, roughly 65% of the off balance sheet assets are held in asset management structures which is not how Chinese banks record holding their assets. These do not match. The balance sheet flows and categorizations simply do not come close to matching. Second, is what I will call the size problem.  The only way the double counting theory makes a significant difference is if we assume effectively that all on balance sheet banking assets somehow move through off balance sheet banking channels before reaching their final destinations. This is also the only scenario I can think of that doesn’t drastically raise the risk level.  In this instance, Bank A makes a loan to Bank A SPV who makes the loan to the end customer. If the off balance sheet SPV makes loans to consumers, the on balance sheet entity records the loan as being made to consumers rather then to a non-bank financial institutions or portfolio (WMP) investment. Is this possible? Given it is China we are talking about who just disclosed nearly $40 trillion in previously undisclosed assets, anything is possible. However, this has never been discussed even anecdotally, requires us to believe all on balance sheet financial data is wrong, and that the entire Chinese banking system is engaged in a systematic asset obfuscation and diversion scheme. Possible? Sure. Highest probability explanation? Not even close. Therefore, if we take the Chinese banking data we have, believe consumer loans are made to consumers and so on, even if all asset classes we can remotely presume to be in off balance sheet vehicles are in off balance sheet vehicles, we simply do not come close to reconciling the outstanding unexplained assets.  I am quite willing to believe there is some immaterial level of overlap here.  For instance, assume 10% of the off balance sheets are already counted on balance sheet that would reduce the unknown by roughly 25 trillion RMB (which let’s just stop right there and say that is still an enormous number) to about 225 trillion. 225 trillion RMB or $34 trillion USD is still an enormous amount of unexplained assets.  Based upon all the data we have, it seems highly unlikely that a large majority of the on and off balance sheet assets are simply double counted.
  6. How was China’s last figure of financial system assets totaling 833% of GDP estimated? The FSB gave the total financial system assets for China across Central Bank, Banks, Insurance, Pension, Public Financial Institutions, and Other Financial Intermediaries at the end of 2015. To estimate the financial system assets as a percentage of GDP at the end of 2016 with the new PBOC data required the following steps. 1) change the FSB 2015 bank asset to 2016 PBOC on and off balance sheet asset total 2) total PBOC assets at end of 2016 3) Estimate 2016 growth rates for asset growth rates like insurance using conservative growth rates of 10-12%. Insurance for instance grew at 22%. (Worth noting inserting PBOC data from on and off balance sheet asset into FSB table comprises 80% of financial system assets). 4) Sum estimated total financial system assets for 2016 from FSB with new PBOC data and divide by IMF total nominal GDP.

Let me emphasize, and a couple of people have the DMs to prove it, when I first saw these numbers I simply did not believe it because the numbers were so outlandish I thought I had to be missing something. I am still open to changing my mind on this issue. However, the PBOC and the CBRC both appear to be drawing a clear statistical and regulatory dividing line between on and off balance sheet assets.  Furthermore, the asset flows between on and off balance sheet entities simply do not match either in asset categorization or amount.  To believe that the on and off balance sheet asset values double count the same assets means disregarding CBRC regulation, PBOC classification, and all on balance sheet banking system data.  It is worth reminding that the PBOC FSR in previous years mentioned the ongoing build up of off balance sheet assets. In 2016 it amounted to 82.36 trillion and in 2015 it was 70.44 trillion. 2017 changed because of the inclusion of the MPA.

Finally, I think there are so many questions that need to be answered with regards to this disclosure.  I think it clearly says that is roughly $40 trillion USD in previously undisclosed assets which is nothing short of a complete game changer on everything.

Everything We Think We Know About Chinese Finances is Wrong

China has long faced doubts about the veracity of its economic data and concerns about its rapidly rising level of indebtedness.  While defaults and individual incidents raised questions about debt discrepancies, there was no systematic evidence that the financial system faced systemic misstatement. The People’s Bank of China changed that with a few sentences.

By some estimate, the widely watched debt to GDP metric in China has already surpassed 300%. While this is level is worrying given financial stress associated with countries that reached similar levels, this is only half the story.  There have long been suspicions that Chinese debt numbers are not entirely accurate but data that would demonstrate a systemic difference from data has never emerged.  However, every time a company collapsed, there would inevitably come out a mountain of undeclared debt. While this raised suspicions, there was never systematic evidence.

The Financial Stability Board (FSB), formed after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, aggregates data for major countries that includes a broader measure of assets by banks, insurance companies, and other major asset holders.  According to their data, at the end of 2015, China financial system assets had already reached 401% of GDP.

This put them only 11% (5100 basis points) behind Germany and 200-300% ahead of comparable emerging markets like Brazil, Russia, India, and Mexico.  By this measure, at the end of 2015, China was already worrying and a distinct outlier, but not completely absurd.

China itself, gave us evidence that its financial data is wildly off.  The annual PBOC Financial Stability Report with little fanfare more than doubled its estimates of financial system assets.  In a little noticed paragraph the PBOC noted that “the outstanding balance of the off-balance sheet of banking institutions….registered 253.52 trillion yuan.” To provide some perspective, official on balance sheet assets were only 232.25 trillion yuan.

The PBOC report matches extremely closely official data for the on balance sheet portion of bank assets, but matches no known official data for the off balance sheet portion of assets. Nor does the PBOC provide many clues as to what these off balance assets are holding.  They do note that roughly two-thirds of the 253 trillion is held as “financial asset services” which may mean everything from structured products sold to clients who believe the bank will stand behind the product, special purpose vehicles holding non-traditional assets, or certain types of financial flows.

If we revise our earlier estimate of financial system assets to GDP based upon the new PBOC numbers, China’s position changes dramatically.  The FSB estimate of all financial systems published only in May 2017 jumps from 401% of nominal GDP to 653% of GDP at the end of 2016 for just banking system assets.

If we take the FSB data, add in the new PBOC data, and estimate forward to 2016 Chinese financial system assets are equal to 833% of nominal GDP ahead of Japan at 657% and behind only international banking center United Kingdom at 1008%.

This level of asset accumulation imposes real costs. Where as Japan and Europe have close to zero or negative interest rates, China has significantly higher. If we make the simple cheap assumption that these assets earn the short term interbank deposit rate of return of 3.5%, this would imply a financial servicing cost to the economy of 29% of nominal GDP. Conversely, Japan with financial assets of 657% of GDP but using the higher long term loan rates of 1% instead, would need only 6.6% of GDP to service its asset costs.  Prof. Victor Shih at the University of California, San Diego wrote in a recent report that “Total interest payments from June of 2016 to June of 2017 exceeded incremental increase in nominal GDP by roughly 8 trillion RMB.”

What makes this disclosure concerning is how extreme the numbers are. Even the FSB placed China among developed country financialization and well outside the range of other emerging markets. The new numbers place China on the extremity of all major economies behind only a major international banking center even in front of Japan who has run strongly expansionary monetary policy for years to try and push inflation.

Many analysts have raised concerns about asset bubbles and debt growth in China but even the most bearish would have had trouble believing this level of financialization.  Even the risks are more than hypothetical.  In bankruptcies or defaults, it is common to find enormous amounts of undisclosed debts or asset management products sold by banks to clients they are expected to make good even if technically off balance sheet.

There are a handful of key points to remember:

  1. We do not know what these assets hold other than three broad categories comprised of guarantee, commitment operations, and financial asset services which even then only comprise 79% of the total 253 trillion.
  2. These are not simply bank to bank flows. It is likely this number includes some financial to financial flow, but significant amount clearly out in the real economy.  The PBOC includes under these assets entrusted loans as well as guarantee operations both of which indicate real economy activity.
  3. Even if the off balance sheet assets are just bank to bank flows this actually makes the banking system worse. This happens because that means official bank borrowing is much higher than official data indicates lowering already strained capital adequacy rates to very concerning levels. Total on balance sheet bank capital is 15.5 trillion or 6.1% of the 253 trillion in off balance sheet assets.  If any sizeable amount of the 253 trillion in off balance sheet assets is lent to the banks for on balance sheet activities, this destroys the banks capital base.  In fact, depository corporations in China only list 28.6 trillion in liabilities to either depository or financial corporations.  So either the off balance sheet assets are not flowing to banks in large amount or official on balance sheet financial figures for China are wildly wrong with disastrous consequences. I personally lean to the idea that most of these assets are not flowing to banks but do want to emphasize that if you are going to make the counter argument, the implications are probably even larger and worse.
  4. There are two primary ways in China that assets end up off balance sheet. First, the Enron model. In this scenario, accounting sleight of hand is used so that SPVs are used so that an entity does not have to consolidate finances of entities it effectively controls. It should be noted that this does not mean that the bank or other institutions have done anything technically illegal, only that while control may legally lie elsewhere and finances are not consolidated up to a known parent, the financial risk never leaves.  Many bad debt management schemes are where a major bank acts as manager but holds less than the controlling amount so that they can claim the debt is off their balance sheet.  In some instances, they work with other banks who contribute the capital required to ensure the manager is not aggregating financials upwards.  I even know of some instances where the banks are buying debt from other banks where the clients who are the bad debtor are contributing the majority of capital as the bank buys bad debt from other banks as the manager of a fund.  The key point is that Chinese banks are technically meeting accounting requirements to move debt off balance sheet but not transferring the risk.
  5. The second most likely source is banks selling asset management products to other clients. These products are widely spread throughout the economy from corporate China looking to store cash for 30 days, wealth management firms, or individual bank clients.  What is important to note is that in this case, the bank typically does not technically/legally carry the legal risk of the product purchased by clients.  Most of the products are unguaranteed.  However, pragmatically, this simply is not an accurate assessment of the reality.  Take an extreme example.  Assume a significant portion of these off balance sheet assets sold, even say 10%, defaulted and went to zero.  This would cause a major problem.  Where we have seen large losses attempt to be imposed on retail type investors, they have almost always been bailed out.  Beijing and defenders can claim all day long that neither Beijing or the state owned banks guarantee these products but when Beijing starts imposing large losses on investors rather than bailing them out, then I will believe it. To date, that has not happened.
  6. It is important to note that given the size of these off balance sheet assets, this obfuscation of financial data has been occurring for many years. Even China does not go from 0 to 253 trillion RMB in one year. This implies that we need to rethink the entirety of Chinese development and finance since probably about 2000.  One truism has been that when true pictures of financial health are obtained, typically in a default, there is always enormous amount of undeclared liabilities.  We can no longer exclude that these are not isolated cases but as the PBOC has admitted, the norm rather than the exception.
  7. We do have some scant evidence of how rapidly this off balance sheet side of the banking system has growth. In the 2015 FSR, the PBOC listed off balance sheet assets at the end of 2014 as equal to 70.44 trillion RMB or equal to 40.87% of “Chinese banks aggregated balance sheets”. In the 2016 FSR, the PBOC said it was equal to 82.36 trillion RMB and equal to “42.41% of the total on balance sheet assets.”  The reason the 2017 exploded to 253 trillion was because “Starting in the first quarter of 2017, the PBC would count the off-balance-sheet wealth management products in banks’ total credit in the MPA framework, which would urge the banks to strengthen off-balance-sheet risk management, so that the macroprudential framework would be more effective when conducting countercyclical adjustment and guiding the economic restructuring.” Put another way, it knew the risks were there before but it was not reporting them. This means that we can assume the on and off balance sheet assets are two distinct pools of capital/assets and not overlapping as it might be rightfully asked.  This means the on and off balance sheet assets for Chinese banks total 232 trillion plus 253 trillion.
  8. The absolute size and growth of assets imply there will be enormous (as in Biblical) costs to deleverage. Let me give you a simple example. Let’s assume a flat rate of economic financialization by which I mean that nominal GDP and systemic financial asset growth are equal.  For our case here, I’m going to use similar but round stylized numbers.  In our world, financial system assets are equal to eight times nominal GDP.  Now, let’s assume that both financial system assets and nominal GDP grow at 10%.  In this stylized but similar world, financial system assets will have grown by an amount equal to 80% of GDP. If this both nominal GDP and financial system assets grow at 10%, by 2025, China will have financial system assets equal to approximately 1,900% of nominal GDP.  Because total banking system assets are so much larger than nominal GDP, simply growing both at the same pace will continue to lever up the economy.
  9. This might actually explain one unique data point which no one has a good explanation for, including myself. For a number of year, fixed asset investment in China has been above 80% of GDP.  Through the first three quarters of 2017, it is only3%.  It has been puzzling to many how FAI could top 80% of GDP even with the growth in debt that we saw. That was simply an amazing number.  Well if there was unseen asset growth of equal to twice official banking system assets, this would explain how FAI could comprise that amount of GDP.  However, this implies that China has been much much more dependent on credit and money growth to drive GDP than anyone, myself could have believed.
  10. This further implies that much of this economic boom has been driven by a hidden expansion of money and credit. As research has noted, it is much easier to stimulate activity with hidden monetary loosening than with expectations.  If the numbers the PBOC note are real, this would imply many years of hidden loosening.
  11. This further implies there is a large (read Biblical) asset bubble. At first glance this seems to match the data.  If we look at the data on the major asset for households, real estate in tier one cities is the most expensive in the world and even the average tier two and tier three city has higher per square foot price than most of the United States.  The median price in the United States for real estate is $139 per square foot. Tier two cities in China are currently $170 with Tier three cities a more pedestrian $110.  Using conservative extrapolations of national housing prices in China yield a current average price per square foot of $191 per square foot.  To provide some perspective, residential real estate in China is 38% more expensive on a price per square foot basis but nominal per capita GDP in the United States is 608% higher.  We could point to a variety of other assets which appear vastly overvalued but given the increase in financial assets appears prone to a significant asset revaluation.
  12. This also has significant implications for foreign exchange policy. It implies that China will maintain strict capital control measures in place for the quite some time. Let’s take a simple example that we could expand to other sectors of the Chinese economy. Assume that markets have pressure to equalize prices. Chinese citizens and firms have a very real interest in switching into similar foreign assets while foreigners have very little interest in switching into Chinese assets.  I have long noted that there is fundamentally, absent controls, a much larger structural non-cyclical interest in purchasing foreign assets by Chinese than in purchasing Chinese assets by foreigners.  Unless China is will to accept a much lower value for the RMB, they cannot allow change to foreign exchange policy.
  13. Though I am always loathe to bring politics into discussions about Chinese economic and financial policy because politics is too unknowable in China, I think there is a little worth commenting on here though this is mostly speculation. This nugget of information was dropped in the middle of a report in an almost off handed way.  However, the magnitude of the revelation is akin to saying over dinner “I just killed five people before I arrived would you mind passing the salad dressing?” The reason this matters is that PBOC head Zhou has been making the rounds talking about a variety of things like Minsky moments and slowing corporate debt growth. I don’t think it was any coincidence that this nugget of information was dropped into conversation as Zhou appears to be heading out the door and making the rounds using language he knows will raise concern.  While it is fair to question his reformist intent, how long he will stay, and other issues, he clearly knows that discussing these issues in this manner and dropping this piece of information raise concern. If I can speculate, it appears Zhou is trying to raise the pressure to reform, without burning it down.  It does make one think that the information was released to pressure Beijing.

There is way too much we do not know about the details of this revelation. However, it is without a doubt the largest and most altering revelation to come out of the Chinese economy probably this decade. It will require a major rethink to what we think we know about the Chinese economy, how it developed, and what the future holds.

I would like to thank Chris Aston who originally Tweeted about this in July from the website and the appropriately named Deep Throat blog who wrote about this topic and does great work on  a variety of issues who drove me to revisit this issue.  I originally chose not to write about this topic because the numbers were so outlandish I figured I had to seriously missing something that caused them to be much more normal.

Is China’s Import Surge Real?

People frequently assume that I believe you can reduce every Chinese number by some percent to arrive at the true number. However, what I tell them is that you have to dig beneath and understand the dynamics to arrive at a reasonable conclusion about what that number means and that it may be over or understated. Chinese import data is a case and point.

Chinese imports are up 17% YTD and are ripe for skepticism but in reality probably pretty accurate. However, besides the large increase which raises eyebrows, there is also the fact that payments for imports are up only 7%.  So how can we conclude that the import data is relatively accurate given the large jump in imports and the only moderate growth in payment for imports?

Import growth into China for the past few years has been flat or declining.    Flat in 2014, down 14% in 2015, and down 5% in 2016.  The 2017 growth we have seen for recent history is truly an enormous outlier.

For the past few years, Chinese importers were overpaying for imports by a relatively significant amount.  In 2015, the discrepancy between imports reported at customs and at bank payments amounted to $526 billion USD.  In 2016, this number had dropped to $271 with most of that decline coming in Q2-Q4.

This raises two specific possibilities focusing on customs reported imports. Either physical imports were under reported and payments were accurate or physical imports were accurately reported and payments were over paid.  Absent much more granular data, it is difficult to know for sure, but there is little reason to believe, for many reasons we won’t explore here, physical goods imports were under reported. This means that payments were overpaying for given level of imports.

Now in 2017, if overpayment was still a problem, we would expect to see payments go up by either a similar amount or even more. What we see however is the exact opposite. Payments have gone up by significantly less than imports.  To add to this, not only do we see payments growing much slower than trade, we see that the gap between imports and payments is only $146 billion USD and on track to report $220 billion for all of 2017.

If we believed that Customs reported imports were significantly and structurally under reported prior to 2017, it might be easier to believe that imports are over stated this year, but we have little reason to believe that.

Consequently, the moderate growth in payment actually supports the idea that Chinese import growth has surged significantly. Because import levels are moving much closer to the reported payment level, it indicates that Chinese inspectors are spending more time matching physical imports to what is paid for those imports.

Most importantly, this implies that Chinese crackdown on capital outflows primarily through gray market methods is working. It should be noted that this does no imply there is less desire, only that Chinese inspectors are doing a better job matching different physical and goods flows.  Conversely, it is likely, that Chinese import and payment data is much more accurate.

As I will say, you cannot just assume a given state about Chinese data.

What are Internal Controls and Why are They Important for China?

What are internal controls? I had a loyal Twitter follower ask if internal control was code for corruption in light of the Mingsheng Bank wealth management product loss. This is an entirely understandable question but not accurate.  This led to a Bloomberg Views piece and this is the follow up.  As usual, start there and then come here.

Internal controls are the things nobody thinks about until there is a crisis and then everyone looks around and wonders why certain actions were allowed they are so patently absurd.  Take a simple example of taking a business trip and all the implied internal controls that accompany that action. Who authorizes the trip or how does the company know the trip is worth the expenditure? What are the requirements on the travel such as class of travel, airline, price, or length of stay.  After the trip, how are expenses reimbursed and what type of documentation is required.  This is a simple example, but apply this same type of internal control model to running a bank where employees control thousands, millions, and even billions of RMB.

Take a couple of simple examples. First, in the Madoff case, there was no internal controls as everyone at the firm allowed the boss and founder Bernie Madoff complete freedom to run the trading and investing part of the firm with no oversight.  Second, during the financial crisis, there are too many stories to count of poor internal controls where documents weren’t verified and money changed hands in smaller business units without necessary constraints within those business units and from above. Third, remember Enron when key executives placed corporate assets in special purpose vehicles (SPVs) they controlled that Enron was ultimately responsible for covering losses. At no point should corporate officers be allowed to control corporate assets outside their standard fiduciary duty but internal controls were so lax at Enron this was permitted.

The Mingsheng Bank WMP collapse, which you can read about here and here, appears from what we can gather so far to be less about any imminent collapse in the Chinese WMP market and more about a complete absence of any internal controls. Basically, there was fraudulent use of the branches corporate chop, which for any non-China experts is the seal which makes things official in China for companies and a branch manager who diverted WMP funds into unauthorized uses.  Basically, there was virtually no supervision on the branch manager who did somethings he was not supposed to do.

Turning to China, I can say from my nearly eight years in China, the lack of internal controls inside Chinese firms is virtually non-existent. I know of major Chinese organizations that up until recently ran data analytics overseeing thousands of employees by hand on a paper notebook. They recently upgraded so that paper reports were submitted by hand and the data entered into an Excel spreadsheet on one persons computer. To describe it as astoundingly weak internal controls over these operations is incredibly polite.

Banks are even more rife with internal control problems.  Internal audits and risk management whereby higher ups verify the behavior, enforce limits, and confirm financial records in China are incredibly weak to be kind. There have been numerous cases of enormous losses, frauds, or thefts and what is amazing is how common these amazing large cases are but even more important how brutally simple they are.  This should give you a clue that banks do not have controls in place to control the flow of money and ensure it is flowing to where is should be.

For me there is one major issue about how this becomes a bigger problem is that even when the data is not will fully manipulated either by regulators or bank CEO’s, for instance, neither has mechanisms in place to audit and verify the data being given them by people much lower down the food chain.  Consequently, even if they are worried about the risks of say excess debt, when they are told by lower managers that everything is fine, they do not have the tools in place to make sure the lower level managers are providing accurate data.

This gets to this supposed Chinese proverb about the emperor being far away so the provinces will play (I’m paraphrasing). If a bank, city, or province manager is being told to hit certain numbers by headquarters in Beijing and the manager knows how lax internal controls are, do you think it is more likely he/she will admit failure or fudge the numbers knowing they are unlikely to get caught? Furthermore, given the hierarchical nature of power in China, underlings will not be reporting to Beijing about their bosses data manipulation.

What makes this so amazing is that virtually every Chinese firm IPO in places like Hong Kong, the Chinese firms explicitly say things about accounting and internal control risks.  It isn’t like they don’t tell you this stuff.  Even most repos in China are not actual repos but pledged repos where the lender is pledged an asset but does not take physical control of the asset.  This is why markets have seized up before when it came to light there weren’t actually assets there. These are common at all levels and they tell you these risks.

If you take this out of strictly financial, Beijing is struggling to get even things like coal mines and steel mills that are supposed to be shut down, shut down for real. Imagine how much easier it is to cover up financial problems when there is a lack of internal controls, compared to operating a steel mill where Beijing knows to go look.

This is more than theoretical. I believe all evidence points to the conclusion that regulators and bank CEO’s do not have an accurate picture. Data that gets aggregated at head offices has had minimal if any internal auditing done, why you have Mingsheng branch managers (he wasn’t a senior exec) pulling off $500 million frauds.  Imagine if every branch manager fudges the data just a little to make their numbers look better, how different would the state of Chinese banks be?

I should note that I really hope I am entirely wrong.  However, even stories I’m told by people working inside firms really do just make you cringe.  These are very real issues that normally help people go to sleep if they’re suffering from insomnia, but these are really important.

Is the Chinese Economy Rebalancing? Credit and Investment Part I

As the depth of China’s reliance on its old stand by of investment growth fueled by increasingly risky credit becomes more apparent, Beijing and China bulls have fallen back on the old standby citing Chinese rebalancing.  Given the seeming rapid growth in metrics like investment and credit, it becomes important to unpack whether China actually is moving away from its historical growth model.

There is top line data supporting the idea that China is rebalancing away from its investment heavy model.  For instance in Q1 2010, secondary industry comprise 56.4% of the Chinese economy but has fallen steadily since then to 37.2% or by nearly 20% of GDP while the tertiary sector has seen a nearly identical corresponding increase.  Of the 6.7% GDP increase 3.9% of that supposedly came from the tertiary sector.

If we look at other related numbers, there are other top line numbers which support this idea that China is rebalancing.  According to official data, even now retail sales only recently dropped beneath to hit 9.5%  or nearly 3% more than real GDP growth.  This sounds like a nearly air tight case for rebalancing right?  As I always say, move past the headline data and you get a very different picture of what is actually happening in the Chinese economy.

Let’s start with the reliance on investment and credit to drive growth assuming for as long as possible the data is accurate.  In 2009, fixed asset investment (FAI) was equal to 56% of nominal GDP while in 2016 it was equal to 80% of nominal GDP and 80% in 2015.  However, from gross capital formation (GCF), the GDP accounting representation with some important exclusions, of FAI shows a different patter. In 2009, GCF was equal to 46% of nominal GDP while as FAI was rising rapidly through 2015, GCF actually dropped as a percentage of GDP to 45%.  In other words, while the cash value of investment in the Chinese economy has been rising rapidly since 2009, its GDP measure has actually dropped.

We are now left with a conundrum: is it possible to reconcile the rapid growth in FAI with the drop in GCF within Chinese GDP statistics? Possible but extremely unlikely and even if so leaves Chinese finances in an vastly more precarious position. The primary exclusion between FAI, the financial cost of investment, and GCF, the GDP accounting measure of investment, is the value of land is excluded.  In 2015, FAI was 80% of GDP while GCF was only 45% so this raises the question whether land sales in investment comprised 35% of GDP and whether the value of land sales have risen dramatically this decade?

Looking at the data it is very difficult to see how land value contributes to this supposed wedge or any major increase in the sales of land values.  In 2010, total land sales values in 100 large and medium sized cities was 1.8 trillion RMB.  As a point of comparison, in 2010 total FAI was 24.1 trillion RMB or 8% of the total. Given that GCF in 2010 is counted as 19.7 trillion RMB, it is not inconceivable that these numbers reconcile close enough for our purposes.  The difference between FAI, 100 city land value, and GCF (FAI-100 City Land – GCF) is only 2.6 trillion RMB. Given cities and areas outside major urban centers, it is not inconceivable that we could approach that 2.6 trillion RMB level.

However, since then this line of reasoning in the numbers fall apart.  Between 2010 and 2015, the last year we have GCF data for, total GCF has risen 59% and FAI 128%.  That implies that the wedge between GCF and FAI is due to rapidly rising land value sales.  As just noted, in 2010 total land sales value in 100 large and medium cities was 1.84 trillion RMB; in 2015, total land sales values in 100 large and medium cities was 1.81 trillion RMB.  The wedge between FAI and GCF in 2015 is now a much more substantial 23.9 trillion RMB. If we subtract out the value of land sold in 100 large and medium cities of 1.8 trillion RMB, this still leaves a wedge of 22.03 trillion.

This raises a number of key points.  First, it stretches credibility well beyond the breaking point to believe that rural and small cities sold land equal to 32% of nominal GDP in 2015.  One way we can see this is that real estate FAI simply is not that large.  The entirety of real estate FAI in in 2015 was 9.6 trillion but somehow magically land sales in China are supposed to represent nearly 24 trillion that year. It is a mathematical impossibility that both of those numbers are true.

Second, if the land sales wedge that might explain the FAI and GCF wedge is effectively non-existent, this implies that gross capital formation is radically undervalued in GDP statistics.  Take a simple assumption that rather than dropping as a share of GDP, that GCF grew more in line with FAI.  For our purposes, assume that rather than the 45% it now represents or the 81% share of GDP that FAI represents, assume we split the difference.  That means that GCF as a share of Chinese GDP would now represent a staggering 63% of GDP.  Today by official numbers GCF represents 37% of GDP and has never topped 60% since 2010.  To put this number in perspective, according to the World Bank, only 9 countries had GCF as a percentage of GDP about 40% and only economic powerhouse Suriname was above 60%.  In other words, whether you choose to believe the official GCF data or believe that GCF is somewhere closer to FAI, whatever that exact number, China remains as grossly unbalanced country, the only question is how unbalanced exactly.

Third, the next question is whether FAI data is potentially overstated.  If we compare FAI data to various forms of financing like total social financing to the real economy, we see a big discrepancy.  FAI is significantly higher than TSF and has grown much faster over time.  In 2010, FAI in China amounted to 25 trillion RMB while TSF was 14 trillion. By 2016, those numbers had become 60.6 trillion and 17.8 trillion.  In other words, somehow FAI increased by 35 trillion while TSF increased by only 3.8 trillion or by a tenth of FAI.  That may seem like an open and shut case that FAI is overstated.  However, it isn’t.

Many industries who provide the inputs for FAI activity revenue grows much more in line with the FAI growth than with financing.  Nonmetallic mineral manufacturing (think cement, glass, etc) nearly doubled their revenue growth from 2010 to 2015 while FAI  was a little above that at 120% even as yearly TSF only grew 10% during that same time.  Other industries like specialty purpose machinery and nonferrous metals grew by very similar amounts indicating there is a much closer relationship to FAI than financing metrics like TSF.

This then has two further implications. First, it seems to imply that there might be hidden financing pushing FAI as it is not statistically at least coming from TSF.  Second, it implies that FAI is a much more accurate portrayal of the Chinese economy’s reliance on investment for growth than GCF.  By virtually any real adjustment, this means the Chinese economy is more unbalanced than almost any other time in modern history.

There is one final point here. Assume for one minute that the wedge between FAI and GCF is entirely explainable by land sales in China which is subsequently being used to finance this gap. A tenuous assumption but work with me. This means Chinese public finances are increasingly fragile on many many levels. For instance, for the government to raise taxes to a level to entirely or large replace land sales, which verifiably account in many places for 50% of government revenue, they would need to raise taxes to astounding levels. It further raises the specter that Chinese governments have to increase land sales at every increasing rates. Furthermore, it implies that there is so enormous level of “hidden” debt that simply isn’t being accounted for to fund land sales on this scale to the tune of roughly $3 trillion USD yearly.  If this is true, this is truly terrifying for financial stability.

No matter how you look at it, looking at investment and credit, the Chinese economy is more reliant on investment and credit to fund growth than ever before.


Will China have a Crisis Part I

Probably the most common question about China these days is whether China will undergo a financial crisis? The China bulls argue that China has lots of FX reserves, can print its own money, high savings, and a strong regulator that will ensure China can contain a crisis. The bears point to a factors like the speed in the increase of the credit to GDP and the level of credit to GDP so support their case.

I find points of validity in both cases but neither one ultimately satisfying.  I think the major problem with each is that they find broad headline points of commonality or difference with either 2008 subprime or 1997 East Asia financial crises and claim that China is just like or totally different.  This is part of why I find some aspects that are valid in each, but also fundamental shortcomings.

What I am writing here is an attempt to talk through or think out loud about what will happen to China.  Let me emphasize that these are not predictions but rather trying to work with a combination of economic theory and Chinese empirics what may happen, teasing out more detail from the two major sides of this debate.  Today I will start with the bear case that China will ultimately have a financial crisis or hard landing.

The major reason not to believe the bear case is political: Beijing will not allow a crisis is political due to the potential blowback ramifications.  In 2008, the United States and other countries made clear and conscious decisions to not bailout firms and households.  We can argue over whether they should have, whether the divergent approach to Fannie and Freddie vs. Lehman, or whether it should have targeted asset levels via home prices for consumers, but the take away is simply that the United States made a clear and conscious decision to not broadly pursue such policies.  The United States generally allowed asset prices to fall, firms to fail, and households to be evicted or declare bankruptcy.

I do not believe Beijing is willing to incur the risk of suffering such a financial downturn running the risk of allowing such an event.  Assume for one minute a financial crisis hits China. That is literally a once a century event.  Probably bigger economic and financial event that the fall of USSR with larger international consequences.  Beijing is acutely aware that Moscow made it to the 13th 5 year plan and Beijing is in the middle of its now.  Xi has built his entire administration around preventing a weak China and this type of event.  If China suffered a financial crisis, this would likely end Communist Party rule in China with major consequences for ruling elites.

This does not mean that Beijing will make good policy in the interim to prevent such an event, in fact quite the opposite and we should expect Beijing to take all steps to avoid a crisis without addressing the fundamental problems.  In fact, this matches very closely how we see Beijing behaving.  For all the talk of how they intend to deleverage, Beijing has clearly prioritized growth stability above deleveraging.  For all the talk of improving risk pricing and allowing defaults, has always in practice resulted in government and SOE bank led bailouts of companies in default.  Concerned about how a bankrupt firm with large losses imposed on banks and investors would be perceived in the market place, Beijing acting to avoid a crisis without addressing the fundamental problem.

In fact, this policy path, which I believe broadly fits what we see Beijing doing, delays inevitable adjustments but stores up increasing large amount of risk.  Again, this broadly fits what we see happening.  Capital is being spent to delay ultimately inevitable reforms but in virtually every case, it is merely storing up risks.  This makes the financial position increasingly tenuous and risky as we move forward in time.  Now we have a point in the bears favor, there may come a time at which the risks become simply unmanageable provoking a crisis, but currently it seems unlikely we will have a Chinese crisis in the near future.  There are clear signs of stress across a variety of sectors in the economy, however, I do not believe these signs are so dire that Beijing cannot prevent a crisis for the forseeable future.

There are however, a host of smaller reasons that the bears could be wrong.  In real order, they could be:

  1. Estimates of Chinese non-performing loans are overstated. Even Chinese securities firms have come up with estimates of 10%, which I would personally use to establish the baseline estimate.  In reality,  we simply have opaque ways of estimating what might the true number of NPLs be.  Could they be the higher range estimates of 20%+? Sure but do we really know for sure? No, we don’t and we need to leave open the possibility that many are wrong on this.
  2. The structure of debt within the economy matters and may signal less risk of crisis than is understood. Many analysts focus on the total debt level but omit more commonly that most of this is corporate with relatively small levels of government and household debt.  What if corporate debt as a percentage of GDP stagnated but household and government continued to rise over the next 5-10 years? That would imply that total debt as a percentage of GDP could continue to rise for some time.  This would also allow investment and consumption to rise as a percentage of GDP if the public sector assumes greater responsibility in investment and household consumption increases.  The problem with this story is that it implies enormous debt levels in say 5-10 years with very high levels of financial fragility.
  3. Real estate is less of a financial risk and more of a social risk than is appreciated. While implied marginal leverage rates on new purchases of housing in China is rising rapidly, the overall debt associated with housing in China, especially when placed against the current estimated value, is minimal.  Financially, this would seem to imply that there is little actual risk of a crisis being caused by a downturn in the real estate market.  However, it is a poor analysis to conclude there is no risk from a real estate price decline.  There are two specific factors.  First, real estate prices might be the most concerning trigger for social instability.  If for instance, there was a 30% decline in real estate prices in China, I have little doubt that there would be wide spread social urban instability.  That presents a wide range of risks that the Party is simply not willing to tolerate and consequently will do everything to prevent.  Second, depending on the exact estimate you believe an astounding amount of Chinese economic activity is tied to real estate.  On average over the past few years, probably almost 50% of government revenue, 20-30% of GDP, and tied to a grossly disproportionate share of lending in different ways.  Consequently, while real estate does not represent the first order financial risk that the 2008 subprime crisis did, it absolutely represents second order or indirect impact on potential downturn in real estate development, lending, and potential defaults from colleateralization drops.
  4. The transition to a service and consumer driven economy is better than presumed. I find this argument unsatisfying.  Empirically, there appears strikingly little growth in consumption service focused industries.  For instance, travel and hospitality within China, which represents approximately 98% of Chinese travel, flat to low single digit growth.  Virtually the only service sectors enjoying demonstrable real and nominal growth are financial services (for very concerning reasons) and logistics/supply chain/postal services.  However, while it is wonderful for the Chinese consumer, the growth in logistics/postal services are doing little more than cannibalizing activity from brick and mortar retailers.  The marginal boost to growth, after accounting for the cannibalization, is minimal.  There is no evidence of double digit or near double digit wage growth that would drive the consumption/retail sales growth Beijing touts.

The picture we are left with, seems to be an economy that has a wealth of problems, is driven by credit, but one that is not as of January 2017 on the verge of eminent collapse.  Furthermore, each of the supposed arguments of why China will continue to thrive have major problems.  Additionally, if we carry forward the counter argument of the bulls to counter the bear crisis argument, we left within 1-3 years of astoundingly perverse outcomes.

China may be able to prevent a financial crisis through capital controls but that would require hard draconian capital controls.  China may be able to prevent a financial crisis by having the PBOC intervene but that would require widespread debt monetization which brings a whole host of problems on its own and assumes as “soft” or “semi-controlled” debt crisis.  Absolutely neither of these should be considered positive outcomes.  That would be like saying someone had a quadruple bypass and is bedridden for 6 months but didn’t die.

Next week I’ll consider the argument, this is all overblown and China will continue to grow rapidly for the next 10-25 years.

Is Chinese Mortgage Data Waaaay To Low? (No, seriously)

So recently a lot of ink has been spilled on the rapid growth in Chinese mortgages.  On the face of it the increase is certainly worrying.  New mortgage lending in 2016 is up 111% and the total stock of mortgages is up 31%.  Even if we take a broader measure of household lending that likely captures a not insignificant amount of real estate related debt, medium and long term loans to households is up 31%.  The numbers on their face appear large with medium and long term loans to household registering 22 trillion RMB and personal mortgages clocking in at 16.5 trillion RMB.

These sound like big number and in some ways they are, but in reality these numbers are if anything suspiciously too low.  Most get caught up on the size of the numbers but never place these total numbers in any type of context.  In fact, if you place these numbers in context, these numbers are absurdly low.  Let me explain.

For conservatism, data, and simplicity sake, I am going to limit the analysis to urban housing units.  In other words, let us assume that all mortgage and medium to long term household debt is owed only by urban households.  This does not change the outcome in anyway and if anything make it much more conservative than it would be otherwise.

The primary thing we want to do is adjust for the number of households in urban China.  Without going into all the underlying calculations, which come from all official data, there are approximately 272 million urban households in China and according to official data, only a very small number of households do not own their housing.  Again, this is all relying and strictly using official data.

If we then estimate urban residential real estate wealth using the 100 City Index price per square meter as our high value and the Third Tier City Price per square meter as our low value, we have both a high and low value for our estimate of urban residential real estate wealth.  This gives us an estimated upper bound of 330 trillion RMB and a lower range of 189 trillion RMB.

Here is where it gets interesting.  If we translate this into a broad loan to value number, this means that urban China has an estimate loan to value ratio on its real estate holdings of 5-9%.  In other words, almost all of urban Chinese real estate is owned almost entirely free and clear according to official statistics.

If we apply this analysis backwards, the numbers are even more nonsensical.  In 2011, the urban loan to value ratio ranged from 3.3-4.5%.  If we use absolute numbers, the appear even more absurd.  When the average housing unit in 2011 cost 665,000 RMB using the third tier city price and 910,067 using the the 100 City National Index, mortgage debt totaled only 29,675 RMB per urban housing unit.

If we focus just on the new mortgages and new urban units, the numbers look decidedly problematic.  For instance, if we use the 100 City Index housing price, this would give us an implied equity share for new housing units from new mortgages of 71%.  In other words, if we assume that only newly constructed units are purchased with new mortgage debt, owners would be providing a down payment equal to about 71%.

Now while I use the slightly more restrictive mortgage debt, even if we include the broader label of medium and long term this would barely dent the number.  If we use the medium and long term household debt number instead which is only about 4-5 trillion RMB more, again using only urban households, this would still barely move the per unit or value debt number.   To bring Chinese urban housing wealth up to a 20% LTV, would require about a 41 trillion RMB increase in mortgage debt.  Put another way, outstanding mortgage debt would need to go from about 16.5 trillion RMB to 58 trillion RMB. Including the obvious candidates that some have nominated simply does not come close to making these numbers plausible.

We are left with a conundrum: either believe the data at these levels or find a better candidate when no good obvious source of debt under counting exists.  I’ll be honest in saying I’m not sure whether to accept them as vaguely reasonable representation or believe that they are not even close.

If we consider the possibility that these debt numbers are relatively accurate, while there are positives, there are also very real risks.  First, it raises the scope that Beijing could further increase urbanization and home ownership rates by loosening credit.  However, there is evidence that rural households migrating to urban areas are already debt budget constrained and that Beijing is uncomfortable with the level of debt even at these levels.  Additionally, this raises the possibility that real estate prices have a long way further to appreciate which seems implausible given already elevated price to income levels.

Second, this would imply that households have put very high level of savings into their homes and may have less liquidity available than understood.  By some recent estimates, Chinese households had 70% of their wealth in real estate.  Liquidity constraints may exacerbate any real estate or broader economic down turn placing additional pressure on prices.

Third, this would seem to place enormous pressure on public officials to maintain housing prices at elevated levels.  If Chinese households have placed the vast majority of their wealth into their home, though lack of leverage will not magnify the financial returns, it will place enormous pressure on the government to prevent price declines.

There is one possible scenario, though we do not have the data to say for sure this happening that would explain the discrepancies we see.  Given the mismatch of the mortgage data and required down payment this raises the possibility of the leverage upon leverage scenario.  For instance, a home is owned with no mortgage debt.  The owner then pledges the real estate as collateral to borrow money for the equity share and borrows money in the form of a mortgage to purchase additional real estate.  In this instance, only one mortgage appears outstanding where, if we assume the second property is financed with a 50/50 debt/equity split at the same value of the first property, then we have a mortgage per unit value of 25%.  However, in reality the risk level is much higher as both properties have debt against them and depend on stretched cash flow valuations or capital appreciation.

There are many possibilities but the only thing we can say for sure at the moment, once we break down mortgage data into per housing unit basis, the numbers seem implausibly low.


Brief Follow Up to GDP as Misleading Indicator

I want to do a brief follow up to my piece for Bloomberg Views on why GDP misleading indicator when looking at the Chinese economy.  As usual, start there and come back here for additional detail.

I know that there is a vigorous debate about whether Chinese data is legitimate or not and if you are reading this, you’re probably very well aware of my opinion.  To this day, I do not understand how anyone can look at the headline data and say it is a good faith accurate representation of statistical reality.  Even most people who defend Chinese data anymore set a much lower bar of something like “well the directionality is accurate.”  Talk about an absurdly low threshold.

However, one of the things that has generally escaped notice is that even if GDP is perfectly scientifically accurate, it is a stunningly poor indicator of how we our understanding of the Chinese economy.  In other words, let’s assume for our purposes right here that it is accurate.  If it is accurate, do we understand and frame the Chinese economy well?  The answer is a resounding no.

The fundamental reason is that GDP is a non-existent measurement for quantifying the ability to pay for things.  Whether it is consumer spending or debt coverage, no one can pay for anything in GDPs.  I would encourage you to walk into a bank sometime, apply for a loan, and when they ask you for repayment ability tell them your cash flow is weak but your GDP output is high.  Seriously, try it sometime.

We assume that GDP measures are correlated with measures of economic activity and cash flow but in China for a number of reasons, this assumption, while not necessarily wrong is much much weaker.

For one reason, corporate China, where most of the debt is, has been dealing with long term deflation.  Consequently, while liabilities have been increasing moderately to rapidly their total revenue and revenue per unit have been flat to declining.  In other words, even if GDP is completely accurate, the weak cash flow growth of firms is even worse than the GDP growth making firms ability to service their debt even worse than the GDP numbers make it appear.  This is the problem with deflation but that is what is happening.

We even see this mismatch when looking at per capita GDP which is sued for a variety of individual focused measures not match the cash flow people have to spend.  Household income is on average 45% of per capita GDP and in some major cities like Tianjin, significantly lower than that.  If they pay in GDP’s, then many consumer measures look maybe stretched or excessive but not wildly crazy.  However, if we change to measures of income, the measures look decidedly excessive.

Again, my purpose here is not to revisit whether or not to trust Chinese GDP, but much more fundamental how do we use GDP, even if it is perfectly accurate, to frame issues like risk and consumption.  I would say, not very well.



April Trade Data and Foreign Exchange Reserves

A lot of how you decide to view the Chinese April trade and foreign exchange report, depends on what exactly you measured.  April exports were higher than March exports but were down YoY and YTD YoY if measured in USD.  However, if measured in RMB exports YoY was actually up 4% but remains down YTD 2.3%.  In some ways, this data can be viewed positively or negatively, but I am going to try and help provide some personal perspective.

  1. While the month to month and year over year snapshots are important, I firmly believe that the YTD are much more important. MoM and YoY can induce a sense of noise or bias into analysis that skews our understanding.  YTD exports are down 8% from 2015 and imports YTD are down another 13%.  What makes the import growth some amazing is that full year import growth was down strongly in 2015 and flat in 2014.  It is difficult to see how these are positive signals for an economy as you stretch the time horizon out.
  2. While the trade surplus again remains strong this is a very deceptive measure for a couple of reasons. The trade surplus remains strong not because trade is increasing but because imports are shrinking much faster than exports.  Whether you look at it on a YoY or YTD YoY trend, it is clear that imports are shrinking faster than exports.  While some of this can be attributed to factors like commodity price drops, it is also clear that some of this needs to be attributed to weak Chinese demand.
  3. The other reason that the trade surplus is incredibly deceptive is that the actual surplus if measured by cash, which is really what matters, is much much smaller. Through March, Chinese Customs reported a surplus of $126 billion USD while banks reported a surplus in goods trade receipts of $23 billion.  This means there is a $103 billion discrepancy between the official trade surplus number and what cash is actually flowing into China.  Given the $46 billion surplus reported for April, we can probably expect that this resulted in a bank receipt surplus of $10-12 billion USD.
  4. Extrapolating this into the official amount of FX reserves is where things start to get a little debatable. To date, the only category in surplus on a cash basis in Chinese banks in goods trade and it is small at only $23 billion.  All others are in significant monthly and year to date deficit.  For instance, through Q1, YTD outflows are almost equal to Chinese net outflows through November in 2015 YTD.  Capital account receipts are plunging and outflows are up almost 40%.  This is a very consistent pattern in each month and summing across Q1.  If this patterns holds in April, this would imply a net outflow of at least $30 billion through official bank payment channels.    Despite talk of how USD valuation drove FX reserves up, the EUR was essentially unchanged against the USD in April.  The JPY which was up almost 5% against the USD but by most estimates comprises no more than 15% of PBOC reserves should not swing the portfolio that much.  If we assume the JPY has a 15% portfolio weighting and moved 5% in the PBOC’s favor, this should result in no more than a $24 billion boost.  This at least gets us closer to explaining the PBOC official data that reserves rose but as many have noted is an increasingly difficult number to reconcile to other data.  This would have to imply a much small outflow.
  5. The reason for the skepticism is that it is increasingly difficult to reconcile the ongoing outflows, even after accounting for valuation, with the stabilizing and actually increasing reserves. For example, in the past three months when FX reserves were stabilizing and then slightly increasing net outflows have actually gone up by most measures.  This is simply difficult to reconcile though I think it is fair to say that while there is suspicion and concern, there is as of yet no smoking gun or hard evidence of how they are making this number appear so rosy.
  6. Too many people focus on the level of FX reserves rather than the net outflow number. If you run a fixed exchange rate regime, you cannot sustain net outflows for an extended period of time.  Despite the rosy official trade surplus, underlying cash flows have if anything accelerated this year, though there may be some evidence that capital controls are starting to bite though it is too soon to tell if that is just Chinese New Year seasonal fluctuations.  Even if the FX numbers are perfectly accurate, the ongoing level of sustained outflows should absolutely be the bigger topic of discussion.

Economists and Danger: Welcome to Modern China

I do not typically write about individual news articles but I saw an article by the always excellent Lingling Wei (who in case you forgot also broke that the IMF was pushing the PBOC for more information about its derivatives portfolio) about Chinese authorities warning economists.  There are a couple of points worth mentioning and some of them are, warning you in advance are politically incorrect.

  1. Any China bull or anyone who still has any remote belief that Chinese data is anything other than art: you’re just embarrassing yourself. Assume the Chinese economy really is in good shape and economists are just misinterpreting data, why do you need to go around threatening people?  One thing that I get from certain non-Chinese economists (with one senior person at well known institution telling me “we have no reason to believe Chinese data is systematically manipulated”) is that I just don’t understand China or Chinese data.  It is widely accepted in China that Chinese data is heavily manipulated.  This is not some dastardly foreign plot but accepted wisdom in China.  I learned about this, as I have said many times, not from academic work but from my students who thought I was moron for believing it in the first place. If China known to censor the news do you really think they are choir boys on economic data and that the economy is humming along at 6.7%?
  2. Self censoring of economic and financial reporting in business community is wide spread. I was told point blank by a senior executive from a major financial institution that they no longer publish any report that is remotely critical of the Chinese economy or markets.  Of course this is not put in the employee handbook but that is unofficial policy.  We already know this is happening to Chinese reporters but his is increasingly happening to economists. To argue that Chinese doesn’t censor economic data is simply delusional.
  3. Politically incorrect warning (but something that should come as no surprise): I am personally only able to say what I say because I am white and American. Consider the race card played. If you have been following China at all, this should come as absolutely no revelation even if it is maybe somewhat politically incorrect to say straight up. Most all Chinese economists do not want to talk publicly about the economy, even those that are pro-Beijing for fear of saying something that will get them into trouble. In today’s China I cannot tell you how much respect I have for a Chinese economist who says anything publicly and even more so for those who do not perfectly conform to what Beijing says.  I know an economist, decidedly pro-Beijing, who gave an interview to local media but laughed when his comments aired as he mentioned they removed his suggestions and comments about how to reform. Mind you this was not a critical voice. This was in fact a very pro-Beijing voice but even he saw the irony.  I have never been approached to stop writing or saying what I am seeing in the Chinese economy, but if I was Chinese by passport or ethnically, I believe there is no chance I would be allowed to write what I write.
  4. The change in China has honestly given me pause to reconsider my own position for fear I might face retaliation in China. Despite my critiques of the Chinese economy and data on largely technical issues, I can say with hesitation I enjoy what I do, my job at Peking University, and the city of Shenzhen. My family enjoys living in Shenzhen, a very comfortable and pleasant city except for the stifling humidity, and my incredibly white kids speak native quality Chinese which has won me many a bet.  However, the entire environment in China is changing and changing rapidly and not just the economy.
  5. Some absolutely great comments by economists who realize how absurd the system is internally. Some of my favorites:
    1. “You can see they’re not happy when you tried to tell them foreign speculators are not your biggest problem,” said one of the officials who attended the meetings.
    2. “As a Chinese reporter, you can do anything but journalism these days,” said a senior editor at a state-owned media outlet.
    3. “I was told by regulators not to recommend shorting the renminbi,” Ms. Lin told the gathering, “so I’m just going to recommend buying the dollar.”
    4. the city’s propaganda department recently instructed a local think tank to stop researching a planned debt-for-equity swap program aimed at helping big state companies reduce debt, according to economists familiar with the matter. The reason, these economists said, is that officials don’t want the research to turn up unfavorable evidence after Premier Li Keqiang and others have endorsed the swaps.
    5. Despite recent signs of a rebound, Gao Shanwen, chief economist at brokerage Essence Securities Co., told investors that “a lot of the official data aren’t reliable” and the economy still faces “big problems,” according to people who attended the closed-door event. Words of those remarks crackled across social media. Two days later, Mr. Gao issued a clarification on his public account in the popular Chinese messaging app, WeChat, saying those remarks were “made up.” He then released a report on the economy shorn of critical commentary. Mr. Gao and representatives at his firm didn’t return requests for comment.