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 Chinabankingnews.com 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.

Reconciling Chinese Household Debt Statistics

So after my Bloomberg View piece came out citing a self generated statistic that Chinese household debt to household income was above 100%, I had a number of eagle eyed reader send me a piece from the South China Morning Post from the same day.  In the SCMP piece, they present a graph that shows Chinese household debt to household disposable income at just above 50%. Readers were wondering how could I explain the enormous discrepancy between my self generated number and the number that was cited in the SCMP.

This worry about household debt levels in China and the most common mistake is that people use per capita GDP rather than household income. For numerous reasons, there are enormous differences between per capita GDP and actual household income numbers.  Even this recent SCMP piece about the rapidly rising household GDP number mistakenly uses household debt to GDP rather than household income.

Before I explain the discrepancy, let me stress, I personally am quite accepting of differences in how to interpret the data and whether additional data changes our view. However, especially when focusing on China, presenting the most accurate data and knowing what it does and does not say, is something I take very seriously. So I was also personally intrigued by the discrepancy.

I cannot say with 100% accuracy how the SCMP figure was generated but I can come quite close.  The first data source cited is the Bank for International Settlements which generates a dataset with a figure for market value of household debt as a percentage of GDP. Though it does not specifically say, I would assume that GDP here is nominal.

There are a couple of points worth mentioning about this statistic.  First, the BIS figure on household debt as a percentage of GDP does not perfectly match the figure in the SCMP but it matches within at most 10%.  The BIS lists Chinese household debt as a percentage of GDP at 44.4%. The SCMP figure appears to be just a little bit above 50% and does not have a data label so I cannot say for certain. However, later in the article the writer claims that Chinese “household debt-to-GDP ratio is only 40 per cent” even though the BIS places it at 44.4%. Later the writes claims that Chinese “household debt-to-disposable income is 56 per cent” though again it is not entirely clear how this figure is arrived at.

What makes the authors figures even more suspect is the transformation into “household debt to disposable income by country” that he cites.  If we follow the sources used by the author, we are able to locate within the UN National Accounts data a gross household disposable income number which would appear to represent the number used by the author.

This is where the author appears to get the cited statistic and take amazing statistical liberties. The UN data indicates that in 2013 (the last available year in the UN data set) China had 35.7 trillion RMB of gross disposable household income (more about this specific number later). At the end of 2013, Chinese households had 19.7 trillion RMB of household debt. If we divide 19.7 trillion by 35.7 trillion we get a number of 55.1% which is very very close to the statistic used of 56%.

However, this number is grossly and intentionally misleading. The author never prominently notes that the data used on China, his primary subject, is from 2013. He only notes in the last note of the figure that “the rest are as of 2013”.  The author is writing about second half 2017 discussing current economic situation and never prominently mentions that the data he is basing his argument on is nearly 4 years old?  The authors intention was clearly to mislead readers rather than educate them as to what best available data tell us right now.

In fact, we have best available data right for the year ending 2016. If we take the PBOC data on Loans to Households we get a total of 33.4 trillion RMB in debt outstanding at the end of 2016 which is for all intents and purposes statistically identical to the BIS figure of 32.95 trillion. Now what we need to do is find recent data on the amount of disposable household income in China.  According to the National Bureau of Statistics China, per capita disposable income in China in 2016 was 23,821 RMB.  With an official 2016 population of 1.38 trillion, this gives us a total disposable income of 32.9 trillion RMB.  Next we take the total PBOC household debt number of 33.4 trillion and divide by the NBS number of total household income to arrive at a household debt to disposable income number of 101%.  If we extrapolate out through the first half based upon the rate of growth in disposable income through H1 and use the June 2017 household debt, this number comes in around 104-105%.

What is interesting is that even if we take the official Chinese data used to calculate household debt to household income ratio back in 2013, we get 79.7% not the 55.1%/56% number used by the author. So where did the SCMP and the author go wrong?

In addition to the misleading date, the author confuses a measure of GDP for household income.  The author uses a measure of household income with GDP measures that is based upon the estimated value of household consumption within GDP.  The reason this matters is that the NBS compiles other data on household income that shows relatively different numbers.  So far, I have been unable to locate the exact “gross disposable income” number in Chinese data that seems to be used within UN data.  This is used primarily in a form of GDP accounting that is not widely recognized from the expenditure approach.  I have however, been able to match the consumption number the UN uses to the NBS consumption expenditure within GDP data.  This

The NBS however, compiles survey data where they actually go out and conduct surveys on rural and household incomes rather than compiling it at a GDP level.  The UN data on gross disposable income collected via GDP overstates household income by roughly 43% according to the NBS survey data.  What is important is that this measure of income actually compiles data on income from all sources such as wages and salaries, transfers, and income from business and property.  Similarly the same data also compiles detailed data on the expenditure side with significant detail by category. This does not match identically but close enough the highly regarded China Household Finance Survey conducted by the Southwester University of Finance and Economics that we can take this survey data as much closer to reality than the 1993 methodology using headline GDP data from 2013.

The fundamental problem is that the author uses headline GDP data for household income rather than that survey data on what households actually make.  It should be noted though that the use of 2013 data is misleading.  In both fundamental data errors, there is significant laziness when significantly better quality and newer data sources exist.  The household debt levels for Chinese households is above 100% of household income.

Is China Deleveraging?

Short answer: no and the trend is not towards deleveraging.

A major focus of China watchers is whether China is deleveraging.  Like many questions, it is not 100% straight forward based upon the available data, but on balance we have to say. Let me explain.

  1. Despite all the talk of “deleveraging” and how China is restraining liquidity, this simply isn’t borne out by the data. In fact, in many area, leverage is actually growing very very rapidly.
  2. What is confusing the issue for many people is what is and isn’t growing. Conceptually, most people without realizing it expect a bell curve to represent growth and then the average of the bell curve moves up or down.  However, in this case, that is not what is happening.  Consequently, deleveraging gets confused.
  3. One of the biggest mistakes, in my opinion, is the most common citations of debt are to “non-financial corporates”. The BIS uses this as their primary measure of debt levels for instance.  In China think manufacturing and real estate firms.  By that measure, there is a degree of deleveraging.  From H1 2016 to H1 2017, total loans to NFCs was up only 8.5%.  While this is not absolute deleveraging, it is nominal deleveraging in that if we take a simple measure say nominal GDP growth which was 11.4%, debt did not grow as fast as nominal GDP. For various, reasons, this would not be my optimal relative metric but for our purposes here it works fine.  This is a small victory but it needs to be considered a small victory.  Chinese corporates remain enormously stressed.  Small victory but keep it in perspective.
  4. It has even been pointed out that total social financing (unadjusted for local government bond swaps a very key non-adjustment) as a percentage of nominal GDP actually fell by 0.2% in the last quarter. Given that bond swap adjustment will add 2-4% to the TSF, this is not an insignificant adjustment.
  5. The biggest problem with the deleveraging argument however is that it is basing upon nominal GDP growth. This is not an insignificant problem but an atypical one.  Nearly the entirety of the surge in Chinese reflation is due to the surge in base inputs like coal, steel oil, and similar metals and commodities. Chinese CPI and retail price index (RPI) are up 1.5% and 0.9% respectively.  Business focused price indexes like corporate goods and producer prices reveal the entirety of the surge in price levels is on mining, coal, steel, and related industries. All others are near flat.  Metallurgy, coal, and petroleum in the PPI are up 17.4%, 35.9%, and 9% respectively. The average GDP deflated from 2014-2016 was 0.64 while in 2017 it is 4.61% and 4.25% through the first two quarters.  The triple digit price gains in traded commodities pushed up nominal GDP growth but is highly unlikely to experience another triple digit surge. Consequently, the price level of these commodities is already falling peaking at some point within the past few months.  We can expect it to keep falling over the remainder of 2017 changing the deleveraging argument fundamentally absent major drops in financing.
  6. Another factor of what we see is the surge in non-corporate and quasi-off balance sheet financing. Loans to households and portfolio investment by banks (read WMP holdings) grew by 23.9% and 17.1% compared to the more pedestrian 8.5% growth to NFCs.  Nor are these numbers small. Household and portfolio investment combined are now  13% larger than loans to NFCs and growing at a combined rate of 20%.  In other words, China maybe slowing NFC growth but other areas are simply exploding and now responsible for a greater share of the debt burden than the part everyone focuses on.  To put the level of household debt in perspective, household debt in China is now equal to 104% of household income and growing 24% annually.

While the deleveraging story in China is not uniformly and entirely bad, there remains no fundamental focus on deleveraging.  Furthermore, the trends are such that even the glimmer of hope due to nominal deleveraging from surging commodity prices and slowdown in non-financial corporate debt seem likely to fade as other sectors build up debt levels rapidly and prices fall back due to the base effect.  It seems we need to wait a bit longer for real deleveraging.

Will China Have a Financial Crisis: The Bull Growth Case Part II A

One of the biggest questions about China is whether it will have a financial crisis.  Even recently Goldman Sachs, who is typically one of the biggest China bulls on many levels, has raised the specter of whether a financial crisis could envelope China.  Last week we covered some of the weaknesses in the bear case that a financial crisis will happen, this time I’m going to focus on the bull case and its weaknesses.

I want to note a couple of things that are most likely my personal biases.  First, I tend to think that bears overestimate the probability of a crisis while bulls underestimate the probability of a crisis.  In probability-speak, you would have something like a lumpy extreme bimodal distribution.  Second, while I do not think a crisis is inevitable or that the bears have an ironclad case, I do believe the weight of evidence leads to much more pessimistic outcomes than bears can make a strong case for.

Third, extrapolating on the previous point, the most likely scenarios moving forward, lead much easier to more pessimistic scenarios even if not a full blown crisis.  By that I mean, absent major policy changes, it is much easier to see bull and bear cases leading to more pessimistic scenarios than positive outcomes.  For instance, if China decide to deleverage an in 2017 held fast to a mandate of zero credit growth, that would result major negative pressures likely resulting in at best low single digit growth.

China will grow its way out of its problems.  This is probably the most widely used argument by bulls and in reality underpins pretty much every argument made by China bulls.  This is both entirely accurate and an entirely false sense of security.  Let me explain.

First, many like to cite China’s high growth rate as proof that it remains robust but fail to look at the relative rate of growth. From 2002 to 2016, nominal GDP growth was an annualized 13.8%.  From 2009 to 2016 it was 11.4%.  That is very good but does not explain the problems China faces entering 2017 and why we are discussing whether China will have a financial crisis.

What is concerning is the shift in the Chinese economy to one that makes it entirely reliant on credit growth.  From 2002 to 2008, the total stock of social financing grew at an annual rate of 16.9% or slightly less than the 17.5% nominal GDP growth during that same time. From 2009 to 2016, these numbers reversed in a major way.  From 2009 to 2016, nominal GDP grew at 11.4% but the stock of total social financing grew at 17.3% or nearly 6% faster than nominal GDP.  That basic ratio has held pretty closely even as growth and TSF have moderated slightly in recent years.

The reason I give this as background, rapid growth by itself will not solve China’s problems.  Let us take a simple scenario and assume that China continues growing nominal GDP at 7-8% for the foreseeable future.  Absent a major and sustained drop in TSF growth, China will eventually have a financial crisis.  Citing growth as a reason China will not have a crisis in isolation is no reason at all.

Second, not only is the rate of growth in credit to GDP a problem, the level is now a serious problem which makes this situation much more difficult to reverse even with high growth.  Different people and organizations arrive at slightly different numbers but the estimates of China’s debt to GDP is roughly 240-280%. (The South China Morning Post uses 260%).  This level makes it very difficult to correct this problem even if the growth rates moderate.

Let’s again take a simple scenario to illustrate the point.  For simplicity sake let’s say that China’s debt to GDP is 250% (which I believe to be a very conservative number).  What makes this unique is that most of this is held by corporate and household sectors and an increasingly significant share funded by shadow banking.  Why that matters is that this implies higher interest carry costs than if it was held by the sovereign. (Let’s ignore for the sake of this exercise the specific nature of China sovereign and SOE’s.).  According to WIND, the bank index loan rate on 1-3 year debt is 4.75% so if we factor in the rates from shadow banking and what not, we can safely us 5% as a round number estimate for the debt service cost.

This would imply an annual debt service cost equal to roughly 12.5% of nominal GDP simply to stave off default.  By comparison, a like Japan with very high levels of indebtedness face borrowing costs near zero and most held by the sovereign.  In fact many highly indebted countries which China compares itself to face much lower finance carry costs.  The level of indebtedness, the interest rate differential, and the debt service costs will make addressing this problem increasingly difficult.

Third, the argument that China will continue to grow fast depends almost entirely on rapid expansion of debt and is therefore circular and requires debt to grow to astronomical levels.  Let me reframe this question in two ways.  What would happen to growth in China if Beijing was worried enough about growth they opted to impose a hard cap of no debt growth and anyone found violating this would be executed and they then got to the end of the year and found that debt had not grown?  In a best case scenario, it would likely grow in the low single digits say 1-2%.  In reality, you would probably induce a hard landing or recession.

Let’s take another less extreme scenario and assume (hypothetical of course) that China could perfectly predict nominal GDP for the year and set a cap such that credit grew by the exact same amount.  For instance, if nominal GDP growth was 6.5% then credit growth would also equal 6.5%.  What do we think would be the growth rate in this case?  At best, it would likely be in the low to mid single digits say 2-4% but in reality, would probably prompt similar outcomes with a higher probability of a straight out recession rather than a hard landing or financial crisis.

Let’s even take a less extreme scenario with a variant of the above. Now let’s assume that China can perfectly predict the nominal growth rate at the beginning of every year and now applies a rule of credit growth that is equal to the ratio of credit growth of nominal GDP growth minus 10%.  For instance, in 2016, TSF growth was 13% and nominal GDP growth was 8% with the ratio of those two numbers being 1.62.  If we take away 10% that gives us a number of 1.52.  Using this simple rule, it would be 2023 before debt was growing at slower rate than GDP (using some simple static rules).  By that point, debt to GDP would be well above 300% quite possibly even 350%.  Given this expansion of the credit and money while trying to prop up struggling industry while maintaining a quasi-fixed exchange rate, it would seem likely that Beijing would have to drop the peg.  Furthermore, this would imply rising debt to GDP through the early part of the next decade with minimal deleveraging thereafter.

Fourth, one of the most concerning parts of the current debt conundrum is the hubris associated with Chinese policy making and its previous bad debt struggles.  More than a decade ago, when China was recapitalizing its banks and creating bad debt asset managers, it effectively outgrew its mountain of bad debt.  Though we cannot know for sure, there is strong evidence that a not insignificant amount of this debt was never written off but just sat idle for years the nominal GDP growth outpaced debt growth.  In 2014, you had banks going public with decade old bad debt that they were using IPO proceeds to pay off the asset manager who bought their bad debt.

Though I have never seen it explicitly or implicitly stated, my personal strong belief is that China is hoping to grow its way out of its debt mess the same way it did previously.  For reasons that would occupy another blog post if not book, that period in Chinese and even global history was such a unique period that is unlikely to be repeated and produce growth rates that will repeat this outgrowth phenomena.

Nor can we overlook the law of large number China edition role in this outgrow scenario.  The surpluses that China ran from approximately 2000-2010 were enormous in relative terms.  To run similar sized surpluses would result in surpluses of mind boggling size that would result in unparalleled distortions.  They simply will not be returning.

Even with sustained growth, it remains highly unlikely that growth will prevent China from having a crisis.  Other factors may but the single minded bull focus on growth seems rather misguided.

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.

Follow Up To BloombergViews on Chinese Debt Swap

I want to follow up on a couple of points about my BloombergViews piece on the Chinese debt swap.  As usual, start there and come here for additional thoughts.

  1. I think sometimes we overcomplicate our analysis of issues. I am just as guilty as anyone and not looking at anyone in particular here, but it can be tempting to over complicate an analysis when the reality is much more straight forward and simple.
  2. There has been some good news reporting on the problems and skepticism even with the Chinese financial and economic world about how well these debt for equity swaps will work. The problems have highlighted such issues as the lack of public capital injection. Persuading existing companies to essentially fund the bailout, the absurdity of having a bank create a WMP to fund purchasing a loan off its balance sheet, or how a bank can receive a debt for equity swap with no discounting of the debt price by the bank when the loan is classified as normal among some of the problems.
  3. These are all entirely valid concerns but I see a high probability of failure of the debt for equity swap for a much simpler and fundamental reason as compared to previous iteration in China: the gap between growth and debt. Prior to, let’s say 2008 for a simple dividing line, nominal GDP growth and cash flows were higher than debt growth in China. Since 2008 however, debt growth has been about twice as fast as nominal GDP growth and that ratio continues to worsen.
  4. I do not care how perfect the incentives work, how ideal the financial engineering, or immaculate the restructuring and organization plans: if debt continues to grow at twice the rate of cash flow or nominal GDP growth the debt restructuring will fail and fail spectacularly. We can write a length about a variety of issues about who absorbs the cost of the debt, the difficulty of restructuring, subsidized debt costs, the employment burden, and so many other issues that need to be considered but at the end of the day if debt continues to grow at two times nominal GDP and 3-4 times cash flow growth, there is absolutely no chance solving this debt problem.
  5. It is also important to note that while some may point to developed countries debt growth and their weak economic growth but these are very different levels. Take a simple scenario, not drawn from any specific country. Assume a country has 2% nominal GDP growth and 4% debt growth. After five years their debt level has risen 22% and GDP expanded 10.4%.  Hardly a crippling blow.  However, in China assume that debt goes up 15% and nominal GDP expands 7.5% also for 5 years.  The debt level has more than doubled by 101% while nominal GDP is only up 44%.  Even if a developed country faces the same ratio, debt growth twice as fast as nominal GDP, the scale and speed of the numbers is radically different compared to China.
  6. This debt swap, whether it is perfectly designed and executed or whether it is a disaster, has absolutely no hope of working absent credit restraint.
  7. Let’s project this out slightly. To make the fundamentals of the debt restructuring work, we have to either rapidly accelerate growth in China or we have to rapidly cut lending.  Right now, for many reasons, it is extremely difficult to see any type of catalyst or driver to significantly accelerate nominal GDP growth in China.  Official nominal GDP YTD through Q3 is up 7.4%, leave aside the validity, and I see no obvious indicator of what would push this up above 10% even within the next few years.  Some may disagree with my pessimism here, but I don’t know anyone that believes the contrary and simply strains credibility to posit that as reasonable alternative.
  8. What happens to the Chinese economy if there is any type of significant deceleration of credit growth? Total loans are up 13% and aggregate financing to the real economy is up 12.5%, I have heard some argue that deleveraging is starting and while there may be narrow examples, by firm for instance, there is simply zero evidence of any widespread deleveraging.  If you look beneath headline data, the only thing keeping the Chinese economy from likely entering an actual recession is fiscal and quasi fiscal stimulus.  What happens if this credit growth is restrained going forward by any significant degree? For instance, if nominal growth continues around 7% and debt growth falls to say 4-6%, what happens to Chinese growth?  I don’t think it is unfair to say that absent continued large scale credit growth, the Chinese economy would suffer from a significant slowdown in growth.
  9. Though I am frequently cynical of Chinese “reforms”, I actually believe Beijing wants to delever. However, and this is an enormous caveat, they do not want to make the trade off that comes with deleveraging of lower economic growth and asset prices.  I always tell me students that there is a stunning amount we do not know about economic processes and where reasonable people can have reasonable differences.  However, there are a couple of universal laws. One of them is economics is the study of trade offs.  What trade offs are we willing to make. I believe China wants to delever but that they do not want to make the trade off involved.

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.

 

Why China Debt Bulls are Mostly Wrong

As the debate about the sustainability about the increase in Chinese credit has grown, a number of points have been raised about why China simply cannot have some type of financial crisis or even needs more debt.  Though I believe a near term financial crisis is an extremely low but rising probability event, it is clear that the optimism about Chinese debt levels or growth ranges from misguided to uninformed.  Let us elucidate some of these.

Myth #1: China has high savings rates.  This is entirely true but does not change the fact that if firms cannot repay their debts, Chinese banks and savers will be harmed.  A bank is an intermediary transferring surplus capital from depositors to borrowers and charging a fee for the service and risk incurred.  If firms cannot repay their debts, this will place enormous pressure on banks to make depositors whole, and depositors will become decidedly unhappy if they incur losses.  Even though China has established a deposit insurance scheme, this only means that bank losses will be imposed on many of the firms who cannot pay initially. Yes, China has a high savings rates, but if firms cannot repay their debts, there will still be large problems.

Myth #2: China does not owe foreign debt.  Again, a mitigating factor for sure, but does not fundamentally alter the debt problems. The 1997 Asian financial crisis has programmed most to believe that foreign denominated debt or large foreign inflows is the driver. Financial crises can happen in the absence of a foreign driver.  There are many examples of financial crises without major foreign influence. If firms cannot repay their debts, foreign or domestic, that only alters upon who the losses will be imposed and alters the probability for rapid outflows.  If firms cannot repay their debts, they cannot repay their debts, and losses need to be imposed.

Myth #3: GDP growth remains strong.  Leaving aside questions about the accuracy of official GDP growth, it cannot be stressed strongly enough that firms and governments do not repay debts with imaginary GDP credits but with cash flow.  Based upon various measures of cash flow, corporations, the primary debt sector in China, are having enormous struggles with liquidity.  From revenue growth that is flat to receivables growth rising double digits annually and an average of more than six months, there are significant cash flow problems in China hampering firms ability to repay debts.  Even if GDP growth data is accurate, most of the corporate sector remains mired in a deflationary spiral with debt growth outpacing cash flow and revenue growth.

Myth #4: China can lower its debt servicing cost to international norms to manage debt. Many firms, including a major investment bank recently, pointed out that Chinese debt service costs as a percentage of GDP are high by international comparison.  They noted that if debt servicing costs as a percentage of GDP were brought more in line with international standards, China could continue to expand debt levels. However, this analysis makes an elementary mistake: for China to lower its debt servicing costs as a percentage of GDP it must lower interest rates. Lowering PBOC interest rates, especially in an environment when the Fed will likely hike at the next meeting, runs the very real risk of ending the RMB/USD peg.  Lowering debt service costs will place enormous pressure on the peg and if lowered much beneath its current level would likely lead to much bigger problems.

Myth #5: China should expand debt as a counter-cyclical tool to boost growth. In the absence of fixed exchange rate regime with capital controls, this would make some sense.  However, rapid credit expansion and money growth outpacing nominal GDP by about two to one is a recipe for currency pressure.  If China is going to continue to utilize this basket of economic tools, this will lead to the unceremonious end of the RMB/USD peg.  You cannot do these things and maintain a currency peg.

Myth #6: China does not need to worry about bad debts as it can print money to buy bad debts. Semi-respectable people have put forth this mistaken notion as proof that the Chinese debt problem really is not a problem.  Debt monetization is not a good outcome. This is like hoping for dengue fever rather than malaria.  Furthermore, in China’s case would likely require the end of the RMB/USD peg which would present an even bigger list of challenges. Printing the money necessary to buy bad debts would increase the money supply which would place downward pressure on the RMB.  Even just the announcement of such a policy would likely rile the currency markets which are already jittery.  It is foolish to think China could execute any level of debt monetization without ending the RMB/USD peg which could unleash a whole range of other outcomes.

If you have not already picked up on it, probably the biggest mistake that China debt bulls overlook is that most of their outcomes or policies place pressure on effectively do away with the RMB/USD peg which is already under increasing strain. China has really tightened down capital controls of outward flows and inward flows are dropping rapidly.

While I do not believe a debt crisis is near term imminent for reasons I have already spelled out on numerous occasions, it is flat out wrong to believe the China debt bull story.

A Brief History of the Chinese Economy and What It Says About the Future

The Chinese credit explosion has come to dominate discussion with most people drawing a distinction pre and post 2008 global financial crisis.  This is however a misleading break point and most importantly obscures very important information about what drives the Chinese economy.

Since 2008, the Chinese economy has been driven by investment which is driven by the expansion of credit.  In 2015, total nominal credit expansion was nearly 4 times greater than total nominal GDP expansion.  This a worrying development which most have interpreted as a new found appetite for credit that did not exists prior to the global financial crisis.  While this is true, it obscures the story in important ways.

Since 2000, quickly approaching 20 years, the story of the Chinese economy relies on injecting ever larger amounts of capital.  Many are drawing a clear dividing line between pre and post 2008, but there is a common thread between the them which is the requirement that money, credit, and investment continue to increase to push economic growth.

Pre-2008 this continual injection of capital required an artificially low exchange rate driving large surpluses sterilized by PBOC money printing.  Post 2008, even though absolute trade surpluses remained large it wasn’t large enough in absolute terms to drive growth, so China turned on the credit spigots.  The large absolute surpluses could no longer drive the relative growth needed, so China decided to manage this by itself.

The argument has been made that China has a lot lower risk than Asian countries in 1997 because they are not exposed to foreign investors.  That is partially true but it exposes them to other risks.  Foreign investors cannot pull their money but this requires China to financially oppress their citizens to ensure they provide the liquidity.  We see this dynamic playing out very clearly.  Bank purchases of non-bank financial institution products have exploded as quasi-deposits have moved into non-bank financial institutions.  In other words, the lending follows deposits.

Consequently, this makes Chinese financial institutions vulnerable to either some process where domestic depositors pull liquidity.  In fact, we see evidence that this liquidity tightening is already rising to worrying levels.  For instance, the PBOC is providing ongoing “seasonal” liquidity injections across a variety of lending platforms.  The seasonal liquidity injections at this point seem to never end and banks rely on that liquidity to roll over loans that aren’t being repaid.

This is likely what is the real driver behind RMB policy.  If we are talking just the impact on trade and consumption, there should be relatively little impact from letting the RMB move lower.  However, the concern over the RMB is not about its relative value or impact on exporters but on what would Chinese do if they were allowed to move large amounts of money out of Chinese banks and non-bank financial institutions.

If the RMB was allowed to float and Chinese move money wherever they want, this would place enormous strain on the banking system.  Research consistently finds that crises in emerging markets typically come together to create major crises.  For many emerging markets, some form of a debt and currency crisis is the perfect example of a two headed monster that would be beyond Beijing’s ability to control it.

The purpose here is absolutely not to predict doom and gloom. There are four points.  First, it is important to note what is and has been the driver of Chinese growth for almost 20 years.  The source of capital formation changed after 2008 but the driver of the economy did not.  Second, if China is unable to continually drive capital/investment/debt levels continually higher, it is difficult to see where economic growth would come from and please do not get me started on the so called “rebalancing”.  For 20 years, the story has been the same.  Third, just because China is not exposed to international capital markets like Thailand and Indonesia, do not underestimate liquidity and credit risk.  Fourth, understand how credit and liquidity risk interconnectedness are working together to drive many of these decisions.  Beijing knows they cannot free the RMB because that would essentially prompt a run on the banks.  You simply cannot separate many of these decisions.