China debt: is the government serious about deleveraging?
In a country where every nuance of public statements from senior figures is carefully considered, it is very hard to dismiss as careless hyperbole the recent warning of Zhou Xioachuan, chairman of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), the Chinese central bank, that China faces “a Minsky moment”.
Significantly, the warning about the potentially severe consequences of excessive optimism and the build-up of debt within China came at the country’s high profile National Party Conference (NPC) in October.
Given the context and unusual frankness of the comments, Zhou’s assessment was, in our view, as clear an indication as investors get in China that the authorities are serious in addressing the issue of high debt levels.
This has not always been the case. Conflicting political and economic interests have historically resulted in inconsistent policy objectives and a familiar boom/bust cyclical narrative. In particular, an explicit and somewhat arbitrary growth target for GDP effectively encouraged significant debt-financed investment at local government level.
But times are changing.
And while a relatively steady growth rate is still important as China builds towards the 100th anniversary of the founding of Communist Party in 2021, the omission of specific GDP growth targets in President Xi Jinping’s keynote NPC address was, in our view, particularly notable.
We see the omission as further compelling evidence of the shift in China’s policy priorities towards the quality and sustainability of growth, rather than just the pace of growth.
With Xi’s position not merely secure but emboldened, the Chinese premier now has a clear mandate to build further on deleveraging progress to-date.
How serious an issue is China’s debt?
A series of policy initiatives both before and particularly subsequent to the financial crisis encouraged debt-financed investment and the building of industrial capacity where none was really needed.
Since the financial crisis, China’s debt has consistently grown significantly faster than GDP.
Estimates of China’s debt to GDP ratio, the key measure of a country’s overall leverage relative to the size of the economy, stand at around 270% (as at end-June 2017).
The figure has risen steeply since 2008. Higher than developed nations including Germany and the United States, China’s debt to GDP ratio is particularly elevated by emerging country standards.
China now faces two related debt issues.
First, a debt pile relative to GDP that increasingly threatens both shortand long-term economic stability.
Second, capital inefficiency that is holding back the economy after a number of years in which an increasing amount of new credit has gone towards debt servicing costs and investment in ‘old economy’ sectors.
China's debt: where is it?
We focus on what we believe are the three key areas of leverage within the Chinese economy:
Corporate Debt: The corporate sector accounts for just under 60% of all debt in China—roughly 160% of GDP. This ratio is among the highest in the world and is significantly higher than that of Korea, US, UK, the EU or Japan.
Since 2008, corporate debt as a percentage of GDP has nearly doubled.
There are no official figures on the amount of debt in China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), the government-owned businesses that remain at the heart of the Chinese economy.
Local Government Debt: While Local Government accounts for around 16% of all debt in China and 44% of GDP, many observers point to it as the most likely source of defaults.
Mixing policy and commercial imperatives, China’s local governments borrowed heavily to meet growth targets, circumventing rules designed to curb excessive debt by using dedicated Financing Vehicles and by borrowing from the shadow banking sector.
Household Debt: The pace of growth in household debt is accelerating. At similar levels of GDP to the Local Government sector, household debt in China still has room to grow without prompting concern, but at some point debt servicing will clearly curtail consumption growth.
China's economy: the outlook
The pace of growth in the Chinese economy will slow in 2018 as the deleveraging process continues.
This reflects the impact of tightening policies already in place and in particular the impact of deleveraging policies on infrastructure spend (due to the tightening in local government finance), a slowing housing market and property construction.
But we do not believe that the effect of deleveraging policies to date will prompt a hard landing for the Chinese economy.
Our base case is that consumer spending remains resilient. But for an economy that is seeking to increasingly rely on consumption growth going forward, a sharp correction in house prices is clearly a risk both to consumer spending and to the wider economy given how significant a role residential construction plays.
But overall we believe that the process of deleveraging will be relatively gradual and well managed. What gives us a degree of confidence that China can avoid a liquidity-driven hard landing is the belief that the PBoC has both a deeper understanding of bank liquidity needs and a broader toolkit to measure liquidity and to adjust it should it prove necessary.
China’s one party political system also makes adjusting policy a straightforward process.
A good example of the PBoC’s more nuanced approach was the cut in the Reserve Requirement Ratio in late September for banks that meet specific criteria on lending to micro enterprises.
Not a big deal in itself, but a small move that simultaneously reduced risks to the economy while ensuring new credit is deployed more efficiently in higher value activity.
Given the Chinese economy’s historic volatility, a degree of scepticism is perhaps understandable with regard to the authorities’ ability to navigate the deleveraging process successfully without provoking a hard landing. But in our view, the progress to-date and the very noticeable shift in rhetoric and policy focus all bode well for the future.
Perhaps it’s time to give credit where credit’s due.
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