China Is Digging Itself Into A Deeper Hole by John Mauldin
The title was meant to be ironic. The original Great Leap Forward was imposed by Mao in the 1960s. It was one of the most economically disastrous times in Chinese history. Food production increased, yet 30 million people starved. China underwent a true financial and economic crisis due to the insanity of central control of markets.
China now attempts something that is as powerful in scope as Mao’s Great Leap Forward. It has amassed a huge amount of debt in its drive to enter the modern world. China has succeeded in becoming a major force. But those who are paying attention see the country’s debt growing at a phenomenal rate.
It is much higher than the economy’s rate of growth, which is shrinking. That means the ability to service the debt is shrinking, too. And we are talking about massive amounts of debt in relation to GDP.
There is a lot to like and appreciate about China. But it isn’t clear what they are going to do about their current circumstances. This includes the inevitable shift from being a manufacturing powerhouse to being a consumer powerhouse. It’s not an easy transition.
My friend Michael Pettis is a professor at the Guanghua School of Management at Peking University in Beijing. I think it’s safe to label him a long-term China insider. He’s possibly the most knowledgeable person I know on China’s inner workings.
Here is his latest article on the nature of Chinese debt and the problems that the resolution of that debt is going to create.
Does It Matter If China Cleans Up Its Banks?
By Michael Pettis
I’ve always thought that Shirley Yam of the South China Morning Post has a great nose for financial risk, and this shows in an article she published last week on mainland real estate. For anyone knowledgeable about the history of financial bubbles and crises, much of the following story will seem extremely familiar. The point to remember is that what is normally recorded as business operations in activities described in the article, results in fixed payments that are inversely correlated with underlying conditions, and so is really no different than debt in the way it will begin to generate financial distress costs when the economy turns—goosing economic activity on the way up while exacerbating the contraction when it comes.
Yam discusses how building contractors must pay developers to build real estate projects and write about one such contractor, whom she calls “George”:
This is how the system works. Say an apartment building costs 1 billion yuan to build. George will provide the developer 300 million yuan as “facilitation money” at an interest rate of about 4 percent to win the job. The latter will then give George 80 million yuan for the services rendered.
George, however, does not have any shareholding in the project, whatsoever, to cover his back. Neither is he assured that the facilitation money would not end up in the stock market. All George can do is pray and hope that the apartments sell well and he gets his money back with interest plus the construction costs. Despite the risk, there has been no dearth of interested players. As George puts it, it has been getting worse. His state-owned rivals are now offering “facilitation money” of up to 50 or even 60 percent of the construction cost. Some are even pitching in with zero interest, while others are promising to help in eventual sales.
She goes on to talk about the desperate competition among developers to get new projects, and what is driving the record-beating real estate prices:
The obvious question that comes to mind is why are developers willing to pay record amounts to own a piece of land—or as some suggest, pay more for the flour (land) than the bread (flat). But then the land parcels are not really meant to be the flour for the bread. A good case is China Cinda Asset Mangement, which has invested more than 61 billion yuan in property during the past 12 months.
Among its acquisitions was a piece of land in suburban Beijing that was so expensive that it will break-even only if the property prices are four times higher. But Cinda has piles of liquidity to splash about. Its debt to equity ratio rose by a third to 368 per cent in 2015 and it paid just a quarter of the loan rate of its private rivals. For Cinda, property seemed the best bet. After all, the real economy was not going anywhere and the stock market was twisting and turning. On the other hand, property investment promised huge returns and was more self-fulfilling in nature. The record-breaking land prices support the property market and therefore the repayment of the multi-billion yuan of loans via shadow banking that Cinda and other state firms are loaded with. So overpayment seemed perfectly okay.
Keep all of this in mind when thinking about stepped-up efforts to clean up China’s banking system. There has been a flurry of reports recently about steps taken to clean up the banking system, but from an economy-wide point of view, it is not clear that any reduction in debt burden’s for the banking system actually reflect a reduction in the debt burden for the economy as a whole. And anyway, new kinds of debt are growing quickly enough that even if it did, the country’s debt burden is almost certainly rising.
Here is Bloomberg on a UBS report two weeks ago on the topic of bank clean-ups:
The good news is that the capital raises have begun. The bad news is that they need to continue. An analysis of 765 banks in China by UBS Group AG shows that efforts to clean up the country’s debt-ridden financial system are well underway, with as much as 1.8 trillion yuan ($271 billion) of impaired loans shed between 2013 and 2015, and 620 billion yuan of capital raised in the same period. But the work is far from over, as to reach a more sustainable debt ratio, the Chinese banking sector will still require up to 2 trillion yuan of additional capital as well as the disposal of 4.5 trillion yuan worth of bad loans, according to the Swiss bank’s estimates.
I think a lot of this misses the point, and not just because there is a lot more debt out there than we think. I think the optimism with which this news has been received reflects a failure to think systemically about the Chinese economy. The fact that bad loans overwhelm the capital of the banking system should not blind us to the fact that China’s problem is excessive debt in the economy, and not a banking system that risks collapse because of insolvency. The only “solution” to excessive debt within the economy is to allocate the costs of that debt, and not to transfer it from one entity to another.
The recapitalization of the banks is nice, in other words, but it is hardly necessary if we believe—and most