Reforming China’s Financial System: who will bear the Costs?

Warning: JR is trying to explain the economy to himself. His word pool and previous knowledge about this topic are shaky, and the following may or may not make sense – you’ll have only have yourselves to blame if you base your homework (or investment decisions) on this post.

This is not the first time that a “financial crisis” is predicted for China, and certainly not so in Western media, which seem to have become aware of problems in China’s financial system by 2011. It doesn’t seem unlikely that the times of export-led growth in China are coming to an end – a new policy needs to be found, and it will need to be more specific than these.

The third wave of the global financial crisis is likely to occur in the emerging markets, and it is in its preliminary (or brewing) stage in China, Hong Kong’s Beijing-leaning Wen Wei Po (文匯報) quoted Guan Qingyou (管清友), assistant dean of the Minsheng Securities Research Institute, on June 21. However, it hadn’t started yet, Guan added, and there were two reasons for that. America’s Federal Reserve Bank hadn’t sufficient reason yet to exit its quantative easing policy, and the Bank of Japan, Japan’s central bank, was firm in its radical easing policies.

But that was no reason to lean back, Wen Wei Po continues to quote Guan Qingyou. The longer the brewing stage of the crisis lasted, the more fiercely it would become once it broke out. For the time being, there were three firewalls, Guan suggested: China’s current account suprlus with a corresponding amount of foreign-exchange reserves, a capital account that hadn’t yet been completely liberalized, and short-term capital flight would therefore be limited, and thirdly, China’s financial system was relatively stable – this third aspect had allowed China to escape the Asian financial crisis (of 1997) rather unharmed. Despite these reassuring short-term “firewalls”, an aging population, growing financial risks and excess production capacity stemming from overinvestment as well as high housing/property prices were burdens that made it difficult for China to prosper.

It would therefore be possible to avoid an acute currency crisis, Wen Wei Po quotes Guan Qingyou.

On July 2, China News Service quoted excerpts from Hong Kong’s Ming Pao‘s (明報) July 2 edition. Here, too, the Federal Reserve got a mention: there was no fixed end to the third round of quantative easing, and it would continue until the US economy’s recovery was really steady. This positive change would occur later this year, the Federal Reserve is quoted as predicting – “we hope that the Fed is right”, China News Service quotes Ming Pao.

The Fed’s “quantative easing” was at times cussed in the Chinese media (I can’t tell if that was also true for Hong Kong media) during the first years of the financial crisis, for destabilizing the global economy (and, presumably, for devaluing both the dollar and the U.S. bonds China holds  as America’s creditor). But few Chinese observers appear to be waiting for an end to quantative easing too impatiently.
Ming Pao, according to China News Service, uses some stronger language than Wen Wei Po in describing the need for Chinese financial market reforms: just as the economy was slowing down in China, and while the global markets weren’t stable, the Chinese central bank was trying to defuse the bomb in China’s financial system:

To meet their needs for working capital, mainland private enterprises are often seriously dependent on short-term funding. And if Chinese everywhere scramble for working capital, the whole Asian supply chain may become affected. This is bad news for the close regional ties between exporting and processing enterprises in mainland China. If the tightening period drags on, this will also negatively affect northeast Asian countries depending on Chinese growth.

内地的私营企业为满足营运资金的需求,往往 严重依赖短期资金。因此,若中国供货商到处争夺营运资金,整条亚洲供应链都可能会受到干扰。对于与内地出 口加工企业关系密切的地区出口商来说,这是个坏消息。若内地的紧缩周期拖长,对于那些俨如中国经济增长寒暑表的东北亚国家来说,将会不利。

The more resolute China’s [financial?] reform plans, the more painful the labor pain will be. The decision makers will try to increase the efficiency of capital use within the financial system. There is no “painless” way of dealing with the problem of debt dependence.

中国的改革计划愈有决心,这种阵痛的时间就愈长。决策者试图提高资金在金融系统内的运用效率。要处理之前遗留下来的债务依赖问题,实在没有“无痛”的方法。

Access to loans had long been a problem for smaller and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Occasionally even the press seemed to confront the central bank with the issue. A Zhejiang Satellite TV reporter asked People’s Bank of China (PBoC)  governor Zhou Xiaochuan in March 2011 how, under a tightening policy, harm for the SMEs can be avoided, given that banks could easily raise interest rates, and the SMEs had absolutely no bargaining power. Zhou’s answer amounted to a speech, rather than to an answer, and the only “practical advice” it contained basically amounted to a one-liner: We also encourage small companies to choose from the market.

The central bank hasn’t earned itself better grades very recently either, at least not by the Economist‘s standards: stirred by one trillion yuan added to the commercial banks’ loanbooks during the first ten days of June, the PBoC concluded that some banks were expecting a fresh government stimulus to revive a slowing economy and had “positioned themselves in advance”. But rather than going into another illicit lending orgy, the commercial banks had – arguably – only recognized existing loans in deference to the regulator’s instructions.

The message the BBC‘s Laurence Knight reads into the PBoC’s decisions is that the newly-ensconced government of President Xi Jinping is deadly serious about “rebalancing” China’s economy. (Knight’s story also contains a history of China’s recent “cheap-money era”, i. e. the stimulus package, and how small borrowers have been marginalised from the mainstream financial system.

But if the Xi leadership is indeed deadly serious about addressing the reform of the financial system, the question remains who will need to bear the pain Ming Pao (as quoted by China News Service) predicted on July 2. Michael Pettis, finance professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management, can think of one sector which must not take the burden:

You can only resolve a bad debt problem by assigning the cost to some sector of the economy. In the past it was the household sector that implicitly paid to clean up the debt, but if we expect rapid growth in household consumption to lead the economy going forward, and this is what rebalancing means in the Chinese context, we cannot also expect the household sector to clean up the bad debt in the same way it has done so over the past decade.

But if growth led by domestic demand – instead of export-led growth – is indeed the goal, neither Guan Qingyou’s comments as quoted by Wen Wei Po nor Ming Pao’s article as quoted by China News Service seem to hint at such a solution.  And when it comes to China’s colonial possessions, investment appears to remain the only answer, to economic and political problems alike. But then, excess production capacity may hardly be the main issue there, in the short run.

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3 Responses to “Reforming China’s Financial System: who will bear the Costs?”

  1. Still a better job of it than I could do, since I’m always drawn to the Chang et al cascade of debt defaults scenario. Ever since that Victor Shih post with its debt black hole stats.

    and this combined with the question:

    Would household bank account holders be willing today do another debt clean up. I don’t think they would wear it today.

    That’s why I question this piece by Chang. Would have been picked up on Weibo
    http://www.forbes.com/sites/gordonchang/2013/06/30/citibank-caught-in-china-cash-crunch-not-making-money-transfers/

    The Western Australia Big Chinese Mining Dream is deflating at a great rate here.

  2. Basically, I think Mr Chang should follow Harold Camping‘s example and put an end to his doomsday predictions. Would be annoying for him if the coming collapse of China came just one day after, though. (Not sure about the households, though. Nationalism may require sacrifices.)

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