Tuesday, July 28, 2009
As I have repeatedly pointed out, China is in better shape than the U.S. and many other Western countries, but all is not rosy in China.
CNN Money is now making some of these same points out for a mass audience:
But unlike the U.S., China has a much greater ability to fund its debt:
On the surface, China presents a fiscal study in contrast with the United States, keeping a remarkably low ceiling on debt even as it spends its way out of the financial crisis.
But when Chinese leaders meet their U.S. counterparts this week, they should pause for reflection before venting any criticism, because hidden liabilities mean China's books are uglier -- potentially much uglier -- than at first sight.
Thanks to successive years of fast economic growth and even faster government revenue growth, the official debt-to-GDP ratio was 17.7% at the end of last year, far lower than almost any other major economy.
The trouble is that excludes local government borrowing, the current surge in loans backstopped by Beijing and bad assets cleared from the banking system but still floating about.
When all are thrown into the pot, analysts estimate that China's debt may be closer to 60% of GDP, putting it in virtually the same league as the United States, which was at 70% at the end of 2008 before it launched its massive economic stimulus program.
To be sure, Washington is now set on a path of exploding debt that Beijing will largely avoid. The United States budgeted for a federal deficit of 12.9% of GDP this year, whereas China is aiming for just 2.9%.
But China's finances are deteriorating more quickly than the government expected, fueling a rise in the stock of both explicit and disguised debt that will constrict its wriggle room.
"It is serious because, one, much of it is hidden and, two, local governments are currently doubling down on their bets," said Stephen Green, economist at Standard Chartered Bank in Shanghai. "As with all fiscal deficits, it limits space for further stimulus."...
Above and beyond that are 400 billion yuan in bad loans in banks' hands and at least 1 trillion yuan in non-performing debt hived off their books and assigned to asset management companies. The buck stops with Beijing on all of these.
The record surge in bank lending this year means that its sum of liabilities is about to swell in size.
Banks have showered money on infrastructure projects that are seen as having iron-clad government guarantees. Green said he "conservatively" estimates that Beijing's bill for covering loans issued this year alone will be 1.75 trillion yuan, enough to push its 2009 deficit to 10% of GDP...
Most troublesome of all is the potential for a "debt bomb", in the words of China's Economic Observer newspaper, at lower levels of government as officials engage in financial engineering that is both opaque and highly leveraged.
Rules prevent Chinese banks from lending to governments the equity capital which they need to obtain further loans for investment. But local officials and banks are now exploiting a vast loophole thanks to intermediaries known as trust companies.
The process is simple enough. Trusts create specially designed "wealth products", which banks sell to their clients. Banks then give the funds to the trusts and they, in turn, funnel them to governments as equity capital.
Local authorities, in short, are piling debt on top of debt. The Chinese banking regulator has started to warn trusts and banks of the growing risks, state media recently reported.
"There is so much saving and so much liquidity, so there is definitely not a problem that China will not be able to finance its deficit," said Tao Wang, UBS economist in Beijing.In other words, while China's got a lot more debt than previously disclosed, China has a lot more wiggle room than the U.S. and many other western nations, and so should be able to survive through the downturn.
Indeed, Ellen Brown argues that China has not outsourced its money-creating power to private banks because the government and private banks are really one and the same. Therefore, while China's debt might be higher than previously disclosed, the government does not have to pay huge amounts of interest to a third-party creditor - unlike the U.S. - thus putting China at an economic and competitive advantage.