I have long been a bear on China. Prior to 2008, because of the shakiness of its banking system; post-Crisis, because of my deep skepticism about the effects of the huge stimulus program-- including its impact on the banking system, or more properly, the shadow banking system.
I am not alone. The Bank of China is warning about the country's shadow banks:
A senior Chinese banking executive has warned against the proliferation of off-book wealth management products, comparing some to a Ponzi scheme in a rare official acknowledgement of the risks they pose to the Chinese banking system.
China must "tackle" shadow banking, particularly the short term investment vehicles known as wealth management products, Xiao Gang, the chairman of the board of Bank of China, one of the top four state-owned banks, wrote in an op-ed in the English-language China Daily on Friday.
"Unsurprisingly, although Chinese banks' non-performing loans are at a low level of 0.9 percent, the potential risks are worse than the official data suggest," Xiao wrote, adding that a problem could come as indebted borrowers face cash flow problems or enter default, straining the banking system.
"The music may stop when investors lose confidence and reduce their buying or withdraw from WMPs," he said, referring to wealth management products.
He warned of a mismatch between short-term products and the longer underlying projects they fund, adding that in some cases the products are not tied to any specific project and that in others new products may be issued to pay off maturing products and avoid a liquidity squeeze.
"To some extent, this is fundamentally a Ponzi scheme."
Xiao's op-ed is in line with similar warnings issued by outsiders, particularly the Fitch Ratings agency whose China banking analyst Charlene Chu has long warned of a maturity mis-match and the threat to the Chinese banking system of products with various terms and interest rates.
Moreover, there is a widespread belief among investors in these products that banks are offering liquidity puts:
Although the products are technically more risky than deposits, most investors believe they are backed by the banks' implicit guarantee and they are marketed aggressively in bank branches nationwide. Xiao acknowledged this perception posed a risk for banks' bottom line.
"The rollover of a large share of WMPs could weigh heavily on formal banks' reputations, because many investors firmly believe that banks won't close down and they can always get their money back," Xiao said.
In June, People's Bank of China vice governor Liu Shiyu said many banks are not transparent enough about the risks wealth management products carry.
"China's shadow banking system is complex, with a close yet opaque relationship to the regular banking system and the real economy," Xiao concluded by saying.
"It must be tackled with care and sufficient flexibility, but it must be tackled nonetheless."
Recall that the movement of SIVs back onto bank balance sheets was a major channel by which problems in the shadow banking sector were communicated to U.S. banks. These "wealth management" products grew up as a direct result of the intervention of the supposedly wise direction of the Chinese state. It wanted to restrict bank lending that had been stoked by the 2009 stimulus, in a step-on-the-gas-whoops-step-on-the-brakes maneuver so common to attempts to "fine tune" economies. The bank credit was basically redirected to the informal sector.
I'm sure it will work out swell.
For more background on the crazy-quilt Chinese banking sector, and all its fragility, this is a decent source.
Another reason for my bearishness is my innate skepticism-based on long experience-of state efforts to guide resource allocation. Case in point: China has gone all out to promote investment in renewables, and has been awarded with huge losses:
China in recent years established global dominance in renewable energy, its solar panel and wind turbine factories forcing many foreign rivals out of business and its policy makers hailed by environmentalists around the world as visionaries.
But now China's strategy is in disarray. Though worldwide demand for solar panels and wind turbines has grown rapidly over the last five years, China's manufacturing capacity has soared even faster, creating enormous oversupply and a ferocious price war.
The result is a looming financial disaster, not only for manufacturers but for state-owned banks that financed factories with approximately $18 billion in low-rate loans and for municipal and provincial governments that provided loan guarantees and sold manufacturers valuable land at deeply discounted prices.
China's biggest solar panel makers are suffering losses of up to $1 for every $3 of sales this year, as panel prices have fallen by three-fourths since 2008. Even though the cost ofsolar power has fallen, it still remains triple the price of coal-generated power in China, requiring substantial subsidies through a tax imposed on industrial users of electricity to cover the higher cost of renewable energy.
The outcome has left even the architects of China's renewable energy strategy feeling frustrated and eager to see many businesses shut down, so the most efficient companies may be salvageable financially.
Well played. Remind me again why should we compete by throwing good dollars after bad renmibi? (As an aside, to illustrate the absurdity of subsidy politics, Solyndra is suing Chinese solar panel makers for predatory pricing. Predatory pricing suits are almost always meritless.)
A substantial fraction of measured Chinese growth in the recent past has been accounted for by investment. But the relevant question is whether this investment is going to pay dividends, or whether it has been misdirected into white elephants. The solar (and wind) experience suggests the latter. Historical experience with politicized investment suggests the latter. The influence of corruption and the political influence of the elite on the investment prices also suggests the latter. I'm going with the latter.
The WSJ has a long piece on a Chinese economist who is similarly skeptical about the ability of the Chinese state to direct investment:
Mr. Zhang's academic colleagues were all praise for the "China Model," but in 2009 he was giving speeches entitled "Bury Keynesianism." Then a top administrator at Peking University, where he now teaches economics, he argued that since the financial crisis was caused by easy money, it couldn't be solved by the same. "The current economy is like a drug addict, and the prescription from the doctor is morphine, so the final result will be much worse," he said.
. . . .
Ultimately, Beijing's stimulus fed a false investment boom that stoked asset bubbles—then the morphine wore off while the government tightened. Officials claim the economy grew at 7.6% year-on-year between April and June this year. Skeptics think the real number is closer to 4%. (One London research house says 1%.) Meanwhile, industries dominated or favored by the state, such as steel or solar power, are idling from overcapacity. Countless sheets of copper are reportedly stacked in warehouses, blocking doorways and exemplifying Hayek's notion of "malinvestment."
It's actually worse than merely Hayekian/Austrian malinvestment, in my opinion. That arises from decisions made on the basis of false price signals that result from monetary stimulus. That is surely present in China in spades. But there is also a good deal of state-directed investment, or investment channeled to state enterprises, or investment influenced by corrupt and connected members of the elite.
A good analysis of these issues is to be found at Michael Pettis's blog, including examples like this post. He aims the following, trenchant questions at China bulls:
- How much debt is there whose real cost exceeds the economic value created by the debt, which sector of the economy will pay for the excess, and what is the mechanism that will ensure the necessary wealth transfer?
- What projects can we identify that will allow hundreds of billions of dollars, or even trillions of dollars, of investment whose wealth creation in the short and medium term will exceed the real cost of the debt, and what is the mechanism for ensuring that these investments will get made?
- What mechanism can be implemented to increase the growth rate of household consumption?
All very good questions. China's recent GDP growth has really been driven by what are properly considered costs: the amount of money invested. The relevant issue is the value produced by those investments. Given the state domination of the process of making these investments-- either directly, or via distortions of the price system through monetary stimulus and financial repression that distorts interest rates-- I am dubious, in the extreme, that these investments will pay.