It finally happened. A Chinese domestic bond has defaulted. It was the first default since the Chinese central bank (PBOC) started regulating the market in 1997. The unlucky company was Shanghai Chaori Solar Energy Science and Technology (Chaori). The major question though is this a sign of healthy maturing market or the beginning of a major problem?
If you had to choose allow a bond to default, Chaori was certainly a prime candidate. First it is small. It has only 1500 employees. Second it is a private company, not a large state owned firm. Third, it is in the struggling solar industry with substantial over capacity. Fourth, its issues were well known. Some sort of default was expected. Trading in the bonds was suspended last June. At that time they were trading at only 50% of their face value. The total issue is $160 million and the missed payment was only $15 million.
China's premier Li Kequiang warned that Chaori was not the last. He said on March 12th last week that future defaults of financial products are "unavoidable". He pointed out that allowing defaults was a natural part of the financial deregulation process. There is also the issue of moral hazard, which the authorities are trying to address. In essence if you don't allow companies to default, the markets assumes that they will never take place. With the certainty that companies cannot go under, investors will continue to pour money into risky assets.
But that is not the only problem. The other part is that local governments simply cannot afford to bail companies out. They have their own problems. There are 388 financing arms of municipal authorities. They owe Rmb 9.7 trillion ($1.6 trillion) as of the middle of last year. Only 53% have enough cash to cover estimated debt and interest payments this year without refinancing.
Statistics published this week show a weakening economy. The numbers for industrial production, retail sales and urban fixed asset investment all badly missed forecasts. Industrial output slowed from 9.7% in December to just 8.6% the lowest reading since August 2009. Prices for iron ore and copper markets, usually barometers of the Chinese economy, have been dropping to new lows.
Much worse are the statistics for the real estate. Beijing's new home sales for the month of February dropped 61% compared to the same period last year. Price acceleration in China's biggest cities showed the first slowdown in a year. Some hard up developers are beginning to discount prices by up to 40%. Although the official news agency has denied it, banks are growing cautious about lending to developers especially those in smaller cities.
The slowdown in real estate could be devastating. With the exception of a few experiments, there are no real estate taxes in China. Local governments depend on land sales for revenue. Revenue desperately needed to pay off debts. Income from land sales was Rmb 4.1 trillion ($.067 trillion) 33% of national income. The cost of land used to be only 20% of the cost of housing. To feed local coffers it has grown to 60%. So as the real estate sector slows, so will the desire to bail out the bond market.
The problem with defaults is that you cannot have just one. The circumstances that lead to the first one have affected other companies as well. So as Li Kequiang warned, there will be other defaults. The muted reaction to the Chaori is supposed to be a positive, but it may encourage other defaults and there are a bunch of companies in line. Baoding Tianwei Baobian Electric is a company owned by central government. Its bond was just suspended from trading. Haixin Steel, a privately owned medium-sized mill in the heart of China's coal country failed to repay loans that came due last week.
But this is China, so a default can have different ramifications. Haixin steel is part of a web of triangle debt. These are methods of providing financing between suppliers, manufacturers and customers. Each business provides the next business in the supply chain with credit. For example a coal company would sell the steel mill coal on credit. The steel mill would then sell its products onto a real estate developer also on credit. Then the companies would guarantee each other's debt.
A recent example of how the collapse of one company can have a much broader impact occurred in 2012 near the eastern city of Hangzhou. When a single property developer collapsed, local governments and banks had to provide bridge loans to 62 different companies to keep them afloat.
The situation is made infinitely worse by the lack of information. The Chinese government's need to restrict information creates its own set of problems. No one really knows how many of these agreements there are or with whom. So if one company goes under, no one is sure how many more it will take with it. Insolvent local governments won't be able to provide the usual help. Without the government guarantees, investors may dump everything, the good along with the bad.
But it doesn't end there. Most of the debt is held long term by the banks. Secondary trading is very thin. So there is virtually no market and no price discovery mechanism. Without liquidity markets can fall a long way.
Is this China's Bear Stearns moment? Perhaps but what must be remembered about the collapse of Bear Stearns was that it had a very limited impact. Bear Stearns was once a highly respected investment bank in the US. It collapsed on March 31 2008. It was subsequently bailed out by a loan from the Federal Reserve and a quick sale to another investment bank, JP Morgan. The important point about Bear Stearns is that the market totally ignored the lesson. A month after the collapse the market rose 4% before it continued its way down.
So the default of one small solar company or one medium sized steel mill does not foretell an immediate collapse of the Chinese bond market. But it is a very clear warning of its direction. It isn't up.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours. I wrote this article myself, and it expresses my own opinions. I am not receiving compensation for it. I have no business relationship with any company whose stock is mentioned in this article.