Friday, July 8, 2011

China's Local Government Debts

One of the most intriguing questions for Indians marvelling at China's spectacular economic growth is about how its government manages to finance a never-ending shelf of mega infrastructure projects entailing extraordinary investments. For all its governance failures, corruption, resistance to reforms and recent political paralysis, the fundamental problem for a chronically infrastructure deficient India remains paucity of resources to finance its massive infrastructure requirements.

The contrast with a flush-with-funds China is stark. However, as the Times points out in an excellent article chronicling the challenges facing China's increasingly infrastructure investment dominated economic growth push, things may not be as rosy as it appears across our northern borders.

As the Great Recession took hold, the Chinese government stepped in with a mssive $580 bn stimulus package. Local governments across China borrowed heavily from state-owned banks and pumped money into infrastructure. Infrastructure replaced exports as the engine of economic growth.

The Times reports that spending on so-called fixed-asset investment (infrastructure and real estate projects) is now equal to nearly 70% of the nation’s GDP, a sign of dangerous over-dependence on infrastructure spending. It is a ratio unheard of in modern times for any nation, with the ratio being just 35% for Japan during its 1980s building boom and 20% for US for decades now.

Now this model is becoming unsustainable as local government debts, cleverly hidden from the local government balance sheet through accounting tricks, mount and repayment strains start appearing. The National Audit Office recently released figures showing that the local governments had amassed 10.7 trillion yuan ($1.65 trillion) in debt as of the end of December, amounting to 26.9% of GDP in 2010. Of this debt, local governments are explicitly responsible for repaying 62.6%, have guaranteed 21.8%, and are required to partially repay 15.6%. Worryingly, the report writes that nearly half the debt was accumulated in just two years by way of the loan-powered fiscal stimulus of 2009-10. This debt, mainly owed to state-run banks, poses serious risks for the Chinese financial system.

Most local governments borrow through special investment corporations set up by them and their debt shows up nowhere on its official balance sheet. Such local government financing vehicles (LGFV) were set up to get around rules forbidding them from borrowing directly from banks and raising funds through municipal bonds and also conceal the true extent of local government debts. These LGFVs were set up to finance light rail projects, bridges etc. It is estimated that there are more than 10,000 of these local government financing entities in China.

In fact, the audit office said 46.4% of the debt is held by such intermediary vehicles. Another recent report from the People's Bank of China had said that local government financing vehicles had taken out loans worth up to 30% of total outstanding bank loans or 14 trillion yuan. The collateral for many loans is local land valued at lofty prices that could collapse if China’s real estate bubble burst.

An earlier estimate by the Northwestern University Prof. Victor Shih found that the total local government financing platform debt was around 11.4 trillion yuan ($1.75 trillion) at the end of 2009. His latest estimate of total local governmental debt ranges between 15.4 trillion yuan and 20.1 trillion yuan, or 40% to 50% of China's 2010 GDP. He also estimates that LGFV interest payments are at least 1 trillion yuan a year, and realistically more than 2 trillion yuan.

Another report by Moody's says that the audit office's data fails to account for about 3.5 trillion yuan, or about $540 billion, of loans to local governments. It also estimates that the Chinese banking system's nonperforming loans could reach between 8% and 12% of total loans. This is in stark contrast to the official ratio of non-performing loans of 1.14% at the end of 2010.‬

The biggest concern is a possible rise in inflation, which would force the central bank into raising interest rates. In fact, yesterday the People's Bank raised interest rates for the third time this year in order to cool the sizzling pace of economic growth, estimated to touch 11.9% in the seond quarter. Inflation is up 4.4% for June, the highest rate in more than two years and above the 3% target set by central bank.

In fact, the threat of the whole pack of cards collapsing when faced with higher interest rates is also behind the reluctance of authorities to rein in the bubble. As Prof Shih argues, the only way to cool down the continuously inflating debt bubble and credit flows is by engineering a credit crunch. Unfortunately, this would entail raising interest rates, with all its possible adverse consequences.

There have been rumors that the government is considering write-off about 2-3 trillion ($300-470 bn) in debts owed by local governments to the country's China's top banks. Though this would force losses on banks, local and central governments, it should reduce the risks that cloud the Chinese economy. Fortunately, a banking crisis would not have the sort direct impact on consumers as witnessed in the US since the Chinese citizens save heavily and have limited exposure to mortgages and other financial investments.

The debt build-up also amplified the already frothy real estate market, which was pushed up further by the stimulus spending in 2010 and 2011. A large share of this spending was routed into real-estate related infrastructure. Chinese state-owned banks, on government orders, lent about $3 trillion mostly to giant state-owned enterprises and local governments to fight the effects of the downturn. Though intended at infrastructure, a substantial share of these loans wound up financing real-estate purchases by government agencies.

Further, in the absence of financial alternatives to beat inflation, Chinese savers piled into real estate and drove residential property prices up by half to about 9% of GDP between 2006 and 2010. In that period, real-estate prices in major cities in China roughly doubled.

The continuing paucity of investment avenues coupled with exceptionally high savings rates and the reliance of local governments on land sales for revenue means that property prices could go higher before the bubble bursts. The Standard Chartered estimates that about 50% of China's GDP is linked to the fate of its real-estate market (it affects construction, steel, concrete, power and appliance industries), making a potential bust extremely damaging. A banking crisis would be inevitable.

See also this Times Room for Debate on China's local government debt.

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