The Real China Threat: Credit Chaos

China’s central bank plays a game of financial chicken. Should the markets be concerned?

The spectacle of a game of financial chicken in the world’s second-largest economy is both entertaining and terrifying. Twice in 2013, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), the country’s central bank, tried to demonstrate its resolve to rein in runaway credit growth. In June, it engineered a sudden credit squeeze that sent the interbank lending rates to more than 20 percent and caused a short-lived panic in the Chinese financial markets. Apparently, the financial turmoil was too much for the Chinese government, which quickly ordered the Chinese central bank to reverse course. As a result, the PBOC lost both face and credibility.

However, as credit growth continued unabated and activities in the most risky segment of China’s financial sector – the so-called shadow banking system – displayed alarming recklessness, the PBOC was left with no choice but try one more time to send a strong message that it could not be counted on to provide unlimited liquidity to the banking system.

It did so in December 2013 with a modified approach that provided liquidity only to the selected large banks but pressured smaller banks (which are the most active participants in the shadow banking system). Although interbank lending rates did not spike to nose-bleeding levels, as they did in June, they doubled quickly. Most Chinese banks held on to their cash and refused to lend to each other. Chinese equity markets fell nearly 10 percent, giving back nearly all the gains since mid-November, when the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reform plan bolstered market sentiments.

Unfortunately for the PBOC, the renewed turbulences in the Chinese banking sector were again viewed as too dangerous by the top leadership of the CCP even though it seemed that the PBOC initially received its support. Consequently, the PBOC had to beat another hasty retreat and inject enough liquidity to force down interbank lending rates. Thus, in the first two rounds of a stand-off between the PBOC and China’s shadow banking system, the latter is widely seen as the winner. The PBOC blinked first each time.

For the moment, the conventional wisdom is that, as long as the PBOC maintains sufficient liquidity (translation: permitting credit growth at roughly the same pace as in previous years), China’s financial sector will remain more or less stable. This observation may be reassuring for the short-term, but overlooks the dangerous underlying dynamics in China’s banking system that prompted the PBOC to act in first place.

Of these dynamics, two deserve special attention. The first one is the rapid rise in indebtedness (or financial leverage) in the Chinese economy since 2008. In five years, the country’s total debt-to-GDP ratio (including both public and private debt) rose from 130 percent to 210 percent, an unprecedented increase for a major economy. Historically, such expansion of credit hasrarely failed to inflate a credit bubble and cause a financial crisis. In the Chinese case, what makes the credit explosion even more risky is the low creditworthiness of the major borrowers. Only a quarter of the debt is owed by those with relatively high creditworthiness (consumers and the central government). The remaining 75 percent has gone to state-owned enterprises, private real-estate developers, and local governments, all of which are known to have weak loan repayment capacity (most state-owned enterprises generate low cash profits, private real-estate developers are overleveraged, and local governments have a narrow tax base). Staggering under an unsustainable debt burden of roughly 160 percent of GDP (equivalent to $14 trillion), these borrowers are expected to default on a significant portion of their bank debt in the coming years.

The second dynamic, closely related to the first one, is the growth of the shadow-banking sector. Two drivers shape activities in this sector, which operates outside the banking system. To minimize their exposure to risky borrowers, Chinese banks have curtailed their lending. But at the same time, these banks have embraced the shadow banking activities to increase their revenue. Specifically, Chinese banks peddle new “wealth management products” – short-term securities promising high interest rates – to their depositors. The issuers of such securities, which are not protected or insured by the government – are typically high-risk borrowers, such as local governments (and their financing vehicles) and real estate developers.

In the meantime, these borrowers are facing rising pressures for loan repayments in an environment of overcapacity and unprofitable investments. Unable to generate cash to service their loans, they have to turn to the shadow-banking sector for credit and avoid default. The result is an explosive growth of the size of the shadow-banking sector (now conservatively estimated to account for 20-30 percent of GDP).

Understandably, the PBOC does not look upon the shadow banking sector favorably. Since shadow-banking sector gets its short-term liquidity mainly through interbanking loans, the PBOC thought that it could put a painful squeeze on this sector through reducing liquidity. Apparently, the PBOC underestimated the effects of its measure. Largely because Chinese borrowers tend to cross-guarantee each other’s debt, squeezing even a relatively small number of borrowers could produce a cascade of default. The reaction in the credit market was thus almost instant and frightening. Borrowers facing imminent default are willing to borrow at any rate while banks with money are unwilling to loan it out no matter how attractive the terms are.