China's rapid growth over the past decade has been fuelled by cheap credit. According to Investec, this has led to a misallocation of capital, particularly following the global financial crisis when policymakers unleashed a RMB4 trillion stimulus package into infrastructure, construction and heavy industry. According to Oxford Economics, the China's overall debt load (public, private and financial) rose from 176% of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2007, to 258% by mid-2014, and over 300% by the end of 2015. This has continued to rise as China's so-called total social financing, or aggregate debt, rose by RMB3.42 trillion ($520 billion) in January alone, according to official data.
Bank lending is in much need of reform. Borrowing is concentrated in sectors where there is major overcapacity – heavy manufacturing, property and infrastructure – which are dominated by often inefficient state-owned enterprises (SOEs). The Emerging Market Fixed Income team at Investec, which has recently conducted a number of research trips to mainland China, thinks that the implicit government guarantee of SOE borrowings remains in place, resulting in debt being rolled over, rather than called in.
SOEs rolling over debt presents a challenge for policymakers. “Given high and rising debt service ratios, as credit growth continues to outstrip nominal GDP growth, China will need to maintain and even lower its interest rates to avoid a sharper and more prolonged downturn,” says Mark Evans, an analyst in Emerging Market Fixed Income. “But lowering interest rates on Chinese assets will again put pressure on capital outflows as investors earn less yield on their renminbi assets, hence the difficulties policymakers are facing right now.”
Rising debt loads is likely to lead to a financial cycle whereby the proportion of non-performing loans (NPLs) starts rising. Official data suggest that banks’ NPLs were around RMB1.95 trillion (2% of GDP) in December 2015. But a truer measure of where non-performing loans may actually settle is the sum of NPLs and special-mention loans – those that are overdue but which banks don’t yet consider impaired – which the IMF estimated these constituted about 5.4% of GDP in August 2015.
According to John Holmes, a sector specialist for financials in the 4Factor Equity™ team, “Prior banking crises globally have typically seen a 6-7 percentage point increase in the NPL ratio from trough, which would suggest a 7% or 8% true NPL ratio as a starting point for the Chinese banks in the event of a severe downturn.”
The growth of NPLs in the shadow-banking sector is also concerning. “It is hard to pinpoint exactly who has done the lending”, says Mike Hugman, strategist in Emerging Market Fixed Income, “as there have been several rapidly growing lending channels outside the banking system. But we think that corporate leverage is now around 140-150% of GDP, higher than in any other emerging market.”
The good news is that much of China’s credit growth has been domestically financed. Consequently, we expect that policymakers have a greater ability to manage the cycle than perhaps we would expect in more open economies, as we saw during the global financial crisis.
The State Council is expecting China’s banks to share the burden of cleaning up bad debt. John believes that “Chinese banks have historically enjoyed high levels of profitability, with return on equity averaging in the region of 20% over the last decade, aided by strong loan growth, high pre-provision margins and relatively benign asset quality.” He reckons that “their high pre-provision profit margins means they should have the capacity to charge-off bad assets over a multi-year period and remain profitable even with NPLs north of 10%, as some analysts suggest.”