One of the striking features of China’s continuing growth as an economic power is its extreme (as in unprecedented in the modern era) dependence on exports and investments as drivers of growth. Even more troubling is that as expansion continues, consumption keeps falling as a percentage of GDP.
As countries become more affluent, consumption tends to rise in relationship to GDP. And the ample evidence of colossally unproductive infrastructure projects in China (grossly underoccupied malls, office and residential buildings, even cities) raises further doubts about the sustainability of the Chinese economic model.
The post crisis loan growth in China, in tandem with visible signs that a meaningful proportion of it has little future economic value, has stoked worries that Chinese banks will soon be struggling with non-performing loans. China bulls scoff at this view, contending that China’s 2002-2004 episode of non-performing loans was cleaned up with little fuss (I never bought that story and recall how Ernst and Young was basically bullied by the Chinese government into withdrawing a 2006 report that NPLs at Chinese banks were a stunning 46% of total assets of its four largest banks. Note estimates of the NPLs as a percent of total loans from that crisis vary widely, even excluding Ernst, from 20% to 40%).
The latest post by Michael Pettis links the two phenomena, the fall in Chinese consumption and the cleanup of its last banking crisis. If his analysis is correct, this bodes ill for any correction in global imbalances. China needs to increase its consumption in relationship to GDP to rebalance its economy, but a banking system bailout along the lines of the last one will push them in exactly the opposite direction.
Throughout modern history, and in nearly every economic system, whether we are talking about China, the US, France, Brazil or any other country, there has really only been one meaningful way to resolve banking crises…The household sector…always pays to clean up the banks.
There are many ways to make them pay… If the regulators are given a longer amount of time during which to clean up the banks, they can use other, less obvious and so less politically unpopular, ways to do the same thing, for example by managing interest rates. In the US and Europe it is fairly standard for the central bank to engineer a steep yield curve by forcing down short-term rates. Since banks borrow short from their depositors and lend long to their customers, the banks are effectively guaranteed a spread, at the expense of course of depositors. Over many years, the depositors end up recapitalizing the banks, usually without realizing it.
Yves here. We commented here from time to time that Greenspan did precisely that in the wake of the savings and loan crisis, and that the Fed appeared to be resorting to this playbook in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, when the yield curve was again particularly steep. Back to Pettis:
There are two additional ways used in countries, like China, with highly controlled financial systems. One is to mandate a wide spread between the lending and deposit rates. In China that spread has been an extremely high 3.0-3.5 percentage points. The other, and more effective, way is to force down the lending and deposit rates sharply in order to minimize the loan burden and to spur investment. This is exactly what China did in the past decade…..
By most standards, even ignoring the borrower’s credit risk, the lending rate in China during the past decade is likely to have been anywhere from 4 to 6 percentage points too low. Over five or ten years, or more, this is an awful lot of debt forgiveness…
The combination of implicit debt forgiveness and the wide spread between the lending and deposit rate has been a very large transfer of wealth from household depositors to banks and borrowers. This transfer is, effectively, a large hidden tax on household income, and it is this transfer that cleaned up the last banking mess.
It is not at all surprising, then, that over the past decade growth in China’s gross domestic product, powered by very cheap lending rates, has substantially exceeded the growth in household income, which was held back by this large hidden tax. It is also not at all surprising that household consumption has declined over the decade as a share of gross national product from a very low 45 percent at the beginning of the decade to an astonishingly low 36 percent last year.
This is how China’s last banking crisis was resolved. It did not result in a collapse in the banking system, but it nonetheless came with a heavy cost. The banking crisis in China resulted in a collapse (and there is no other word for it) in household consumption as a share of the economy.
This is an extremely important observation, and one I fear will not get the attention it deserves. And the implication is obvious: as long as China keeps on using increasingly unproductive debt to fuel growth (it now takes $7 of debt to produce $1 of GDP growth in China, versus $4 to $5 in the mature US), its need to work of growing amounts of bad debt on the sly at the expense of consumption will keep it at loggerheads with its trade partners.