In the wake of another cut to the reserve requirement ratio (RRR) for commercial lenders, the second such move this year, data releases continue to indicate that China will need to take additional policy steps to boost an economy under siege both from financial crises abroad and slowing growth at home. With April’s bank lending already weaker than expected, the China Daily reported Thursday that China’s “Big Four” banks “made almost no new loans” in the first half of May. The figures do not reflect any increase in lending enabled by the RRR cut, which did not take effect until May 18, but doubts persisted over whether the move by China’s central bank would have a large impact anyway.
What ails China’s lending environment, and why won’t an RRR cut fix it? MarketWatch’s Craig Stephens thinks banks might have a supply-side problem, battling higher funding costs as their expanding suite of wealth management products – and the higher returns they offer investors – squeezes their margins. But Bob Davis and Tom Orlik write in The Wall Street Journal that the problem lies on the demand side, that the government can no longer “turbocharge the economy as they have in the past” by pushing state-owned banks to churn out new loans because the system lacks an ample supply of borrowers willing to take them:
The hesitation to borrow runs across the Chinese economy, from massive state-owned steelmakers struggling with overcapacity to small exporters trying to figure out when the European crisis might abate.
“We don’t need any expansion of credit because we are playing it safe,” said Stanley Lau, managing director of Renley Watch Manufacturing Co., a Hong Kong watch exporter that manufactures in southern China.
“Because of growing uncertainty over the economy, a lot of businesses are reluctant to borrow and, instead, they have decided to put their project or expansion plans on hold,” a senior executive at one of China’s largest banks said.
Even beyond the steelmakers and manufacturers, the troubles plaguing China’s cooling property market don’t help banks’ lending prospects either. Average home prices in 70 Chinese cities fell again in April, as the government continues to demonstrate a commitment to a price correction that it began in 2010. And while property prices may rebound in the 4th quarter as supply begins to ease, one research analyst told China Daily, housing ministry official Zhang Xiaohong told local media on Friday that Beijing won’t reverse its course and that “There is still room for property developers to continue to adjust prices to boost sales volume, but there is no more room for property speculation.” For now, reports Robin Kwong in The Financial Times, developers can only continue to push their large inventories of unoccupied properties:
This dynamic is reflected in the plight of Number 8 Royal Park, a super-luxurious development in Beijing where liveried footmen have been chaperoning potential buyers to assay opulently decorated 520 sq m apartments. The developer is still holding firm on its price tag of over $10m, but sales appear to have stagnated. Staff are still urging clients to buy flats in the same two towers that were on offer a year ago.
The Globe and Mail’s Mark MacKinnon points out that the Chinese government’s handling of the housing market reflects not just an attempt at a market correction, but also a play for political preservation:
That bubble is now deflating, although some economists say the market is still overvalued and that falling property prices will not constitute the main drag on GDP this year.
“You can make a pretty strong case that it’s overvalued, the property market, so I personally don’t think there will be any reversal…I think they’ll hold the line,” said Alaistair Chan, China economist with Moody’s Analytics, who said this year’s forecast for GDP growth may end up around 8 per cent from their previous prediction of 8.2 per cent.
Just as important for China’s government, though, is that restricting property prices to try to keep them within reach of the rising middle class is seen as key to preserving political stability. For an authoritarian regime obsessed with maintaining a “harmonious society,” this has been a relatively dramatic year, with labour protests, self-immolations by Tibetan activists, continuing food inflation and a rare and colourful political scandal involving the murder of a British businessman that felled one of China’s most popular politicians – all ahead of an expected transfer of power at the top that is supposed to begin with the Communist Party’s national congress in October.
As a result, some property developers are settling in with what they have, and downgrading any ambitions of big acquisitions.
Wen Calls for Growth
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao took time during his weekend trip to Wuhan to reiterate the government’s aim of fine-tuning the economy to support growth, according to The China Daily:
“The relationship between maintaining growth, adjusting economic structures and managing inflation, must be properly handled,” Wen said in comments reported by Xinhua News Agency. “We should continue to implement a proactive fiscal policy and a prudent monetary policy while giving more priority to maintaining growth.”
The government, he said, will continue to carry out anticipatory adjustments and fine-tuning, boost domestic consumption and promote steady and relatively fast economic growth.
Even if he was only repeating the same long-deployed talking points, Chinese stocks rose today and Bloomberg News reports that Wen’s comments led analysts to speculate that the fine-tuning may become a little more heavy:
The shift in language suggests authorities are “seriously concerned about growth” and “ready to introduce further measures,” Bank of America Corp. said in a research note today. The government on May 12 cut banks’ required reserves for the third time in six months following data that showed trade, industrial production and lending were below forecasts in April.
“The April data has been a wake-up call for China,” said Alaistair Chan, a Sydney-based economist at Moody’s Analytics. “There will probably be some stimulus measures through monetary policy, more bank lending and infrastructure projects being brought forward.”
The Battle For Securities Reform
Caixin catches up with Guo Shuqing, who took over the helm at the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) last October and has already begun to put his stamp on the job with a flurry of recent regulatory changes. The CSRC’s top priority, and “core challenge” of reform, Guo says, is in the arena of public listing:
Guo has said that a registration system for public listings is in fact not so different in nature from China’s current approval system. In the United States where a registration system is used, regulatory agencies conduct even stricter checks on companies than do their Chinese counterparts. The key is how to define the roles and responsibilities of the regulators, the exchanges and other intermediaries.
In this light, the recently released guidelines on share issue reform tackle the technical details but fail to address the underlying problems of the system. Rent-seeking can’t be eradicated without changing the vetting system. Take the newly appointed officers of the CSRC. As they become familiar with the job, and the temptations for corruption that come with it, won’t they also become less inclined to change the system? Based on the historic lessons at home and abroad, support of the top leadership is vital for a reformer.
Reforms are easier when the stock market is at a low ebb, but they will only get harder and harder. It will be a long-drawn-out war.
Is China Deleveraging?
The Wall Street Journal’s Tom Orlik writes that while China’s credit-fueled growth (which saw the ratio of credit to GDP rise to 173% by the end of 2011) may have saved China’s economy from the global financial crisis, the trend has begun to reverse amid an environment ripe with inflation, an overheated property market, among other things. It’s good for the ratio to come down and it should continue to come down, but this comes with consequences that Beijing can temper in a number of ways:
The government has options for responding. It could further lower the reserve requirement ratio, which would encourage firms to take on more loans as it lowers the cost of capital and signals that the government intends to keep demand on track—buoying confidence about future orders and profitability.
A further step would be to relax the floor on lending interest rates. China’s banks are currently allowed to lend at a discount of up to 10% to the government-set benchmark. People’s Bank of China governor Zhou Xiaochuan said in April that the next step in interest rate reform could be liberalizing the lending rate—suggesting the floor could be lowered.
Beijing also has room to ratchet up its own spending. There are signs that this is already underway. Investment funded from the state budget grew 29% year-on-year in the first four months of this year, partially offsetting a meager 4.2% increase for investment financed by bank lending.