Breakingviews on Twitter
Search League Tables

Thursday, 23 October 2014

The SOE IOU

Dividend reform won't fix China SOE money-go-round

China’s elaborate money-go-round starts and ends with its cash-hoarding state-owned enterprises. So a plan to make them pay bigger dividends sounds promising. Still, if the goal is to return cash to the people, there is a long way to go.

The 117 SOEs that are managed by central government will be required to increase their minimum dividend-to-earnings ratio by five percentage points, China’s cabinet said on Feb. 5. At present, they must pay at least 5 to 20 percent depending on how profitable their industry is. Tobacco, for example, pays better than water treatment. Until 2007, SOEs didn’t have to pay anything at all.

Targeting payout ratios, though, is flawed. Many SOEs already pay more than the minimum. The biggest fifty had an average payout ratio of 27 percent over the last financial year, according to Thomson Reuters Eikon data. Besides, earnings are easily skewed by variables like how much the company invested in the past. At worst, companies might manage their bottom line downwards to avoid paying up.

What really matters is where the money goes. Some 88 billion yuan of dividends currently go to the national “capital management budget”, which is spent mainly on restructuring and nurturing those same SOEs. The state sector’s wealth would achieve more if it were funnelled into the national budget, say to help close China’s looming pension shortfall.

There are other logjams too. Bosses of top SOEs carry the same government ranking as the head of SASAC, the state asset manager that is supposed to keep them honest. Top appointments are made not by the companies’ boards, or even by China’s State Council, but by the Communist Party’s organization department. That too needs to change if companies are to be run for the benefit of their shareholders.

Until then, the bad economics continues. Industrial SOEs expanded their total assets 47 percent faster than their private sector peers in 2011, according to China’s Statistical Yearbook. The private sector’s rate of return on assets was 64 percent higher, suggesting a huge wasted opportunity. Cracking the SOE piggy bank will require a much harder hammer.

Have your say

To have your say, you have to be signed in

Related images

Context News

China’s cabinet said on Feb. 6 it would increase the proportion of earnings paid out by state-owned enterprises in dividends, as part of a range of reforms outlined on Feb. 5. The State Council also said it would push forward market-based interest rate reforms.

The centrally managed state-owned enterprises would need to increase the proportion of their earnings that they pay out as dividends by five percentage points by 2015. At present, minimum payout ratios range from 5 percent to 20 percent depending on the profitability of the industry.

Dividends from most centrally managed state-owned enterprises are paid into the state capital management budget. Revenue for 2012 was targeted at 88 billion yuan by the Ministry of Finance in March 2012, with 82 billion yuan ($13 billion) coming from dividend payouts.

Guo Shuqing, head of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, argued in November that state-owned firms should give more of their shares to the national security fund. He proposed increasing the fund’s shareholdings from 10 percent to between 30 and 50 percent of their listed shares.

Non-financial state-owned companies are overseen by the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission of the State Council, also known as SASAC.

(Launches in a new window)