China’s policymakers talk much of reform. What really drives them is something different: a fear of chaos. The treatment of the country’s local government debt pile is an example of risk aversion getting the upper hand. The strategy is imperfect, but also right.
The ruling State Council on May 15 published an instruction to banks not to blindly “pull, pressure or stop” lending to borrowers linked to provincial governments, which have amassed an estimated 16 trillion ($2.6 trillion) of debt. Where creditors can’t pay, banks can extend lending. And where money has run out but construction continues, local governments can funnel in cash directly. That makes explicit what was already widely assumed. The Chinese banking system’s suspiciously low reported bad loans, which rose to just 1.4 percent of total lending at the end of March, are due to the industry’s compulsive rolling over of doubtful debt.
For a still-developing market, showing some mercy isn’t entirely foolish. Uncontrolled defaults would undermine confidence and real economic activity. Genuinely useful projects might be unable to find funding, to the dismay of the citizens who have to live among the ruins. The wider agenda may be to ring-fence those projects that deserve official support before identifying those that do not. Jiangsu and Xinjiang provinces will soon be the first to swap some safer government-backed credit into bonds. If failures can be kept at bay for a while, those trials are more likely to succeed.
Market-based debt restructurings are helpful in theory. But they are also messy, driven as much by bargaining and bullying as thoughtful analysis of assets and rights. Kaisa, a real estate developer in Shenzhen, is haggling with bondholders over a plan to delay repaying its existing loans by five years. Foreign creditors have almost no rights, but significant nuisance value. That situation replicated across a country with a fledgling legal system is a daunting prospect.
Once a clear line has been drawn between what’s state-backed and what isn’t, other borrowers can be exposed to market forces. Hopefully the government’s latest largesse is part of that bigger plan. But if progress doesn’t come soon, a more dangerous kind of confidence crisis will emerge: the belief that the government hasn’t got a plan after all.