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Global Meltdown Predicted by Charlene Chu
Following on the heels of a report that appeared in the Telegraph on the topic, William Pesek at Bloomberg has recently also written an article about Charlene Chu (formerly with Fitch, nowadays with private firm Autonomous Research) and her opinions on China’s shadow banking system and the dangers it represents. The article is ominously entitled “China, the Death Star of Emerging Markets”.
China has recently made unwelcome headlines, as one of the shadow banking system’s countless ‘wealth management trusts’ which was evidently invested in a bankrupt venture (in this case in a coal company – reportedly a great many such investments in insolvent coal mines exist) was about to go belly-up and then was bailed out at the last minute. Here is a recent article by Mish on the trust that was ironically named “Credit Equals Gold Number 1”. At first it was reported that the trust wouldn’t be bailed out, but in the end its 700 investors were able to ‘breathe a sigh of relief’ as Tom Holland remarked in the South China Morning Post (SCMP). However, Holland also cautioned that by bailing out this trust, China has laid the foundations for a much bigger crisis down the road, as moral hazard has increased considerably as a result.
The size of shadow-bank lending relative to China’s GDP, via the SCMP
Interestingly, Holland actually disagrees on a major point with Charlene Chu and Pesek. Let us first look at what Pesek writes:
“On any list of banking accidents waiting to happen, China is assured a place at the very top. But could a crash there take the entire global economy down with it? Absolutely, says Charlene Chu, who until recently was Fitch’s headline-generating analyst in Beijing. Chu has fearlessly trod into an area that China is trying desperately to keep off limits: its vast shadow-banking system. Now that she’s working for a private firm that doesn’t have to rely to governments for revenue, as do rating companies, Chu is free to speak completely openly. And is she ever.
“The banking sector has extended $14 trillion to $15 trillion in the span of five years,” Chu, who is now with Autonomous Research, told the Telegraph. “There’s no way that we are not going to have massive problems in China.” What’s more, she added, China “could trigger global meltdown.”
The travails of Greece continue to preoccupy the world, but its $249 billion economy is a rounding error compared to China’s $8.2 trillion one. In December 2005, for example, China announced its output had unexpectedly grown by $285 billion. In other words, it had suddenly found an economy bigger than Singapore’s that its statisticians hadn’t known about. Today, simply put, a Chinese crash would make the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers seem like a mere market correction.
The kind of meltdown Chu suggests is possible would end Japan’s revival, slam economies from South Korea to Vietnam, savage stock and commodity prices everywhere, force the Federal Reserve to end its tapering process and prompt emergency national-security briefings in Washington. So feel free to obsess over Turkey and Argentina, but the real “wild card” is the world’s second-biggest economy.”
As noted above, that certainly sounds quite ominous.
Opinions Differ …
Not so fast, says Tom Holland. While agreeing that China will eventually face a credit crisis and quite possibly a severe economic downturn, he points to the fact that the closed capital account and China’s vast foreign reserves make a ‘global contagion’ event of such enormous magnitude unlikely. This particular scare story he avers, is not something to worry about, which he inter alia tries to buttress by comparing China’s situation to Indonesia’s prior to the Asian crisis. Below are a few relevant excerpts from his article:
“As a headline, it was certainly eye-catching. “Currency crisis at Chinese banks could trigger global meltdown,” declared a story in the Sunday edition of London’s Daily Telegraph. The article noted nervously that foreign currency borrowing by Chinese companies has almost quadrupled in just four years to more than US$1 trillion.Any substantial appreciation of the US dollar – and many analysts are indeed expecting gains this year – could open up a dangerous cross-currency mismatch, forcing Chinese borrowers to default and inflicting shattering losses on international lenders, the story warned.
The chance that China will suffer a currency crisis at any time in the foreseeable future is precisely zero. And even if the country were struck by crisis, there would be no danger of a global financial meltdown. It is certainly true that China’s foreign liabilities have grown rapidly in recent years; a quadrupling since 2009 is about right. But, if anything, the Telegraph’s figure of US$1 trillion is rather too modest. According to Beijing’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange, at the end of 2013 China had foreign liabilities of a thumping US$3.85 trillion; roughly 40 per cent of its gross domestic product.
But the lion’s share of those liabilities – some US$2.32 trillion – consists of highly illiquid inward foreign direct investment. That money is staying where it is. On top of that, a further US$374 billion is foreign portfolio investment in China’s stock and bond markets. That’s money that has flowed in under Beijing’s qualified foreign institutional investor program, whose rules impose strict limits on the size and frequency of repatriation payments. However, that still leaves around US$1.15 trillion in short-term foreign liabilities, consisting largely of loans from international banks.
In 2014, China has no such problems [compared to Indonesia prior to the Asian crisis, ed.] . External debt is small relative to GDP. And with US$3.82 trillion in foreign reserves at the end of last year, Beijing can cover China’s near-term foreign liabilities more than three times over. Sure, the shrinkage of the central bank’s balance sheet were it actually forced to sell assets in order to fund the country’s external liabilities would inflict a painful monetary tightening on China’s domestic economy.
But with Beijing sitting on such a large pot of foreign reserves, such an extreme crisis is hardly likely. And even if it did happen, there would be no “global meltdown”. Despite the opening of recent years, Beijing’s controls on the free flow of capital mean China’s financial sector remains relatively closed, and the exposure of the global financial system to the country is low.
That’s not to say there wouldn’t be casualties from a sudden strengthening of the US dollar against the yuan, or from a marked slowdown in China’s domestic economy. At the end of October last year Hong Kong’s banking system was owed US$300 billion by mainland banks and another US$100 billion by mainland companies. Clearly the local pain would be intense. But a Chinese currency crisis triggering global meltdown? Happily not.”
Readers may recall that we have also recently mentioned the exposure of Hong Kong’s banks to Mainland China. We believe Mr. Holland is correct in one sense, but we also think he underestimates the contagion potential.
Contagion Through Many Different Channels
It is true that China’s closed capital account as well as the government’s tight control over the financial system makes China’s situation fundamentally different from that of countries with open capital accounts from whence foreign investors can at anytime flee in droves if they get cold feet over an overextended bubble.
In fact, we have pointed out in the past that the great degree of central control over the economy (and especially the banking system) which China’s government enjoys makes it inherently more difficult to time a putative demise of the credit bubble than elsewhere – and such things aren’t easy to time to begin with.
However, a sharp decline in the yuan’s exchange rate may be seen as necessary by China’s leadership if a crisis threatens social stability (and with it the party’s rule) in China. China has already devalued a great deal on one occasion (in 1994), an event that in hindsight seems to have precipitated a chain reaction (first the yen followed the yuan lower, and then the currency pegs in various ‘Asian Tiger’ economies went overboard).
Today, China is a far bigger player in the world economy than in 1994, and we believe that Mr. Holland underestimates how today’s economic and financial interconnectedness may produce contagion effects even in light of the closed capital account and China’s large reserves. We also don’t necessarily regard the exposure of Hong Kong’s banks as a de facto ‘internal affair’, as the territory is outside of the ambit of China’s capital controls and the yuan. It is not only Hong Kong’s banking system that one must worry about though. Consider what would happen if China were indeed forced to draw down its reserves to serve the $1.5 trillion in short term foreign liabilities, or a sizable chunk thereof. Given that this would inevitably result in a much tighter domestic monetary policy (provided the PBoC doesn’t take inflationary measures independent of its forex reserves), all sorts of malinvestments in China would be revealed as unsustainable. A number of industries would be faced with a major bust, and it is a good bet that commodity imports would plunge.
However, once that happens, one must immediately begin to worry about Australia’s banks, which have financed a giant housing bubble on the back of the country’s commodities boom and in turn rely greatly on short term foreign funding. So there would immediately be a crisis in both Hong Kong’s and Australia’s banking systems, and it does not take a great leap of the imagination to see how contagion could spread further from them. Naturally many other raw materials exporting countries would also be hit hard, we mainly picked Australia as an example because its banks are so reliant on short term foreign funding, so they would presumably be among the first in line.
Lastly, here is a recent chart of NPLs in China’s official banking system (listed banks only, i.e. the biggest ones):
As can be seen, NPLs at the major banks have declined to a negligible percentage (compare this with crisis-stricken Spain’s near 13% or so NPL ratio, which is understated to boot). However, there are plenty of credible rumors that China’s banks are keeping loans that would normally be regarded as dubious alive by all sorts of tricks. Not only that, they are definitely backing a great many of the ‘shadow banking’ businesses, which have developed in China mainly in order to circumvent restrictions on banking activities.
In view of everything that is known about credit growth in China, we would regard this extremely low NPL ratio as a contrary indicator even if it were credible.
No-one knows for sure how big a problem China’s economy will eventually face due to the massive credit and money supply growth that has occurred in recent years and no-one know when exactly it will happen either. There have been many dire predictions over the years, but so far none have come true. And yet, it is clear that there is a looming problem of considerable magnitude that won’t simply go away painlessly. The greatest credit excesses have been built up after 2008, which suggests that there can be no comfort in the knowledge that ‘nothing has happened yet’. Given China’s importance to the global economy, it seems impossible for this not to have grave consequences for the rest of the world, in spite of China’s peculiar attributes in terms of government control over the economy and the closed capital account.
The BIS is currently ‘warning regulators and governments’ about excessive borrowing and shifts in borrowing patterns by emerging market-based companies.
Why, thanks boys for this timely intercession! What would we do without you?
Charts by: SCMP and Forbes / Pricewaterhouse-Coopers, BigCharts
A paper currency system contains the seeds of its own destruction. The temptation for the monopolist money producer to increase the money supply is almost irresistible. In such a system with a constantly increasing money supply and, as a consequence, constantly increasing prices, it does not make much sense to save in cash to purchase assets later. A better strategy, given this senario, is to go into debt to purchase assets and pay back the debts later with a devalued currency. Moreover, it makes sense to purchase assets that can later be pledged as collateral to obtain further bank loans. A paper money system leads to excessive debt.
This is especially true of players that can expect that they will be bailed out with newly produced money such as big businesses, banks, and the government.
We are now in a situation that looks like a dead end for the paper money system. After the last cycle, governments have bailed out malinvestments in the private sector and boosted their public welfare spending. Deficits and debts skyrocketed. Central banks printed money to buy public debts (or accept them as collateral in loans to the banking system) in unprecedented amounts. Interest rates were cut close to zero. Deficits remain large. No substantial real growth is in sight. At the same time banking systems and other financial players sit on large piles of public debt. A public default would immediately trigger the bankruptcy of the banking sector. Raising interest rates to more realistic levels or selling the assets purchased by the central bank would put into jeopardy the solvency of the banking sector, highly indebted companies, and the government. It looks like even the slowing down of money printing (now called “QE tapering”) could trigger a bankruptcy spiral. A drastic reduction of government spending and deficits does not seem very likely either, given the incentives for politicians in democracies.
So will money printing be a constant with interest rates close to zero until people lose their confidence in the paper currencies? Can the paper money system be maintained or will we necessarily get a hyperinflation sooner or later?
There are at least seven possibilities:
1. Inflate. Governments and central banks can simply proceed on the path of inflation and print all the money necessary to bail out the banking system, governments, and other over-indebted agents. This will further increase moral hazard. This option ultimately leads into hyperinflation, thereby eradicating debts. Debtors profit, savers lose. The paper wealth that people have saved over their life time will not be able to assure such a high standard of living as envisioned.
2. Default on Entitlements. Governments can improve their financial positions by simply not fulfilling their promises. Governments may, for instance, drastically cut public pensions, social security and unemployment benefits to eliminate deficits and pay down accumulated debts. Many entitlements, that people have planned upon, will prove to be worthless.
3. Repudiate Debt. Governments can also default outright on their debts. This leads to losses for banks and insurance companies that have invested the savings of their clients in government bonds. The people see the value of their mutual funds, investment funds, and insurance plummet thereby revealing the already-occurred losses. The default of the government could lead to the collapse of the banking system. The bankruptcy spiral of overindebted agents would be an economic Armageddon. Therefore, politicians until now have done everything to prevent this option from happening.
4. Financial Repression. Another way to get out of the debt trap is financial repression. Financial repression is a way of channeling more funds to the government thereby facilitating public debt liquidation. Financial repression may consist of legislation making investment alternatives less attractive or more directly in regulation inducing investors to buy government bonds. Together with real growth and spending cuts, financial repression may work to actually reduce government debt loads.
5. Pay Off Debt. The problem of overindebtedness can also be solved through fiscal measures. The idea is to eliminate debts of governments and recapitalize banks through taxation. By reducing overindebtedness, the need for the central bank to keep interest low and to continue printing money is alleviated. The currency could be put on a sounder base again. To achieve this purpose, the government expropriates wealth on a massive scale to pay back government debts. The government simply increases existing tax rates or may employ one-time confiscatory expropriations of wealth. It uses these receipts to pay down its debts and recapitalize banks. Indeed the IMF has recently proposed a one-time 10-percent wealth tax in Europe in order to reduce the high levels of public debts. Large scale cuts in spending could also be employed to pay off debts. After WWII, the US managed to reduce its debt-to-GDP ratio from 130 percent in 1946 to 80 percent in 1952. However, it seems unlikely that such a debt reduction through spending cuts could work again. This time the US does not stand at the end of a successful war. Government spending was cut in half from $118 billion in 1945 to $58 billion in 1947, mostly through cuts in military spending. Similar spending cuts today do not seem likely without leading to massive political resistance and bankruptcies of overindebted agents depending on government spending.
6. Currency Reform. There is the option of a full-fledged currency reform including a (partial) default on government debt. This option is also very attractive if one wants to eliminate overindebtedness without engaging in a strong price inflation. It is like pressing the reset button and continuing with a paper money regime. Such a reform worked in Germany after the WWII (after the last war financial repression was not an option) when the old paper money, the Reichsmark, was substituted by a new paper money, the Deutsche Mark. In this case, savers who hold large amounts of the old currency are heavily expropriated, but debt loads for many people will decline.
7. Bail-in. There could be a bail-in amounting to a half-way currency reform. In a bail-in, such as occurred in Cyprus, bank creditors (savers) are converted into bank shareholders. Bank debts decrease and equity increases. The money supply is reduced. A bail-in recapitalizes the banking system, and eliminates bad debts at the same time. Equity may increase so much, that a partial default on government bonds would not threaten the stability of the banking system. Savers will suffer losses. For instance, people that invested in life insurances that in turn bought bank liabilities or government bonds will assume losses. As a result the overindebtedness of banks and governments is reduced.
Any of the seven options, or combinations of two or more options, may lie ahead. In any case they will reveal the losses incurred in and end the wealth illusion. Basically, taxpayers, savers, or currency users are exploited to reduce debts and put the currency on a more stable basis. A one-time wealth tax, a currency reform or a bail-in are not very popular policy options as they make losses brutally apparent at once. The first option of inflation is much more popular with governments as it hides the costs of the bail out of overindebted agents. However, there is the danger that the inflation at some point gets out of control. And the monopolist money producer does not want to spoil his privilege by a monetary meltdown. Before it gets to the point of a runaway inflation, governments will increasingly ponder the other options as these alternatives could enable a reset of the system.
Note: The views expressed in Daily Articles on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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Philipp Bagus is an associate professor at Universidad Rey Juan Carlos. He is an associate scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and was awarded the 2011 O.P. Alford III Prize in Libertarian Scholarship. He is the author of The Tragedy of the Euro and coauthor of Deep Freeze: Iceland’s Economic Collapse. The Tragedy of the Euro has so far been translated and published in German, French, Slovak, Polish, Italian, Romanian, Finnish, Spanish, Portuguese, British English, Dutch, Brazilian Portuguese, Bulgarian, and Chinese. See his website. Send him mail. Follow him on Twitter @PhilippBagus See Philipp Bagus’s article archives.
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While manufacturing and services PMIs disappointed, the big problem in big China remains that of an out-of-control credit creation process that is blowing up. As we previously noted, instead of crushing credit creation, the PBOC’s liquidity rationing has forced distressed companies into high-interest-cost products in the shadow-banking world. Investors on the other side of “troubled shadow banking products” had assumed that ‘someone’ would bail them out but this evening Reuters reports that ICBC has confirmed that it will not rescue holders of the “Credit Equals Gold #1 Collective Trust Product”, due to mature Jan 31st with $492 million outstanding. The anxiety from contagion concerns of the first shadow-banking default has pushed the Shanghai Composite back near 2,000 for the first time since July – and to its narrowest spread to the S&P 500 in almost 8 years.
The Shanghai Composite is tumbling… to six month lows (and back near 2,000 for the firs time since July)…
and its closest (nominally) to the S&P 500 in almost 8 years…
…borrowers are facing rising pressures for loan repayments in an environment of overcapacity and unprofitable investments. Unable to generate cash to service their loans, they have to turn to the shadow-banking sector for credit and avoid default. The result is an explosive growth of the size of the shadow-banking sector (now conservatively estimated to account for 20-30 percent of GDP).
Understandably, the PBOC does not look upon the shadow banking sector favorably. Since shadow-banking sector gets its short-term liquidity mainly through interbanking loans, the PBOC thought that it could put a painful squeeze on this sector through reducing liquidity. Apparently, the PBOC underestimated the effects of its measure. Largely because Chinese borrowers tend to cross-guarantee each other’s debt, squeezing even a relatively small number of borrowers could produce a cascade of default. The reaction in the credit market was thus almost instant and frightening. Borrowers facing imminent default are willing to borrow at any rate while banks with money are unwilling to loan it out no matter how attractive the terms are.
Should this situation continue, China’s real economy would suffer a nasty shock. Chain default would produce a paralyzing effect on economic activities even though there is no run on the banks. Clearly, this is not a prospect the CCP’s top leadership relishes.
So the PBOC’s efforts are merely exacerbating the situation for the worst companies… for example… Zhenfu Energy…
Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the world’s largest bank by assets, said on Thursday that it has no plans to use its own money to repay investors in a troubled off-balance-sheet investment product that it helped to market.
ICBC’s shares have fallen this week amid speculation that the bank would be forced to help repay investors in a 3 billion yuan ($496.20 million) high-yield investment product issued by China Credit Trust Co Ltd but marketed through ICBC branches. The product is due to mature on Jan. 31.
“Regarding this unsubstantiated rumour, a situation completely does not exist in which ICBC will assume the main responsibility (for the trust product),” an ICBC spokesman told Reuters by phone on Tuesday.
The trust product, called “2010 China Credit / Credit Equals Gold #1 Collective Trust Product”, used the funds it raised from wealthy investors in 2010 to make a loan to unlistedcoal company Shanxi Zhenfu Energy Group Ltd.
But in May 2012, Zhenfu Energy’s vice chairman, Wang Ping Yan, was arrested for accepting deposits without a banking licence.
Which Barclays warns:
In our view, despite the trust issuer, distributor bank and local government perhaps trying to bail out the mining company, the regulators and central government could probably allow the trust product default to happen as:
- government appears fairly determined to reform the financial system and cut off the implicit guarantee of financial institutions;
- the State Council is reportedly streamlining regulation of shadow banking including trust business; and
- the default of trust products could have less social impact than the default of WMPs, bonds and other products sold to the general public or have problematic practices, such as asset-pool investments.
In our view, the default of trust products could trigger some short-term negative impacts on China’s financial sector and the reputation of financial institutions. However, we believe it is positive for the healthy development of financial system in the long run because the default could do the following:
- Be a step to reduce the implicit guarantee of financial institutions for investment products. Banks could shift their financial liabilities back to the investors.
- Increase the risk awareness of both investors and financial institutions, which could correct the pricing of investment products to more risk-oriented.
Its conclusion is dire: “If the trust product goes into default, we believe it would be the first default to test the financial system.”
Here is the product…
And the growth of such products has been enormous as we have explained in great detail previously: at RMB10.1 trillion as of Q3 should the first domino fall, watch out below.
Finally for those who have forgotten, below is a quick schematic of what a WMP looks like:
“There is an unresolved self-contradiction in China’s current policies: restarting the furnaces also reignites exponential debt growth, which cannot be sustained for much longer than a couple of years.”
The “eerie resemblances” – as Soros previously noted – to the US in 2008 have profound consequences for China and the world – nowhere is that more dangerously exposed (just as in the US) than in the Chinese shadow banking sector as explained above.
Bailed-out euro-area countries are facing “painful” challenges with worse-than-anticipated consequences of economic adjustment, including high unemployment and slow growth, central banks and finance ministries said.
Officials and ministers from Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Cyprus, in responses to European Union lawmaker questions published yesterday, described how their countries’ emergency aid had been followed by social hardship and continuing economic difficulties.
The bailout program had a “worse-than-expected impact on both output and employment,” Portugal’s finance ministry said. The program in Cyprus was “rigorous and painful,” according to the island’s central bank. Adjustment in Greece, after four years of cuts and efforts to make the economy more competitive, has come at “an extremely high socioeconomic cost,” Greek Finance Minister Yannis Stournaras said.
The testimonies come three-and-a-half years after Greece became the first euro-area country to be bailed out, using EU and International Monetary Fund loans. Since then the German-led path of aid in return for reforms and debt cuts has seen 396 billion euros ($538 billion) committed to the region’s four most fragile economies, with an additional 100 billion euros pledged for Spain’s banking sector. The bloc has endured the longest recession in its history and unemployment has reached record levels.
Government bonds in the euro-area’s most indebted nations have rallied this year, pushing Portugal and Ireland’s 10-year yields to the lowest since 2010 and 2006 respectively, as recovery sign’s in the region have boosted demand for higher-yielding debt.
Portugal expects to restart bond auctions in the first half of 2014, its debt agency said yesterday, after selling one-year bills at the lowest yield since November 2009. Greece’s Stournaras said last week that the government may sell five-year notes in the second half of the year, for the first time since being shut out of the bond markets in 2010. It would follow Ireland, which sold bonds last week for the first time since completing its bailout program.
Greek 10-year yields have dropped 68 basis points this year to 7.74 percent, after touching 7.53 percent on Jan. 13, the lowest since May 2010. The yield on similar-maturity Portuguese securities reached the lowest since August 2010 at 5.07 percent yesterday.
EU lawmakers questioned whether the so-called troika, comprising the European Commission,European Central Bank and IMF, which sets conditions for the countries receiving bailouts and monitors their progress, should have been more accountable and could have prevented the most painful effects of austerity. The European Parliament’s economic and monetary affairs committee is today discussing the responses received about the troika’s work.
European lawmakers will continue to work to make the troika more accountable, EU Parliament President Martin Schulz said on Twitter yesterday. Schulz is a member of Germany’s Social Democrats, the junior partner in the country’s coalition government.
While finance ministries and central bankers said that the hardships associated with the bailout conditions could not be ignored, they said they backed the process.
“The program, although rigorous and painful, is the only way that will enable the country’s exit from the crisis,” Cyprus’s central bank said in its letter to the 28-nation European Parliament.
Portugal’s finance ministry said that it “remained convinced” a bailout program had been inevitable and that “on the whole it remains a suitable and rational response to the crisis of credibility threatening our country.”
Ireland’s bailout-program exit last month and its return to financial markets “confirms that our strategy of providing assistance to euro-area countries that requested it in return for strict conditionality is working,” Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who chairs meetings of his 17 euro-area counterparts, said in his letter to EU lawmakers.
He said that while growth is returning to the euro area and the economic outlook is improving “a number of important challenges remain, most importantly unacceptably high levels of unemployment.”
Ireland’s bailout program can be considered a success, Michael Noonan, Ireland’s finance minister, said in his response to the parliament. Even so, unemployment is still high, economic growth has returned more slowly than predicted and the country’s overall level of debt remains elevated, with a peak of slightly over 120 percent of gross domestic product expected this year.