In 2015, China grew by 6.9%. This is the slowest the country has grown in more than two decades. For a country which has been used to growing in double digits for a very long time, an economic growth rate of 6.9% is very low. Further, there are many economists who believe that even the 6.9% number isn’t correct.
A recent report in the Wall Street Journal quotes, an economics professor Xu Dianqing, as saying “that China’s gross domestic product growth rate might just be between 4.3% and 5.2%”.
The Chinese manufacturing sector which makes up for 40.5% of the economy grew by 6% in 2015. Nevertheless, many underlying indicators like power generation, railway freight movements, steel, cement and iron output, paint a different picture. As the Wall Street Journal points out: “Of some 60 major industrial products, nearly half saw output contract in the January to November period, while railway cargo volume fell 11.9% for all of last year, according to official sources.” (Doesn’t this sound similar to what is happening in India as well?)
Given this, it is only fair to ask how did the Chinese manufacturing sector grow by 6% in 2015? And how did the overall economy grow by 6.9%?
The point being that China is not growing as fast as it was and not as fast as it claims it is. Of course, if economists outside the government can figure this out, the government obviously realises this. Nevertheless, like all governments they need to maintain a position of strength and try and revive a flagging economy.
In the world that we live in, economists and politicians have limited ideas on how to tackle an economy that is slowing down. The solution is to get people to borrow and spend more. In a country like China where the government controls large parts of the economy, it means encouraging banks to lend more.
And that is precisely what has happened. In January 2016, responding to the low economic growth in 2015, the Chinese banks gave out loans worth 2.5 trillion yuan or around $385 billion. This is “a new record for a single month!” point out Dr Jim Walker and Dr Justin Pyvis of Asianomics Macro.
To give you a sense of how big the lending number is, let’s compare it to what the scheduled commercial banks in India lent during a similar period. Between January 8 and February 5 2016, the Indian banks loaned out around Rs 72,580 crore or $10.6 billion, assuming that one dollar is worth Rs 68.7. The way RBI declares lending data of banks, it is not possible to figure out how much the banks lend during the course of any month and hence, I have picked up the nearest comparable period.
The Chinese banks lent around 36 times more than Indian banks during a similar period. Of course, the Chinese economy is bigger than India is one factor for this difference.
A number of explanations have been offered for this huge jump in Chinese lending. One is the revival of the Chinese property sector. Further, with the yuan depreciating against the dollar in the recent past, many Chinese companies are replacing their dollar debt with yuan debt, in order to ensure that they don’t have to pay more yuan in order to repay their dollar loans in the future.
But these reasons clearly do not explain this huge jump in lending. Chinese banks are lending out so much money because the government wants them to increase their lending dramatically.
The idea, as always, is to get people to borrow and spend money, and companies to borrow and expand, and in the process hope to create faster economic growth. The trouble is that all this borrowing and spending will only add to the excess capacity that already exists in China.
As Satyajit Das writes in The Age of Stagnation: “It would take decades for China to absorb this excess capacity, which in many cases will become obsolete before it can be utilised. Yet China continues to add capacity to maintain growth.”
Further, the credit intensity or the amount of new debt needed to create additional economic activity has gone up in China, over the years. As Das writes: “The incremental capital-output ratio(ICOR), calculated as the annual investment divided by the annual increase in GDP, measures investment efficiency. China’s ICOR has more than doubled since the 1980s, reflecting the marginal nature of new investment. China now needs around $3-5 to generate $1 of additional economic growth; some economists put it even higher at $6-8. This is an increase from the $1-2 needed for each dollar of growth 8-10 years ago, consistent with declining investment returns.”
The point being that China now needs more and more money to create the same amount of growth. And this means the effectiveness of borrowing in creating economic growth has come down over the years. This also means that the chances of money that the banks are lending out now, not being returned, is higher now than it was in the past.
In fact, as Walker and Pyvis of Asianomics Macro point out: “The China Banking Regulatory Commission reported that official nonperforming loans had jumped 51% year to 1.3 trillion renminbi [yuan] by December, now greater than at the last peak in 2009. While small in terms of the total number of loans out there – the bad loan ratio increased from just 1.25% to 1.67% – it is the direction that is bothersome, particularly given the well-publicised concerns over the accuracy of the data (hint: NPLs are much higher than 1.67%).”
Further, the Reuters reports that the special mention loans (loans which could turn into bad loans or what we call stressed loans in India), rose by 37% in 2015. And bad loans and special mention loans together form around 5.5% of total lending by Chinese lending. Indeed, this is worrying.
This huge increase in lending will obviously push up the economic growth in the short-term. But in the long-term it can’t be possibly good for the economy, as it will only lead to the non-performing loans going up and creation of many useless assets which the country really does not require. The current jump in bad loans of banks happened because of the huge jump in bank lending that happened in 2009, after the current financial crisis started.
Whatever happens, in the short-term, the era of “easy money” seems to be continuing in China. And that can’t possibly be a good thing.
The column originally appeared on the Vivek Kaul’s Diary on February 22, 2016.