The world is coming to the end of probably the greatest financial bubble ever seen. Since the financial crisis began in 2008, central banks in China, the USA, Europe, the UK and Japan have created over $30tn of debt.
China has created more than half of this debt as the chart shows, and its total debt is now around 260% of GDP. Its actions are therefore far more important for global financial markets than anything done by the Western central banks – just as China’s initial stimulus was the original motor for the post-2008 “recovery”.
Historians are therefore likely to look back at last month’s National People’s Congress as a key turning point.
It is clear that although Premier Li retained his post, he has effectively been sidelined in terms of economic policy. This is important as he was the architect of the stimulus policy. Now, President Xi Jinping appears to have taken full charge of the economy, and it seems that a crackdown may be underway, as its central bank chief governor Zhou Xiaochuan has been explaining:
- Zhou first raised the issue at the National Congress last month, warning of the risk of a “Minsky Moment” in the economy, where debt or currency pressures could park a sudden collapse in asset prices – as occurred in the US subprime crisis. “If there are too many pro-cyclical factors in the economy, cyclical fluctuations are magnified and there is excessive optimism during the period, accumulating contradictions that could lead to the so-called Minsky Moment. We should focus on preventing a dramatic adjustment.”
- Then last week, he published a warning that “China’s financial sector is and will be in a period with high risks that are easily triggered. Under pressure from multiple factors at home and abroad, the risks are multiple, broad, hidden, complex, sudden, contagious, and hazardous. The structural unbalance is salient; law-breaking and disorders are rampant; latent risks are accumulating; [and the financial system’s] vulnerability is obviously increasing. [China] should prevent both the “black swan” events and the “gray rhino” risks.”
We can be sure that Zhou was not speaking “off the cuff” or just in a personal capacity when he made these statements, as his comments have been carried on both the official Xinhua news agency and on the People’s Bank of China website. As Bloomberg report, he went on to set out 10 key areas for action:
- “China’s financial system faces domestic and overseas pressures; structural imbalance is a serious problem and regulations are frequently violated
- Some state-owned enterprises face severe debt risks, the problem of “zombie companies” is being solved slowly, and some local governments are adding leverage
- Financial institutions are not competitive and pricing of risk is weak; the financial system cannot soothe herd behaviors, asset bubbles and risks by itself
- Some high-risk activities are creating market bubbles under the cover of “financial innovation”
- More companies have been defaulting on bonds, and issuance has been slowing; credit risks are impacting the public’s and even foreigners’ confidence in China’s financial health
- Some Internet companies that claim to help people access finance are actually Ponzi schemes; and some regulators are too close to the firms and people they are supposed to oversee
- China’s financial regulation lags behind international standards and focuses too much on fostering certain industries; there’s a lack of clarity in what central and regional government should be responsible for, so some activities are not well regulated
- China should increase direct financing as well as expand the bond market; reduce intervention in the equity market and reform the initial public offering system; pursue yuan internationalization and capital account convertibility
- China should let the market play a decisive role in the allocation of financial resources, and reduce the distortion effect of any intervention
- China should improve coordination among financial regulators”
Clearly, Xi’s reappointment as President means the end of “business as usual” for China, and for the support provided to the global economy by Li’s stimulus policies. Xi’s own comments at the Congress confirm the change of direction, particularly his decision to abandon the idea of setting targets for GDP growth. As the press conference following the Congress confirmed, the focus is now on the quality of growth:
“China’s main social contradiction has changed and its economic development is moving to a stage of high-quality growth from a high-rate of expansion of the GDP,” said Yang Weimin, deputy head of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Financial and Economic Affairs. “The biggest problem facing us now … is the inadequate quality of development.”
Companies and investors should not ignore the warnings now coming out from Beijing about the change of strategy. China’s lending bubble – particularly in property, is likely coming to an end. In turn, this will lead to a bumpy ride for the global economy.