China will pay the price for hidden debts

The Third Plenum's proposed economic reforms will almost certainly slow China's rate of growth, but the exposure of hidden losses will highlight the gap between China's recorded and real GDP output.

I got a lot of feedback from my January 5 blog entry because of my argument that the implementation of the reforms proposed in the Third Plenum all but guarantees that growth rates in China will slow down. It might make sense to explain a little more carefully why I think this must happen, and why we can almost judge how successfully the reforms are implemented by how quickly growth slows.

The first point to recognise is that when a country’s growth has been driven by wasteful investment, GDP growth will exceed real economic wealth creation, productivity will be overstated, and debt will rise faster than debt servicing capacity. Why? In China, we record growth in terms of the cost of inputs, not in terms of the value of the outputs. If the cost of inputs exceeds the value of outputs, we will overstate the real value of economic activity.

This happens elsewhere too, but there is an automatic mechanism for writing down this excess. This mechanism is usually the recognition of bad debt. Companies that invest poorly go bankrupt, and the value of their loans is written off. This writing off of bad loans shows up as a correction to the overstatement of growth and productivity.

In a system in which bad debt isn’t written down, the losses are simply hidden and rolled over. After many years they are effectively written down, but this happens indirectly. In order to service the loans, there is an explicit or hidden transfer from some other part of the economy to cover the full extent of the losses, so that future growth is reduced by the amount of the transfer.

Over long periods of time, in other words, real economic value and recorded economic value is the same. But over shorter periods of time, they can differ enormously. If a country fails to record bad debt, its growth today will be overstated by that amount, but its future growth over the longer term will be understated by the same amount.

Most of us would agree that a significant share of the loans in the Chinese banking system would be considered, from an economic point of view, as bad loans. They were made to support investments the true economic value of whose outputs are less than the cost of the inputs. Because many of these loans are implicitly guaranteed, it may make prefect legal sense for the banks to treat these as performing, but this does not change the fact that the loans are uneconomic.

I would argue that China’s GDP is overstated by the value of these hidden losses, and over time these losses will be worked out. As long as bad loans (as I am defining them here) are increasing, it is pretty safe to assume that the gap between China’s real economic output and its recorded output is also increasing. This has been the problem with China’s growth of the last several years.

Beijing’s response is the economic reforms proposed during the Third Plenum, aimed at unlocking greater productivity potential in the Chinese economy and returning the country to a sustainable growth path. They will do this by improving the capital allocation process, so that capital will be diverted from state-owned enterprises, real estate developers, local governments and other inefficient users of capital, to SMEs, the agricultural sector, and more efficient users of capital. They will also eliminate constraints that prevent more productive use of resources, including weak legal enforcement of business claims, better protection of managerial and technological innovation, educational improvements, and so on.

The implementation of these reforms is not certain. Even assuming they are forcefully implemented, the higher productivity resulting from the reforms will not lead to higher reported GDP growth. This is one of the great recent myths that, to me, make no sense at all. The higher productivity will not even allow China’s economy to continue growing at current rates. On the contrary, successful implementation of the reforms will cause GDP growth rates to drop sharply.

There are at least four reasons to expect healthier but slower GDP growth over the rest of this decade if the reforms are implemented.

1. Leverage boosts growth and deleverage reduces it. By now, nearly everyone understands that China is over-reliant on credit to generate growth. Much new borrowing is needed simply to prevent borrowers from defaulting on existing loans, so that new lending can be divided into two buckets.

One bucket consists of loans made to roll over the debt of borrowers who do not generate sufficient cashflow from the investments that their original loans funded. The loans in this bucket, of course, do not create additional economic activity. But as debt rises, financial distress costs rise with them (most financial distress costs, as is well understood in corporate finance theory, are a consequence of the way rising debt changes the incentive structures of the various stakeholders and so distorts their behavior in non-economic ways). Any disruption in lending would cause a surge in defaults.

The second bucket consists of loans that fund new expenditures. These expenditures, of course, generate economic activity. But if they fund consumption, or if they fund investments the value of whose output is less than the cost of the inputs, they incur additional losses that must ultimately be rolled over by loans that belong in the first bucket. Any reduction in loan growth, in other words, is positive in the long term for Chinese wealth creation, but in the short term will either force the recognition of earlier losses or will reduce economic activity.

Beijing has attempted since 2009-10 to rein in credit growth. However, each time credit growth has decelerated, GDP growth rates – as we would expect – dropped so sharply that Beijing was quickly forced to relent. Because growth is more dependent than ever on credit, as Beijing finally acts to rein in credit growth decisively, GDP growth will drop sharply.

2. Hidden transfers will be reduced. The investment-led model encourages investment by transfers – hidden or explicit – from the household sector to subsidise investment. In the Japanese version of this model, which very broadly is the version China and the Asian Tigers pursued, the main form of these transfers is the undervalued currency, low wage growth (relative to productivity growth) and – most of all – financial repression.

Because these transfers no longer create net value on the investment side (China overinvests in infrastructure and has excess capacity in a broad range of manufacturing sectors), and the extent of the transfers are at the heart of China’s very low consumption level, the proposed reforms will act to reverse the mechanisms that goosed growth by transferring resources from the household sector to subsidise manufacturing, infrastructure building, and real estate development. These mechanisms put downward pressure on household income even as they subsidised manufacturing and investment and led directly both to higher growth rates and to the investment and consumption imbalances from which China suffers.

It should be clear that as Beijing reverses policies that once acted to increase growth, the result must be slower growth. It is hard to estimate the amount by which growth will decline once all the transfers are eliminated. When one considers that the total amount of transfers to SOEs during this century may exceed the aggregate profitability of the SOE sector by as much as five to ten times, it is pretty clear that their impact is likely to be substantial.

3. Excess capacity will be resolved. Beijing recognizes that cheap credit and limited accountability have created excess capacity in industry and real estate. Why build so much excess capacity? Local governments have supported this build-up of capacity to boost growth and, with it, revenues and local employment. Because capital was essentially free (its real cost may have even been negative for much of this century) and because most projects are implicitly or explicitly guaranteed by local and central governments, there seemed to be no cost (and plenty of benefit) to simply to pile on capacity.

As Beijing acts to wring out excess capacity, we will inevitably see a reversal of the earlier growth impact. If building capacity generates economic activity, closing down excess capacity must become a drag on growth.

4.  Losses will be recognized. Many years of overinvestment have left a large amount of unrecognized bad debt on bank balance sheets. Consequently, China’s GDP growth has been overstated by the amount of the unrecognized losses. As Beijing cleans up its financial system over the next decade, this bad debt will either be explicitly recognised or, more likely, implicitly written off over the remaining life of the loan. Either way, as the losses are recognised, growth over the next several years will automatically be understated by the amount previously overstated.

These reforms, and others – like attempts to protect the environment – will ensure that even as China’s real economic productivity improves, its GDP growth numbers will drop as the reforms are implemented. Most commentators argue that by increasing productivity, real reform will ensure a soft landing of GDP growth rates of 7-8 percent during the rest of President Xi Jinping’s administration. A growing minority worries, however, that rapidly rising debt will force China into a hard landing.

Michael Pettis is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a finance professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. He blogs at China Financial Markets.