【英语中国】分析:中国债券违约的背后 China engineers ‘Potemkin defaults’ to mask debt reality

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所属分类:双语中国

2014-4-16 06:59

小艾摘要: In the past two months, China has suffered its first domestic bond default in recent history and a series of small bankruptcies that have some investors fretting the country could face its very own “ ...
China engineers ‘Potemkin defaults’ to mask debt reality
In the past two months, China has suffered its first domestic bond default in recent history and a series of small bankruptcies that have some investors fretting the country could face its very own “Lehman moment”.

But behind the lurid headlines and fear of financial panic, something more complicated is happening.

These systemically insignificant financial failures are being hyped up by China’s state-controlled media – and then unwittingly amplified by the international press – as part of a campaign of government-sanctioned “Potemkin defaults”.

Led by the People’s Bank of China, the central bank, which has responsibility for maintaining stability in the financial system, Beijing has launched a campaign of highly public, but controlled defaults as a way to tackle moral hazard and impose market discipline.

At the same time, for any bankruptcy or default that could threaten regional or systemic stability, the government continues to step in quietly and co-ordinate loan rollovers and bailouts.

That is not to say the small defaults that have happened are fake or there are no serious risks in the debt-laden Chinese system.

The risks have ballooned as China has added new credit roughly equal to the size of the entire US banking system in just the past five years.

Total debt as a percentage of GDP has increased from 130 per cent in 2008 to about 220 per cent at the end of last year, according to estimates from Fitch Ratings.

An increase of that speed and scale has almost always been succeeded by a crisis in other economies.

The big concern in China is that much of the debt build-up – as much as half of all credit extended last year by some estimates – has happened in the opaque and lightly regulated “shadow banking” sector.

Shadow banking in China is much less sophisticated or toxic than the financial engineering that happened on Wall Street before the 2008 financial crisis and its capacity to shake the broader system is also a lot more limited.

But that does not mean investors should not worry.

Much of the credit coming from the shadows goes to risky, high-interest loans to struggling property developers, steel mills or glass factories that cannot borrow directly from the more regulated state banks.

A sizeable portion of these multiyear loans are then repackaged into poorly documented financial products with maturities of just several months.

These are then sold through banks to ordinary investors with promised returns that are well above government-capped deposit rates.

When pressed by the regulators, banks insist any risk associated with these products is borne by investors but the vast majority of investors believe these products are ultimately guaranteed by the state.

After all, they were sold by state banks, sometimes with explicit but illegal guarantees from overeager salespeople, and until recently the government has always stepped in at the last minute to make sure these products do not collapse.

Speaking to the Financial Times on condition of anonymity, a senior Chinese official explained the dilemma in this way:

“On the one hand, if we really want to have a modern financial sector and a proper corporate bond market then we can’t continue to have zero defaults forever. But if there is a very sudden withdrawal of funds from the shadow banking sector it could create a serious macro problem.”

Given relatively low levels of central government debt, Beijing probably has the capacity to stave off a Lehman-style crisis by printing money and bailing out collapsing shadow banks in the event of a run on the system.

The overall financial system could also be stabilised as investments pulled out of risky shadow products were put back on deposit at the state banks.

But China’s economy is extremely reliant on credit-fuelled investment, particularly real estate investment, which directly accounted for around 16 per cent of gross domestic product last year, a level approaching Ireland’s or Spain’s before the financial crisis.

In a situation where shadow bank funding dries up for risky real estate, steel and cement projects, China’s biggest problem would not be a financial crisis; it would have a growth crisis as new investment disappeared.

This is why the government is trying desperately to manufacture some high-profile model defaults.

If Beijing can use these examples to convince investors to pay attention to risks while simultaneously stopping those risks from becoming reality, then it will have pulled off a remarkable feat.

过去两个月内,中国出现了近代历史上首例国内债券违约,并发生了一系列小企业破产事件,部分投资者为此担忧中国可能将迎来自己的“雷曼时刻”(Lehman moment)。

但在骇人的新闻标题和担忧发生金融恐慌的背后,更复杂的情况还在上演。

在政府默许之下,一场宣传“波将金违约”(Potemkin default,语出“波将金村”的典故,指的是被刻意夸大的违约——译者注)的运动拉开了戏幕,那些不具备系统重要性的金融问题被中国官方媒体大肆渲染,也不知不觉地被国际媒体加以放大。

作为央行的中国人民银行(PBoC)负责维护金融体系稳定。在央行带头下,中国当局发动了一场高调但受控的违约运动,以应对道德风险,树立市场纪律。

与此同时,对于任何可能危及地区或系统稳定的破产或违约,政府仍然低调介入,安排贷款展期和纾困。

这不是说业已发生的小规模违约是子虚乌有,也不代表债务沉重的中国金融体系不存在严重风险。

实际上风险已经大为增加,仅在过去5年内,中国新增信贷就大致相当于整个美国银行体系的规模。

惠誉(Fitch Ratings)估计,截至去年年底,中国总债务与GDP比例从2008年的130%上升到220%左右。

在其他经济体,以这种速度和规模发生的信贷扩张,几乎无一例外都会紧接着发生危机。

中国最令人担忧的地方在于,相当大一部分债务——有些人估计占去年所有新增债务的一半之多——发生在不透明、缺乏监管的“影子银行”部门。

中国影子银行的复杂度和危害性均远低于2008年金融危机前华尔街的金融工程,它动摇整个金融体系的能力也有限得多。

但这不代表投资者就不必担忧。

来自影子银行的信贷多为高风险、高利息的贷款,流向苦苦挣扎、无法直接向监管更严的国有银行借款的房地产开发商、钢铁厂或玻璃厂。

然后,这些多年期贷款中的一大部分被重新包装为缺乏信息披露的金融产品,期限仅为几个月。

这些产品再通过银行向普通投资者出售,承诺的收益远高于政府限定的存款利率。

在受到监管机构施压时,银行坚称与这些产品有关的一切风险由投资者自负,但绝大多数投资者相信这些产品最终由国家担保。

毕竟,这些产品由国有银行销售,有时过于热切的销售人员会做出明确但违规的保证。就在不久前,政府还屡屡在最后关头出手,确保这些产品不会违约。

一位要求匿名的中国高官向英国《金融时报》解释了两难局面:

“一方面,如果我们真正希望建设现代化的金融业和正常秩序的企业债市场,那么我们不能将零违约永远维持下去。但如果资金突然从影子银行业撤出,可能招致严重的宏观问题。”

鉴于中央政府债务水平较低,中国政府可能有能力避免雷曼式的危机,在体系出现挤兑时增印货币,救助濒倒闭的影子银行。

如果大批资金撤出高风险的影子银行产品,以储蓄的形式回到国有银行,整个金融体系也可能趋于稳定。

但中国经济极度依赖信贷驱动的投资,特别是房地产投资,后者去年占到GDP的16%左右,接近爱尔兰和西班牙在金融危机前的水平。

如果高风险的房地产、钢铁和水泥项目得不到影子银行融资,中国的最大问题将不是金融危机——随着新投资中断,中国将面临“增长危机”。

这想必正是中国政府竭力想要制造出一些引人关注的“样板”违约的原因所在。

如果中国政府能通过这些例子说服投资者注意风险,同时防止这些风险成为现实,那将是了不起的成就。

译者/何黎

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