【英语中国】中国能挺得过危机吗? Guest post: can China bail itself out? (Quite possibly, no)

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2014-5-7 06:32

小艾摘要: China’s Rmb4tn stimulus package in 2008 – and its ballooning lending – has raised fears of a financial collapse. Certainly, debt has exploded. The China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) estimates ...
Guest post: can China bail itself out? (Quite possibly, no)
China’s Rmb4tn stimulus package in 2008 – and its ballooning lending – has raised fears of a financial collapse. Certainly, debt has exploded. The China Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) estimates that total government debt is now Rmb 27tn, or 53%, of GDP. Throw in corporate and household debt, and CASS estimates the total at Rmb 111.6tn ($18.3tn) at the end of 2012, or 215 per cent GDP.

Chinese economists are quick to point out that the country has plenty of money to pay off its debts and could easily avert a financial collapse. The government, they say, could function as lender of last resort.

Fitch Ratings agrees. In April, Fitch reaffirmed China’s Sovereign Debt Rating at A+ with a stable outlook. China’s $3.8tn in foreign reserves is a “core sovereign credit strength.” Although worried about China’s growth model, due to leverage and ability to absorb further investment, the agency praised China’s “powerful levers for short-term demand management” due to its state ownership. Other good signs are the People’s Bank of China’s two year timeframe to free up interest rates and China’s “ambitious reform agenda.”

But what happens in a severe downturn may not conform to prior predictions. How does one confirm whether there are sufficient resources in China to provide adequate capital for a massive collapse in economic activity, including a popping of China’s property bubble?

One useful way to test whether the Chinese have it right – that there is enough money to cover a collapse – is to look at China’s sovereign balance sheet. Just as a company has assets and liabilities, so do countries. This analysis is not as easy to calculate as with a company, because the country covers a lot more ground, but with the right tools, it can be a useful exercise. It also lays bare China’s economy.

We use a balance sheet compiled for the International Monetary Fund by economists Yang Li and Xiaojing Zhang. Their chart shows total assets of Rmb 142.3tn and liabilities of Rmb 72.7tn, for total net worth of Rmb 69.6tn.

Some items have changed since 2010. Local government debt, both direct and indirect, is closer to Rmb 17tn, according to the government’s own estimates. And the non-performing loan (NPL) ratio for the banks by some measures is closer to Rmb 1tn trillion than Rmb 400bn. But there’s no doubt, at least on paper, China has a positive net worth.

China has the money – but can it use it in a crisis?

The real question is – can China use its capital in a time of crisis? If China suffers a financial meltdown can the government pay? Could China handle the so-called Minsky Moment when asset values collapse following a speculative bubble, a term coined by PIMCO’s Paul McCulley about the 1998 Russian Financial Crisis?

On the asset side, clearly the easiest source of usable capital is China’s $3.8tn of foreign reserves. However, pulling them out of western markets (mainly Europe and the U.S.) would send a strong negative signal and cause a decline in their value. Plus, importing foreign exchange would require massive sterilization by the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) – a process dubbed “mopping up” – by selling bonds and thus avoiding an inflationary spiral. So the reserves are a doubtful source of easy money.

The next potential pool is China’s Rmb 70tn in state assets. Many Chinese point to their bloated state firms as a source of ready capital. Why not sell them off? It worked for the four state banks when they went public in the earlier part of the last decade when China set up four asset management companies to dispose of non-performing loans.

Easier said than done. There are 117,000 state firms in China with assets of Rmb 85tn (more recent data than in our chart). Beijing controls 17,000 while the remaining 100,000 are owned by Provincial governments. China is unlikely to sell off its most attractive firms. These are the Beijing- controlled state champions like its oil, nuclear and electricity companies. That leaves the provincial state firms. But selling them is likely to be a difficult process.

Combined, they employ 64m people, a politically potent cohort. By investment, 30% of state firm investment is in manufacturing and 22% in real estate – two areas that are unlikely to be attractive to buyers. (Many of the manufacturing firms are in inefficient heavy industries like steel, for example.)

The other big asset on the country’s balance sheet is Rmb 44.3tn in land (likely higher by now). On the face of it, this looks marketable. In 2013 alone, revenue from land sales rose 52.4% to more than Rmb 4tn yuan. But tapping into land sales to pay for systemic debts is problematic for two reasons. First, local governments are slowly running out of land; and second, if China is faced with a fiscal crisis it is highly likely that property values will collapse like a punctured bicycle tire, thus deflating land prices.

There are many scenarios for China’s slowing economy, not all of them pointing to a “Minsky Moment.” And there are other sources of capital, such as savings deposits in the banks that could be use to prop up the financial system. But we would argue that unalloyed faith in China’s balance sheet is a bit like a circus acrobat who fails to test his safety net until it’s too late.

Andrew Collier is Managing Director of Orient Capital Research

中国2008年的4万亿元人民币刺激——以及不断膨胀的放贷——引发了对金融崩溃的担忧。毫无疑问,债务已呈现爆发性增长。中国社会科学院(CASS)估计,政府总债务目前已达27万亿元人民币,相当于GDP的53%。社科院估计,加上企业和家庭债务,债务总量在2012年底达到111.6万亿元人民币(合18.3万亿美元),相当于GDP的215%。

中国的经济学家们立刻指出,中国拥有足够的资金偿还债务,能够轻而易举地避免金融崩溃。他们称,政府可以扮演起最后贷款人的角色。

惠誉(Fitch Ratings)赞同这种看法。4月份,惠誉维持中国主权债务评级为A+,前景展望为稳定。中国的3.8万亿美元外汇储备是一项“核心的主权信贷优势”。虽然,考虑到中国的高杠杆和吸收进一步投资的能力,惠誉对中国的增长模式表示担忧,但这家评级机构称赞国有制为中国带来了“管理短期需求的强大工具”。其他利好迹象包括中国人民银行(PBoC)放开利率的两年时间框架,以及中国“雄心勃勃的改革议程”。

但是,严重低迷期间发生的情况可能与先前的预测不符。谁有把握确定,中国拥有足够的资源,能够为经济活动的大规模崩盘(包括房地产泡沫破裂)提供充足的资本?

中国分析人士的判断是否正确——即中国有没有足够的资金来应对崩盘?一种有用的检验方法是研究中国的主权资产负债表。公司有自己的资产负债表,国家也有。国家的主权资产负债表涵盖面更广,因此不如公司的资产负债表那样易于计算,但只要使用合适的工具,这种分析可能颇为有用。它还将中国经济的真实面貌展露出来。

我们使用了经济学家李扬和张晓晶为国际货币基金组织(IMF)编制的资产负债表。他们的图表显示,总资产为142.3万亿元人民币,负债为72.7万亿元人民币,总净值为69.6万亿元人民币。

一些项目自2010年来有所变化。根据政府自己的估计,地方政府债务(包括直接或间接债务)接近17万亿元人民币。按一些标准衡量,银行不良贷款额更接近1万亿元人民币,而不是4000亿元。但毫无疑问,中国的资产净值至少在纸面上为正数。

中国有钱——但这些钱在危机中能不能派上用场?

真正的问题是——中国在危机期间能否动用它的资本?如果中国遭遇金融危机,政府能否买单?当投机泡沫过后资产价值暴跌的“明斯基时刻”(Minsky Moment)——太平洋投资管理公司(PIMCO)的保罗?麦卡利(Paul McCulley)在形容1998年俄罗斯金融危机时创造了这个词——来临时,中国能否扛得住?

在资产一侧,中国最方便动用的资本无疑是3.8万亿美元的外汇储备。然而,将其撤出西方市场(主要是欧洲和美国)将发出强大的负面信号,导致此类资产的价值下跌。此外,输入外汇需要中国央行实施大规模“冲销”,即销售债券,避免通胀螺旋式上升。因此,外汇储备是不靠谱的方便资金来源。

另一个潜在来源是70万亿元人民币的国有资产。不少中国人将膨胀的国有企业视为方便的资本来源。为什么不将它们出售呢?这种方法曾经奏效:21世纪初期,中国四大国有银行在国家成立四家资产管理公司接手其不良贷款后上市。

但说起来容易做起来难。中国拥有11.7万家国企,资产规模为85万亿元人民币(相对于图表,这是更新的数据)。中央政府控制着1.7万家,其余10万家由地方政府控制。中国政府不太可能出售其最具吸引力的公司,即那些中央政府控股的冠军企业,包括石油、核能和电力企业。这就剩下了地方政府控制的国企。但出售它们可能很困难。

这些企业雇佣的总计6400万员工构成了政治上强大的群体。按投资领域划分,30%的国企投资流向制造业,22%流向房地产——这两个领域都不容易吸引买家。(例如,许多制造业企业置身于效率低下的重工业,如钢铁。)

中国资产负债表上的另一大资产是44.3万亿元人民币的土地(现在可能更高一些)。乍看之下,这项资产是可以出售的。单是2013年,土地出让带来的财政收入就增长了52.4%,至4万亿元人民币。但通过“卖地”来偿还系统性债务是有问题的,原因有二:第一,地方政府手中的土地越来越少;第二,如果中国面临财政危机,房地产价格很有可能像被扎破的自行车胎那样“瘪气”,进而压低土地价格。

中国不断放缓的经济有很多可能发生的情形,并不是所有都指向“明斯基时刻”。而且,还存在其他的资本来源,例如银行储蓄存款可用于支撑金融体系。但我们认为,盲目信任中国的资产负债表,就像马戏团杂技演员在演出前不检查防护网一样,一旦出事则为时已晚。

本文作者是Orient Capital Research董事总经理

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