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[Christopher Balding] China bets on more state control for 2018

By Bloomberg

Published : Dec. 27, 2017 - 17:51

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As 2017 wraps up and 2018 beckons, it‘s worth reviewing what we forecast for China in the year now ending, and to cast ahead for what themes might play out over the next 12 months. After this week’s meeting of Communist Party leaders at the Central Economic Work Conference, we can expect their targets and objectives for 2018. And these meetings have great import: It was the 2015 meeting that started the ongoing “supply-side reform” campaign.

Last year we focused on a couple of points. First, watch the data, not the New Year’s resolutions. The debt-to-gross domestic product ratio in China is only up slightly from 2016 to 260 percent, though it is expected to top out at 327 percent in 2022. The moderation was due not to slowing debt growth, but a jump in commodity prices. Watch debt growth in 2018: Prices are expected to fall again, raising debt-to-GDP. China still has not given up its debt habit.

Second, the Federal Reserve rate hikes last year were likely to play a big role in Chinese policy. Interest rates in China are up sharply, with even interbank rates over one month up 1.5 percent since January 2017. Rate increases are putting pressure on Chinese corporate bonds given the overwhelmingly short-term nature of borrowing. If the Fed hikes four times as predicted by Goldman Sachs, this could cause the currency to reverse course. A strong dollar and rising US rates will pressure China.

Third, heading into the National Congress, I said watch out for Chinese politics. Though Premier Li Keqiang remains in office, Beijing clearly swept away any vestiges of market adherence. The installation of Party committees over the board of directors in foreign firms and major state-owned enterprises laid bare Beijing’s ambition.

As we look into 2018, some of these themes carry forward, but with a twist. Beijing is solidifying its control over all aspects of the economy. The party released new rules on overseas investments by firms and has enforced rules mandating that banks balance their foreign exchange transactions.

Politics matter for the Chinese economy this year, but more in international terms. The closed Chinese market, which for instance refused to allow foreign self-driving cars on grounds of national security, has come under harsh criticism. The European Union and the United States are teaming up against China at the World Trade Organization, attacking its closed market and state subsidies. With domestic politics resolved, the biggest potential source of financial or economic risk to China will be external.

Finally, we need to watch the dual deleveraging and supply-side reform campaigns. Corporate debt has moderated, but household and other forms of debt have picked up. Unless China curbs these other categories, it will soon find every sector of the economy is excessively indebted. While Beijing has indicated it wants to slow total debt growth, its ability to maintain growth while restraining debt has not been tested in more than a decade.

Even the supply-side reform campaign has had mixed results. Although some capacity has been removed from steel, coal and other heavy industry, fixed asset investment levels remain relatively high, thereby adding new capacity. Though prices for raw input commodity prices jumped, debt-to-equity ratios only slightly improved and profit margins remain tiny. Any drop or even flattening of these commodity prices will have a big impact on Beijing’s plans to transform the economy.

The pressures facing Beijing in 2018 carry some similarities from previous year -- except nothing has fundamentally improved. Debt growth has moderated but is expected to worsen with foreign exchange and political concerns on the horizon. That will make for a challenging year ahead.


By Christopher Balding

Christopher Balding is an associate professor of business and economics at the HSBC Business School in Shenzhen. -- Ed.


(Bloomberg)