The Chinese banking accident waiting to happen

An IMF report suggests Beijing is storing up huge problems in its disordely and opaque financial sys

A number of newspapers yesterday reported a warning by the International Monetary Fund about the health of China's banking sector. I'm surprised it hasn't been more widely discussed in the context of the generally dismal outlook for the global economy.

The IMF's analysis has some quite frightening implications. The general message is that the Chinese financial sector is full of hidden liabilities and is vulnerable to shocks from the bursting of a property bubble. It is written, as IMF reports always are, in arid technical prose, but the picture that emerges is one of a system that has become bloated and irresponsible thanks to a lack of regulatory and commercial rigour. Anyone know any other financial systems that meet that description?

The system is becoming more complex and inter-linkages between markets, institutions, and across international borders are growing. In addition, informal credit markets, conglomerate structures, and off-balance sheet activities are on the rise.

The scale of the risk was hard to assess because of a shortage of good data, which hardly encourages a generous interpretation of the situation.

Perhaps most alarming is the suggestion that Chinese banks have made heaps of loans based on political rather than commercial imperatives.

Banks' large exposures to state-owned enterprises, guaranteed margins provided by interest rate regulations, still limited ability and willingness to differentiate loan rates, coupled with the implicit guidance on the pace and direction of new lending, undermine development of effective credit risk management in the banks. It is important that banks have the tools and incentives to make lending decisions based upon purely commercial goals.

Given China's well-documented problems with corruption, that would imply that Chinese bankers have been doling out cash to their patrons and friends in state-owned companies. That situation can run along unchecked for a while, but at some point in its transition to a functional market economy Beijing will have to enforce some discipline in terms of which enterprises are bona fide and which are unprofitable make-work schemes - or worse, empty shells funneling cash to corrupt officials - supported by loose credit. It sounds as if any serious rigour along those lines would risk bank failures and even a systemic financial crisis. That can't be good.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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