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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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump