China Faces "Minsky Moment" on Ponzi Financing

Inquiring minds are tuning into a report on the Ponzi finance setup in China. Most assume China can grow at 7% a year, a notion that I have challenged on many occasions. Morgan Stanley agrees.

Please consider Morgan Stanley: China's Minsky Moment is Here.

[Mish Note:] The prelude to the report on MacroBusiness Australia is interesting in and of itself:

"From Morgan Stanley comes the latest must read bearish China report. The outlines here are right but MS underestimates the impact of a Chinese hard landing upon the world. I’m currently working on a members’ special report about how and when this business cycle ends but MS nicely describes how that ending begins."

What follows is from Morgan Stanley.

We have described in detail over the past two years how we believe China’s twin excesses (excessive investment funded by excessive debt) will inevitably unwind, causing a substantial slowdown in China’s economy, significantly below market expectations. In recent weeks, a trip to the region and further research into China’s shadow banking system have convinced us that China is approaching its “Minsky Moment,” which increases the chances of a disorderly unwind of China’s excesses.

Based on our analysis, our baseline case is that China may slow from the current level of 7.7% Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth to 5.0% over the next two years. A disorderly unwind could take Chinese growth down to 4% in a shorter time frame with potentially disastrous consequences for levered Chinese assets (banks, property) and the entire commodity supply chain (commodity stocks, equipment stocks, commodity-sensitive countries and their currencies).

One of the more controversial conclusions of our analysis is that global economic growth could be impacted severely enough to cause a global earnings recession.

In his 1993 paper entitled “The Financial Instability Hypothesis,” Minsky identified three financing regimes that economies can operate under: the first, which he called hedge finance, is a regime in which borrowers have sufficient cash flows to meet “their contractual obligations,” i.e. interest payments and principal repayment, usually by having a large equity component in their capital structure; the second, speculative finance, is a regime under which borrowers have cash flows that are sufficient to pay interest but not to repay principal, i.e. they must roll over their debts; the third, Ponzi finance, is a regime in which borrowers have insufficient cash flows to pay either principal or interest and therefore must either borrow or sell assets to make interest payments.

Our analysis indicates that China’s economy has arrived at that unstable state where speculative and Ponzi finance appear to dominate. From a macroeconomic perspective, very few economies have ever created as much debt as China has in the past five years. China’s private sector debt has increased from 115% of GDP in 2007 to 193% at the end of 2013. That 80% increase over five years compares to the U.S.’s 26% in 2000-2005. In recent years, only Spain and Ireland have achieved debt growth greater than China’s.Every year, China is now adding $2.5 trillion of private sector debt to a $9.7 trillion GDP.

There is evidence that this debt growth has become excessive and non-productive. It now takes 4 renminbi (RMB) of debt to create 1 renminbi of GDP growth from a nearly 1:1 ratio in the early and mid-2000s. After the massive stimulus and more than doubling of new bank loans in 2009, the government attempted to stabilize credit growth, but the growth of the shadow banking system exploded instead. Shadow banking now accounts for more than a fifth of total credit in China—or about 40% of GDP from a base of 12% just five years ago. The shadow banking system funnels credit to borrowers who can no longer get loans from the formal banking sector, such as Local Government Funding Vehicles, the property sector, and companies in sectors with massive overcapacity and low or negative profitability such as coal mining, steel, cement, shipbuilding, and solar.

Work by Nomura’s Chief China Economist indicates that more than half of Local Government Funding Vehicles, which borrow money on behalf of local governments to invest in infrastructure, have insufficient cash flows to pay interest or principal; the exact manifestation of Minsky’s Ponzi finance regime. Total local government debt adds up to RMB17.9 trillion (nearly $3 trillion) according to the latest, likely understated, national audit. In addition, estimates show that up to one third of all new borrowings are currently being used to roll over existing debt, and that interest payments on debt represent nearly 17% of Chinese GDP—a staggeringly large number (which excludes principal repayments) and which is nearly double the level that the U.S. reached in 2007.

The unwind of this credit boom is likely in progress, and we expect it to pick up speed over the coming months and quarters. It will likely involve a steady drip of defaults and near-defaults as insolvent borrowers finally become illiquid. Market rates for all assets except central government bonds and central bank bills will likely continue to rise, reflecting increasing market fears of default by shaky borrowers. Asset values will likely begin to deteriorate as stressed borrowers attempt to sell assets to stay afloat.

We recognize that it is extremely likely that the Chinese government will attempt to stave off the unwind or at least keep it orderly in an effort to achieve the ever-elusive soft landing. One way that the government could attempt this would be by stepping in to bail out borrowers on the verge of default. A version of this occurred in January, when the well-publicized default of a RMB3 billion China Credit Trust product was averted when an unknown entity stepped in to pay the principal due to investors, though not the remaining interest due (worth approximately 7% of principal). The unknown entity is likely to have been either the local government of Shanxi, home of the coal mining company that defaulted on the underlying trust loan, or the Ping An insurance company, parent of China Credit Trust.

The benefit of the government or other entities stepping in to bail out borrowers is that it helps prevent investors from losing money, maintaining their faith in the financial system and ensuring they continue to buy trust products offering rates five times above deposit rates. The drawback is that credit continues to be extended to weak or insolvent borrowers, potentially leading to an even higher level of bad debts in the future. The problem is not eliminated, it is simply postponed.

Interestingly, growth is likely to be negatively impacted whether or not the government steps in frequently to prevent borrowers from defaulting. First, scarce capital is being provided to prevent default by insolvent borrowers (“zombies”) rather than being channeled toward productive investments. Second, in order to limit the cumulative size of the bailouts, the government is likely to continue to restrict the growth of shadow banking and lending to these uncreditworthy borrowers. Lastly, market rates are likely to continue to rise, reflecting increasing market unease with the growing number of near-defaults.

There is more text and charts in the report. It's worth a closer look.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock

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