It was almost exactly two years ago, when during China's long-forgotten attempt to actively deleverage its economy (remember that? good times...) we commented on the country's s first attempt to estimate what its local government debt is since June 2011.
This is what we said in July 2013:
"China is preparing to admit that the level of problem Local Government Financing Vehicle debt is double what was first reported just two years ago, something many suspected but few dared to voice in the open. But not only that: since the likely level of Non-Performing Loans (i.e., bad debt) within the LGFV universe has long been suspected to be in 30% range, a doubling of the official figure will also mean a doubling of the bad debt notional up to a stunning and nosebleed-inducing $1 trillion, or roughly 15% of China's goal-seeked GDP! We wish the local banks the best of luck as they scramble to find the hundreds of billions in capital to fill what is about to emerge as the biggest non-Lehman solvency hole in financial history (without the benefit of a Federal Reserve bailout that is)."
Not at all surprisingly, after conducting the goalseeked "exercise" of estimating its local government debt, the final number was well below the worst case or even average scenario, while the level of NPLs was at a very leisurely pace around 1% of total.
We promptly accused China of doing what it does best: fabricate the data, but since the housing bubble was still raging (it has since burst), and the stock market bubble (which also popped a month ago) was yet to be unveiled, few cared. Furthermore, in early 2015 China unveiled an LTRO-type plan in which in would swap out maturing local government debt with long maturities, thus hoping to firmly shove the problem with unsustainable local government debt under the rug for the (un)forseeable future.
Then overnight something unexpected happened: Sheng Songcheng, the director of the statistics division of the People's Bank of China (PBOC), was quoted by the National Business Daily on Saturday whereby he essentially admitted China had been lying about not only its local debt exposure but the level of NPLs across the economy.
Quoted by Reuters, Sheng said that "downward pressure on China's economy will persist in the second half of the year as growth in infrastructure spending and exports is unlikely to pick up."
He said that Chinese companies are not optimistic about business prospects according to the central bank's second-quarter survey, and that :pressured by uneven domestic and export demand, cooling investment and factory overcapacity, China's economic growth is expected to slow to around 7 percent this year, the lowest in a quarter of a century, from 7.4 percent in 2014." The Chinese GDP reality, of course, as noted here before is somehere in the 1-3% range, and based on such more credible metrics as industrial production and electricity usage, it may even be negative.
The punchline: Sheng warned about the risks of local government debt, saying that 2 trillion yuan ($322.08 billion) in bond swaps may not be able to fully cover maturing debt, according to the report.
What he really said, as paraphrased by Bloomberg, is that "local governments tended to not report all their debts when audited in June 2013, thus the 2 trillion yuan debt swap plan arranged this year may not cover all debts due, Sheng cited as saying."
In other words, because the local governments lied (and Beijing had no idea, none at all this was happening) China will have no choice but to engage in an even more active bailouts.
That's not all: as a result of China's various bubbles bursting, the biggest problem with the nearly $30 trillion financial system in the world's most populous country is sttarting to be revealed: its non-performing loans, i.e, the level of bad debt. According to Sheng outstanding bad loans and NPL ratio at banks rose in 1H; banks’ profit growth slowed, Sheng cited as saying. NPL ratio reached 1.87% as of end-June, report cites Sheng as saying, without specifying which banks he refers to.
And if China is admitting a NPLs ratio of 1.87%, then the real print is probably 4-5x greater. Which means that on a system with $26 trillion in deposits, approximately $3 trillion in loans is non-performing. Or about half the market cap of Chinese stocks, and a third of Chinese GDP.
Is the problem starting to become clear? It is to some, particularly China's wealthiest.
WSJ reports that having glimpsed what is coming over the horizon, China's wealthiest are quietly starting to dumb their holdings to the greatest fools: "A property developer backed by Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing has put an office and retail property project in Shanghai up for sale, according to two people familiar with the matter. A sale would mark the latest China property divestment by the investor, one of Asia’s richest, who is closely watched for signs of how he sees markets shifting."
This is not the first time Ka-Shing has cashed out in recent months:
In June, Mr. Li’s Cheung Kong Property Holdings Ltd. put up for sale Century Link and Century Link Tower, a shopping mall and twin office towers currently under construction in the Pudong Lujiazui area, said people briefed on details of the offer. A Cheung Kong spokeswoman didn’t respond to requests on Sunday for comment.
Or just before the market crashed. And then more previously:
Over the past two years, companies backed by Mr. Li and his family have sold five office and shopping mall projects in Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing and Guangzhou. Many investors eye moves by his companies for hints on the tycoon’s view of the property market.
His companies, including Hutchison Whampoa and ARA Asset Management Ltd., have been offloading their real-estate assets as China’s economy decelerates to its slowest growth in more than two decades.
It remains to be seen who will buy what Ka-Shing is selling: if indeed the public mood is determined by his marginal trading activity, only the government will be bold enough to acquire his assets now that he has entered a liquidation phase, especially since the asking price of just one commercial project is about $2.6 billion.
The asking price is around 60,000 yuan per square meter, the people said. According to Cheung Kong Property’s website, the shopping mall and office project occupies a total of about 269,000 square meters, which would bring the total asking price to more than 16 billion yuan ($2.6 billion).
To sum up: misrepresentations about local government debt, lies about bad debt levels, and now, the wealthiest locals are quietly, slowly getting out of Dodge, er, China. We can only hope that China's desperate attempt to hold up its stock market, the final frontier before all confidence in China crumbles alongside, lasts a few months longer, or the great Chinese hard landing that has been discussed for years, and always delayed in the last moment, is now virttually inevitable.