Concerns over China's $39.4 trillion debt

Concerns over China's $39.4 trillion debt
Buying spree: Wang’s Dalian Wanda bought Hollywood production and finance company Legendary Entertainment for US3.5bil in 2016.

With US$29 trillion (S$39.4 trillion) in debt, China's potential slowdown in economic growth may be a cause for concern but some do not expect its high growth to last forever, anyway.

"It would be unrealistic to expect China to grow at 7 per cent-8 per cent forever. For an economy that is already the world's largest in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), and amid a spell of prolonged slow growth globally, a growth rate of 5 per cent is still very rapid," said Pong Teng Siew, head of research, Inter-Pacific Securities.

(The PPP is a popular metric to compare economic productivity and standards of living).

If China can't reduce its reliance on debt, said Bloomberg, quoting an International Monetary Fund working paper, growth can slow from 6.9 per cent achieved in the first half of the year, to 5 per cent by 2021.

Growth could fall below 3 per cent if it goes through a financial crisis. The impact would ripple across the global economy, which last year, got about a third of its expansion from China, said Bloomberg, quoting Nomura Holdings Inc.

"For such a large economy that is second after the United States, its growth is expected to moderate to even below 5 per cent in the long run. It is harder to achieve the same quantum of growth with a larger base.

"With or without the problem of debt, it will come to a reasonable growth rate," said Danny Wong, CEO, Areca Capital.

"The shift from export-oriented growth to one that is more consumption driven, will mitigate the effects of the slowdown in growth.

"Many exporters here are seeing increasing export opportunities to China," said Pong.

"Compared with the United States, Japan and the European Union, China is able to sustain growth with debt through internal consumption, based on the size of its population," said Wong.

Overall government, household and corporate debt in China exceeds US$28.8 trillion, or 258 per cent of gross domestic product.

About US$17 trillion, according to Bloomberg, is concentrated on corporate balance sheets, particularly those of state-owned enterprises, construction companies and property developers.

Gradual deleveraging

With such high levels of debt, Beijing is considered to require a "great deleveraging" process.

"The Chinese authorities are likely to proceed with care to prevent a sharp economic adjustment," said Lee Heng Guie, executive director, Socio Economic Research Centre.

China's banking regulator in June ordered lenders to scrutinise their exposure to four private conglomerates with US$75bil-plus in deals at home and abroad since the start of 2016: Dalian Wanda Group, Anbang Insurance Group, Fosun International Ltd and aviation and shipping giant HNA Group Co.

Several major Chinese banks that helped fund HNA's global acquisitions have stopped issuing new loans to them, said Bloomberg News.

Authorities have asked Anbang to sell its overseas assets and repatriate the funds, people familiar with the matter tell Bloomberg News. The company says that it "at present has no plans to sell" its foreign holdings.

Dalian Wanda, whose founder, Wang Jianlin, is China's second-richest man, bought Hollywood production and finance company Legendary Entertainment for US$3.5bil in 2016, said Bloomberg.

Anbang bought the Waldorf Astoria while Fosun purchased Club Mediterranee SA and Cirque du Soleil.

"The move towards a more restrictive stance on outward investment by Chinese companies, especially for non-strategic investments, will likely weigh on investments into the region.

"However, the Chinese government is unlikely to put on hold the One Belt, One Road initiative as the projects are infrastructure-related and long term in nature," said Lee.

The combined impact of China's deleveraging process and slowing economic growth are likely to have a negative spillover effect on regional economies via trade and financial channels, added Lee.

Ringgit impact?

Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund has given 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) five days to make a US$600mil payment, said Reuters.

The 1MDB fund had said it was committed to meeting its obligations to Abu Dhabi's International Petroleum Investment Company, originally due on July 31, this month, without specifying a date.

The non-payment was due to "technical reasons".

"I do not think 1MDB will default, so there is very little chance of a serious impact on the ringgit," said Hor Kwok Wai, chief operating officer, global markets, Hong Leong Bank.

"Any default by sovereign entities will have a direct impact on credit ratings of ringgit bonds. If this results in a selldown of ringgit bonds by foreign investors, the concern is real," said Thomas Yong, CEO, Fortress Capital.

"The ringgit is stable against the US dollar; there has been no reaction in the credit default swap (CDS) premium for Malaysian sovereign," said Pong.

(A CDS is a type of swap that transfers credit exposure of fixed income products between two or more parties).

But is the ringgit likely to remain weak?

"Intervention clearly has its pitfalls. Shutting out flows when the ringgit was at its weakest, locks it in at weak levels against regional currencies, without any prospects of regaining some strength even as the US dollar enters a weak phase," said Pong.

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