Analysis: China slides faster into pensions black hole

PHOTO: Analysis: China slides faster into pensions black hole

Eighty-year-old Chinese farmer Guo Shuhe receives a state pension equivalent to just US$9 (S$11.3) a month, not enough to buy a month worth of groceries, but enough it seems, to risk punching a gaping hole in government finances.

Guo, whose palms are thick and rough from a life spent hoeing fields in southwest China, is one of over 150 million people covered by a rapidly expanding rural retirement scheme which is accelerating the nation's slide into a pension crisis.

"Fifty-five yuan a month is little, but it's better than nothing," said Guo, rubbing his head with his hands at his home in Ledu County, a village 3,000 meters above sea level in China's mountainous Qinghai province, bordering Tibet.

Guo, though, is fortunate because he also has the financial support of six children.

But for younger and future generations of retirees, China's traditional family safety net is disappearing, replaced by state-backed pension schemes tailored for a graying society.

Policy makers and economists have long been worried about the financial burden of China's expanding patchwork of pension schemes, but those concerns have recently escalated as its rural pension scheme took off in the past three years.

The funding shortage is daunting: economists say it could blow out to a whopping US$10.8 trillion in the next 20 years from US$2.6 trillion in 2010, towering over China's $3 trillion onshore savings, the biggest hoard of domestic savings in the world.

Time is not on China's side. Its fast-maturing society and economy -- thanks to a one-child policy and a rapid rise in living standards -- demand better pension coverage in future.

Yet China is already straining to hold things up.

Funding capacity is not keeping pace with swift growth in pension coverage as China sticks to safe but low-yielding investments for its pension funds.

To make bad matters worse, retirements are getting pricier on an ageing population, a shrinking work force, longer life expectancies, early retirements and generous pension payouts.

So pressing are China's pension problems that analysts say they can no longer be ignored. Xi Jinping, China's president-in-waiting, must raise retirement ages and supply pension funds with state assets for financing after he takes power next year.

"This is a very important issue for the next leadership, which does not have a lot of time to get to it," said Zhao Xijun, an economics professor at Renmin University in Beijing.

To give or not to give, China's pension dilemma is not a sideshow.

Good pension coverage will help Beijing remake the world's No. 2 economy to boost domestic consumption, cut export reliance, and dodge a middle-income trap that could ensnare the country anytime in the next two decades.

Giving millions of Chinese workers peace of mind about their retirement will encourage thrifty wage-earners to spend more in coming years, standing in for American and European shoppers tightening their belts, economists say.

Crucially, a working pension system will comfort stability-obsessed Beijing, painfully aware that the fruits of China's stellar economic growth must be more evenly shared to head off social discontent.

"Of course it is not enough to live on the current pension. We want the government to raise our pension in future," said Guo.

Greying fast

The number of Chinese over 65 years of age, at 123 million, virtually matches Japan's total population, and is rising fast due to the one-child policy Beijing adopted in the 1970s.

According to the World Bank, China is ageing so rapidly it grayed in the last 40 years, whereas ageing societies in the United States and the United Kingdom took a century to form.

The problem of growing old, fast, is most acute in the countryside, where thousands of villages are "hollowed out" as working adults abandon farms to migrate to cities in search of better lives, leaving the young and old behind.

The old-age dependency ratio, or the number of elderly people as a share of those of working age, will hit 34.4 per cent in rural China by 2030, compared to 21.1 per cent in urban areas, and up from 13.5 per cent in 2008, the World Bank said.

The cost of an expanding elderly class is hefty.

Many analysts believe China's labour force will shrink from 2015, hurt by stubbornly low birth rates and an ageing populace, a trend expected to drive up wages in the world's factory floor in years ahead, and henceforth global inflation.

To beat the demographic challenge, Beijing hastened the roll-out in 2009 of a voluntary pension scheme for 657 million rural residents, the equivalent of two United States.

To get a minimum 55 yuan a month in retirement, or a tenth of last year's average monthly wage in the countryside, rural workers must pay at least 100 yuan a year for 15 years.

In China's richer eastern provinces, payouts are much higher because workers pay more, and local governments and private firms have the means to match payments. In cities, for example, the monthly pension is 28 times higher at an average 1,531 yuan.

But whatever the payout, most of the financial burden falls squarely on the government. State subsidies accounted for 61 per cent of total rural pension revenues in 2011, with personal contributions making up the rest.

"The ageing population in the countryside is rising faster than urban areas, which could pressure the premature rural pension system," said Cai Fang, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a respected government think-tank.

Emptied Accounts

At face value, China's pension system should not drain state coffers since payouts start low.

Yet, an OECD study of global pension systems ranked China's as among the most generous and least sustainable, after the Philippines.

China's pension benefit as a share of retirees' average lifetime wages, also known as replacement rate, stands at 78 per cent for male workers, above an OECD average of 57 per cent, France's 49 per cent, and the United States' 39 per cent.

The replacement rate climbs to 98 per cent for low-income earners, much higher than the United States' 52 per cent in that category.

Early retirement, especially for women, further bulks up the pension bill at a time when people are also living longer.

Blue-collared female workers retire from 50 years old in China, a decade earlier than a minimum 60 in the west.

And there is the problem of finding the cash to pay for retirees.

Beijing only allows rural pension funds to invest in one-year deposits, whose paltry returns lag wage growth.

In China's fragmented urban pension funds that manage over 1.1 trillion yuan in 2010, real returns were as dismal as under 1 per cent for some.

Trapped by rising costs and deficient funding, China spends about 40 per cent of state earnings on pension, compared to under 15 per cent in Japan and the United States, the OECD said.

Stretched, China's local governments are widely believed to be emptying 2.2 trillion yuan worth of pension accounts of young working adults today to pay for current retirees, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said.

But such financial wizardry does not get rid of the crater in China's pension budget, said economists Ma Jun and Cao Yuanzheng from Deustche Bank and Bank of China respectively.

Funding shortfalls hit 16.5 trillion yuan in 2010, the two economists said, and will quadruple to a stunning 68.2 trillion yuan by 2033. That is about 40 per cent of China's gross domestic product, assuming its economy grows 6 per cent a year.

Unless China diverts 80 per cent of dividends from listed state firms to pension funds to balance the pension account by 2050, they said, the nation may suffer "enormous fiscal stress".

For migrant worker Li Mei, however, the problem is less abstract. Corruption that has pilfered the nest egg of some retirees is her biggest worry.

"I didn't join the rural pension system and will not in future. It's safest to put my money in my own pocket," 40-year-old Li said. "I prefer to trust myself over others." ($1 = 6.3376 Chinese yuan)