Analysis: China slides faster into pensions black hole

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.

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