A motley crew of martial arts masters gathered in Xinjjiang last weekend for a martial arts conference involving training sessions, discussions and lots of photos being taken using smartphones which some Chinese internet users derided as "cosplay for the elderly". Novelty photos aside the amount of conflicting messages now flooding out of China's economy and political management all points to authorities which are losing the initiative and are out of ideas. Reform needs to occur, but can the recently installed team deliver?
|The recession avengers? (c) ChinaNews.com|
It is telling that global markets have moved recently in a big and coordinated way on announcements of improving Chinese data - does anybody question the provenance of the official data? A few like Caixin do, but for the moment the theme is one China bringing support and stability to markets - quite absurd given the recent credit shutdown only back in June, when markets briefly went into a complete tailspin. Expect more volatility, not less.
Perhaps more noteworthy than statistics were policy announcements. A lot of them and conflicting as usual, but it seems that in pursuit of the great rebalancing, Xi and Li are ready to offer up the most sacrificial cows - could the authorities really be planning to ditch the one child policy, start radical agricultural land reforms, allow a privatisation of a major bank and ditching the hukou household registration system? These and other areas involve policies that have been established for decades and there are too many with vested interests and different objectives throughout the system to allow the process to be easy. It must follow that there are two likely possibilities here: (i) such announcements are pure puffery and the administration does not intend to follow through with any such reforms (this would explain bad habits like shadow financing and subsidising inefficient industries like solar are seemingly dying hard in the current administration) or (ii) the circumstances have got so desperate that officials are willing to consider anything (likely given the constraints).
One voice that is reasonably clear on this issue is Ambrose Evans-Pritchard in the Telegraph who recently commented that Chinese authorities had capitulated and given in to demands for more stimulus and to hold on reforms:
Mr Li’s implicit argument is that kicking the can down the road buys time to push through the market reforms needed as China abandons its obsolete, top-down, investment-driven, 1980s catch-up model, and switches instead to a grown-up economy.
No doubt Mr Li genuinely hopes to push though these reforms, but he is up against an army of vested interests, and half the Standing Committee.
As the IMF’s Article IV report makes clear, very few reforms have actually happened. Investment is still 48pc of GDP. The savings rate is still rising. China still has the most deformed economy of any major country in modern history.
Reform under the microscope
Emerging litigation provides an excellent insight into the extent to which prior reforms have stuck and signs are not good.
The ongoing liquidation of former world leading solar cell maker Suntech in Wuxi is suggesting the recently introduced 2007 Enterprise Bankruptcy Law is not assisting an equitable distribution of assets or an efficient winding up of the bankrupt Suntech enterprise while the Wuxi government is seeming to have commandeered the process to the detriment of other creditors, including and especially foreign creditors.
As has been noted for some time, foreign investors who use offshore structures to invest into Chinese entities (typically through holding companies in the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands) often end up holding not shares but low priority claims to revenues of the onshore Chinese company, often without adequate security. The result is several significant investors could end up with nothing:
Under Chinese law, foreign bondholders would be reimbursed only after domestic creditors, which means bondholders may end up with very little. Last week Suntech defaulted on a $541m bond issued in the Cayman Islands, which sparked a cross-default with other loans, including one from the International Finance Corporation, an arm of the World Bank.
“There are very, very few cases of defaults among offshore Chinese bonds and the recoveries have all been negotiated often with very unique circumstances, so there is no template to use to estimate the outcome in a case like Suntech,” says Kalai Pillay, Fitch Ratings’ head of industrials for Asia.
“But, no matter what, as an offshore creditor you are always structurally subordinated to onshore creditors. Any offshore bondholder has to assume that onshore creditors will get a full dollar before they get one cent.”
And in another dispute centred on the tropical island of Hainan, a British investor has been barred from leaving the island and fears for his safety while unsuccessfully pursuing claims corrupt officials with fellow local directors from his property development venture conspired to illegally transfer and strip from the project entity the key valuable asset. It sounds more like post Soviet Russia than the great Chinese Dream Xi Jinping has been promoting of late (though the author is not quite sure exactly what that is!), leading to the question as to how many foreigners will be wiped out by an asset price collapse and general slowdown in China and how much money will they lose?