We typically think of the economy as consisting of four sectors: the external sector, households, businesses, and the government. In China however it is more practical to subdivide these further into the following:
- Creditors. Creditors are forced to absorb the losses associated with writing down the debt when the borrower defaults on its debt and restructures it with a principle or interest reduction. Much of China’s debt burden has been extended through the banking sector, however, and because the debt that must be written down exceeds the banking industry’s capital base, ultimately the cost will be passed on to some other economic sector – for example Chinese households ultimately absorbed the cost of the banking sector losses generated in the late 1990s.
- The external sector. To pass on costs to foreigners requires that they have significantly larger exposure to China than they actually do, and would also probably require defaulting on external debt, a path Beijing is unlikely to choose to follow.
- Ordinary households. Most banking crises, like the recent US and European crises and the Chinese banking crisis at the end of the 1990s, are resolved by hidden transfer mechanisms that pass the cost of writing down debt to households. China today however must increase household wealth, not reduce it, if consumption is to rise fast enough to allow investment to decelerate, which means ordinary households cannot be allowed to absorb the cost.
- Wealthy households. Given high levels of income inequality, and the low propensity to consume of the wealthy, forcing them to absorb the costs of writing down debt – in the form of highly progressive income taxes, for example – is likely to be among the less costly ways economically for Beijing to pass on the costs of paying down debt. As their income or wealth is reduced, the wealthy are likely to convert most of that reduction into lower savings and very little of it into lower consumption, thus minimizing its adverse impact on domestic demand.
- Small and medium enterprises. Chinese SMEs are among the most efficient economic entities in China and are likely to be the main source of innovation and value creation in the future. Their long-term success is vital to China’s long-term growth. Like ordinary households they should be protected from absorbing the costs of Beijing’s debt-management policies.
- Local and provincial governments. These have amassed a considerable amount of assets whose liquidation would most efficiently absorb debt write-down costs and would entail the lowest medium and long-term economic costs, although not perhaps the lowest political costs. As their assets are liquidated, total Chinese savings will decline and Chinese consumption will remain largely unchanged, thus minimizing the adverse impact on domestic demand.
- The central government. Beijing too could pay for the cost of writing down debt by liquidating central government assets, although this may conflict with other economic policy objectives, including overcoming vested-interest opposition to the reforms.
These are the major sectors of the Chinese economy within which the cost of debt-management policies can be absorbed, and although there is likely to be a great deal of reluctance on their parts, the most efficient way economically is for the costs to be underwritten by the liquidation of local and provincial government assets and, perhaps to a lesser extent, by taxes on very wealthy households. It is important to recognize that if debt-servicing costs are not covered by the higher productivity generated by the relevant investment, the process by which the debt will be implicitly or explicitly written down and allocated will necessarily happen anyway, and according to only a limited number of ways. The only question is the extent to which it is directed by Beijing:
- Chinese borrowers can default or otherwise restructure debt such that the cost of the write-down is allocated to creditors in the form of a haircut on the debt. Because the creditors for the most part are the banks, which are insufficiently capitalized to bear the full brunt of the losses, these losses will still have to be allocated to some sector of the economy.
- If the regulators avoid defaults, there are three further potential outcomes. First, the authorities can implement efficiency-enhancing reforms that cause economic productivity to surge to the point at which excess debt-servicing costs can be covered by the additional productivity.
- Second, the authorities can implement reforms that specifically assign excess debt-servicing costs to targeted economic sectors in order to minimize the economic or political costs. For example it can force local governments to liquidate assets, or it can use taxes to appropriate the wealth of the economic elite, the proceeds of which are then used to absorb excess debt-servicing costs.
- Finally, if the authorities do not move quickly enough, excess debt-servicing costs, along with financial distress costs, will be allocated to those least able to protect their interests once debt-capacity limits are reached. There are many ways these costs can be allocated in an unplanned way. One way, and among the most likely, is if the debt is effectively monetized by continuous rolling-over of principle and accommodative monetary policy. While part of the cost may be paid out of an increase in productivity, this is likely to be a small part and can only happen to the extent that unemployment is already very high and the costs of increased production are low. Otherwise eventually either financial repression or unexpected inflation (with the former more likely than the latter because of the structure of debt in China) will force most of the costs onto household savers and others who are long nominal monetary assets, while unemployment and real wage suppression will force additional financial distress costs onto workers.
Put simply, to the extent that Beijing refuses to follow the first path, and cannot follow the second, it must choose the third path or eventually the fourth will be imposed.
Does it matter if China cleans up its banks?