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.
The two global banks with the largest derivatives exposures are J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank. The derivatives exposure of J.P. Morgan is around $70,000 billion and of Deutsche Bank €55,000 billion. These figures are, respectively, about one-and-a-half times the total value of all the assets in the USA, and twenty times German national income. But the numbers in the balance sheets of these banks are much lower. Deutsche Bank declares its investment in derivatives at €768 billion: not a small amount, but only a modest fraction of the bank’s exposure. Deutsche Bank’s financial position is set out in Fig. 9.
Senator Elizabeth Warren at Banking Hearing on Consumer Finance Regulations
Molly Scott Cato MEP:
In an economy where money is created in the private sector based on debt, a banking licence represents an extraordinary power granted to a small number of corporations by the state. Strict regulation of their activities, particularly when their risks are guaranteed by the public, is therefore essential.