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China finds $84bn local government debt irregularities

National Audit Office said breaches included “irregular credit guarantees”, “irregular collateral” and “fraudulent and underpayment of registered capital”.

There are growing concerns about the amount of bad loans being held by local governments.Official figures show they held debt of 10.7tn yuan ($1.7tn; £1.1tn) in 2010.

“The State Council is studying proposals to enhance local government debt management and to address fiscal and financial risks,” the audit office said in the report.
‘Again and again’
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A lot of the local debt will be absorbed by the central government”
Michael Pettis Peking University

Local governments have been borrowing money from Chinese banks to fund projects aimed at maintaining economic growth.

According to the China Banking Regulatory Commission, local governments took up 80% of total bank lending in China at the end of 2010.

However, analysts said that although the lending had helped to spur investment and boost growth, it was now weighing on local governments.

“Whenever you look at lending that spurs growth miracles, it starts off with an increasing ability to pay the debt,” Professor Michael Pettis of Peking University told the BBC.

“But in every case that ability fades. That is the process that is happening in China,” he explained. “We are going to see stories like this again and again.”
Easing burden?

In October last year, China allowed four local governments to sell bonds for the first time in 17 year. It was hoped the sale would help them pay their loans.

However, the central government put a limit on the amount of bonds the local governments could issue despite the fact that there was a lot of interest among investors.

According to the Xinhua news agency, Shanghai’s bond sale received bids for three times the amount of bonds on offer.

As a result, many of the local governments still have sizeable debts and while the central government may let them raise money, it may also have to take further measures to solve the problem, analysts said.

“A lot of the local debt will be absorbed by the central government,” said Mr Pettis of Peking University.

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Macroprudential policy Risky business

 THE new big hope of central banks is called macroprudential policy. During the boom, central banks used the fairly blunt instrument of interest rates as their main weapon. But since inflationary pressures were low, thanks to the deflationary shock stemming from China and eastern Europe, rates were kept low. This led to a splurge of asset-backed lending. Meanwhile, banks found easy ways to exploit the rules of the Basle accords – designed to ensure the system was well-capitalised. As a result, when mortgage-backed securities started to plunge in value in 2007, the banks were much less robust than was previously thought.

The Bank of England has set up a financial policy committee, which is just starting the arduous task of sorting out which principles it should follow and which policy buttons it can push. In a paper out today, it sets out its options. It starts by discussing the potential flaws in financial markets such as

incentive distortions which can, for example, arise from contracts that reward short-term performance excessively

informational distortions such as those linked to buyers doubting the quality of assets (adverse selection) or less than fully rational processing of information

co-ordination problems, where collective action, for example to step away from lending in a boom, may be in the interests of individual banks but there is no way to co-ordinate on this outcome

As the paper points out (and as Hyman Minsky famously noticed) there is a tendency for banks to get overexposed to risk in the upswing of a credit cycle. After all, it is the banks that are driving the cycle. As they become more confident about lending against assets, more funds are available to investors/speculators and asset prices rise, increasing the confidence of all involved. As a proportion of GDP, commercial lending to real estate doubled between 2002 and 2008. In the UK banking system, leverage (as measured by total assets to shareholders’ claims) increased from 20:1 to 50:1 within a decade. Both measures ought to have caused alarm but nothing was done.

There is little new in this, as the paper recognizes. Credit cycles have nearly always been marked by lending against property. But property is an illiquid market and prices fall very sharply when the balance of supply and demand shifts, often wiping out of all of a bank’s collateral. Meanwhile, the duration of bank funding was steadily falling, from an average maturity of 10 years in the early 1980s to four years by 2008 (the US followed a similar trajectory). This left the banks very vulnerable to a run on liquidity.

The FPC says the authorities have, in principle, three types of measure to deal with these risks.

those that affect the balance sheets of financial institutions

those that affect the terms and conditions of loans and other financial transactions

those that influence market structures

For example, balance sheet measures include maximum leverage ratios and liquidity buffers; the second group includes caps on loan-to-value ratios and minimum margins; the third includes requirements for disclosure to reduce uncertainty about the market exposure of individual banks, but also the use of central counterparties to clear trades.

The paper then conducts an excellent and clear-eyed assessment of the pros and cons of these measures, without coming to any definite conclusion (the paper is part of a consultation process). What is clear is that the authorities cannot rely on just one or two measures, esepcially given the proved willingness of banks to game the system. Of course, the authorities cannot prevent all future financial crises, but they can still be a lot more alert than they were in the early 2000s. The paper shows the FPC is making a good start.

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