Thursday, June 2, 2011

China's slowdown

Starts with a spark

CHINA’S economy has, at least on paper, survived forces that have overwhelmed much of the rest of the world. But the recent round of bank tightening seems, at least indirectly, to be hitting with real force. Slowly, word has spread of Jin Libin, a resident of Inner Mongolia who ran a business empire encompassing supermarkets, mining and transport, who set himself on fire one day in April and burned to death. According to the Global Times, a government-run newspaper, he left private debts of $1.3 billion yuan ($191m) of private loans and another 150m yuan of loans from banks.

Still to be reflected is the impact of his collapse on his lenders, which, the Global Times says, included local banks, pawnshops and guaranty companies that had lent him money. No doubt there were also substantial loans from an impersonal network, a form of credit that is commonly used in China, though not legal. The consequences will not be trivial. Many other explosions driven by the same financial forces that brought down Mr Jin are sure to come.

In part, the travails of private businessmen stem from well-known trends in China: higher costs for wages, pressure from overseas buyers facing turmoil in their own countries, a (slightly) rising yuan, higher direct payments for energy—and sometimes indirect payments as well, as power producers hit capacity and send their buyers on the to grey market. But another important factor is China’s deliberate effort to use financial tools to undermine inflation. The search for a soft landing is beginning to take its toll.

Rather than merely allowing interest rates to rise, the Bank of China has steadily tightened the major banks’ reserve requirements, which now stand at 21%. That has effectively made credit more difficult to obtain without disturbing the nominal price of a loan. A consequence is that well-connected borrowers, primarily state-owned or state-controlled companies, still can get abundant cheap credit while players on the private market have an increasingly tough time. Mr Jin was said to be paying 5m yuan in interest daily before he killed himself.

Complaints about rocketing private rates are becoming increasingly common. Because private financing is largely informal, there is no way measure precisely the magnitude of these changes, nor the pervasiveness of the loans nor the fragility of borrowers. It is safe to venture this much: Mr Jin is hardly the only Chinese tycoon to be facing trying times. Banyan for The Economist

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