China's central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan warns on corporate debt, urges fiscal reform

Mr Zhou Xiaochuan, Governor of the People's Bank of China, speaking during the 32nd Annual Group of 30 (G30) International Banking Seminar, on Oct 15, 2017.
Mr Zhou Xiaochuan, Governor of the People's Bank of China, speaking during the 32nd Annual Group of 30 (G30) International Banking Seminar, on Oct 15, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - People's Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan warned that Chinese companies have taken on too much debt, and argued for less financial leverage as well as fiscal reforms to constrain local government borrowing.

"The main problem is that the corporate debt is too high," Mr Zhou said on Sunday (Oct 15) during a panel discussion at a Group of 30 seminar in Washington held in conjunction with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meetings. 

While debt servicing costs remain low, "we need to pay further effort to deleveraging and strengthen policy for financial stability", Mr Zhou said.  He appeared alongside policy makers including Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and Bank of Japan Governor Haruhiko Kuroda.

China's surging corporate debt is a concern for global policy makers and investors alike. While the IMF upgraded China's growth forecasts this week, it warned that the economic expansion comes at the cost of a further increase in debt which may mask risks.

Fed Governor Jerome Powell singled out China as the poster child for heavily-indebted corporate sectors in emerging markets, saying that "risks are significant and bear close watching".

In his presentation, Mr Zhou said China's overall debt level, including corporate, government and household, started to decline this year after policy makers' efforts to rein in leverage.

"Although it's a very moderate decline, anyway, the trend has been changed," he said.

Mr Zhou said some of China's corporate debt includes borrowing from financing vehicles owned by local governments. When that debt is re-defined, corporate borrowing is estimated at 120 per cent to 130 per cent of gross domestic product, instead of the official figure of 160 per cent of GDP.

Government debt would be about 70 per cent instead of 36 per cent, he said.

While it is a more balanced debt structure than commonly perceived, "it's still important to look at the local government behaviour", Mr Zhou added.

Complicated relationships among provincial, municipal, and more than 3,000 county governments creates an opaque system and intensify price distortions for loans and debt borrowed by local governments, he said.

"There is a problem that the fiscal policy transparency may not be good enough," said Mr Zhou, 69, who's lead the PBOC since 2002. "The inter-government relationship has lots of problems. There's no very clear fiscal discipline to constrain those local governments. In the financial markets, there's distortion."

Mr Zhou said the government will gradually tackle these problems, and "sooner or later, the central government must pay more attention on fiscal reform".

Mr Zhou's remarks were the latest in a string of public comments by China's normally low-profile central bank chief. Before heading for Washington, he used an interview with the Beijing-based financial magazine Caijing to make a fresh call to further open up the financial sector.

During Sunday's panel discussion, Mr Zhou said the government's efforts to cut overcapacity in the steel and cement industries have proven better than expected and may reach a target of reducing capacity by 10 per cent. Economic growth may reach 7 per cent this year, which would be the fastest expansion since 2014, he said.

Turning to financial stability, Mr Zhou said shadow banking activities have slowed in response to policy makers' campaign to reduce financial risk taking.

Still, other vulnerabilities exist. He called the asset management business "a relatively chaotic situation" because the three regulators overseeing the industry set different rules.

Internet firms without financial licenses may "cause certain competition and financial stability problems", he said. In addition, there is inadequate policies to regulate cross-sector transactions from financial holding companies, and there may be some illegal operations in terms of capital financing.

Mr Zhou had earlier released a statement during the IMF meetings that said a campaign to rein in leverage is showing results, and that China will monitor and prevent shadow banking and real estate risk.

Economic indicators show "stabilised and stronger growth" and the momentum of a 6.9 per cent expansion in the first six months of 2017 "may continue in the second half", Mr Zhou said last week at an event in Washington, according to the statement released on Saturday. 

Data due for release on Thursday will show a 6.8 per cent expansion in the third quarter, according to economists surveyed by Bloomberg. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences projected that 6.8 per cent growth in the period will be followed by 6.7 per cent in the fourth quarter, the Economic Information Daily reported on Monday.