China: In the Grips of a Full-Blown Liquidity Crisis

I have written for some time about my doubts about the sustainability of Chinese growth (driven by massive credit expansion that is delivering progressively less and less bang for the renminbi), and my concerns about the stability of the Chinese financial system, especially the shadow banking system. So far these prognostications have not been realized, but events over the last few days relate directly to these doubts and concerns.

Specifically, China is in the grips of a full-blown liquidity crisis, with overnight repo rates approaching 30 percent, and one week rates well over 10 percent. The Chinese yield curve has become steeply inverted, which is never a good sign. The word “panic” is being bandied about quite freely.

News accounts make it seem that the liquidity shortage is the deliberate  policy of the People’s Bank of China. Indeed, these accounts suggest that the PBOC is withholding liquidity from the market precisely because it too believes that credit-fueled growth is unsustainable, and that the banking and shadow banking sectors have over expanded and need to be cut down to size:

China’s interbank funding costs surged again on Thursday, with the two shortest-term rates hitting record highs, as the central bank again ignored market pressure to inject funds into the market, despite fresh evidence that the economy is slowing.

The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) told the market that it would not conduct repo business in its regular open market operations on Thursday, frustrating widespread expectations that it would use reverse repos to inject cash to ease an acute market squeeze over the last two weeks.

. . . .

“The central bank appears to be determined to force banks and other financial institutions, such as funds, brokerages and asset managers, to de-leverage,” said a trader at a major Chinese state-owned bank in Shanghai.

“That hardline stance suits the recent government policy of clamping down on non-essential businesses by financial institutions, such as shadow banking, wealth management, trust operations and even arbitrage.”

Yes, deleveraging is probably a good idea: the economy had become over leveraged as the result of previous stimulus policies that fed a credit boom. The question is: how to deleverage?  Quite often system-wide deleveraging is a chaotic process, beset with externalities. Companies that can’t fund dump assets in fire sales, which puts pressure on other institutions holding the same or similar assets: they often join the fire sale stampede.  Institutions start hoarding credit and liquidity, which drives up rates and puts yet further pressure on financial institutions.

In other words, system-wide deleveraging often occurs through a financial panic that causes massive economic damage.  Usually central banks try to stem this process by flooding the system with liquidity. Bizarrely, China, it appears, seems to be trying to start the process by starving the system of liquidity. Central banking with Chinese characteristics, as it were.

One interpretation is that the PBOC has found that jawboning and other less drastic policies have failed to stem the growth in credit and shadow banking, so it feels obliged to take stern measures to curb these activities. But this is a dangerous way to do it, and I am not sure that it is the optimal strategy in the game between the PBOC and other market participants.

Let’s say the PBOC relents and says “You’ve been warned: don’t let it happen again.”  Many market participants will infer that the PBOC’s threats are not credible, and that it will supply liquidity if the system appears on the verge of failure.  The will therefore have little incentive to curb their activities, viewing the PBOC as a paper tiger. The economy will continue to be over leveraged.

Conversely, let’s say to demonstrate its credibility the PBOC sticks to its guns and refuses to supply liquidity: then there is a risk of a full-blown panic and crisis-and right now.

China is having an episode not unlike the one that hit world markets in August, 2007, when funding markets signaled the onset of the crisis, with the difference being-and it is a big difference-that this appears to be a crisis of choice, and one that could morph from onset to a Lehman moment in days or weeks, not months.

Perhaps the PBOC believes that the situation is so dire that a purgative crisis now is preferable to a worse one that chooses its own time to appear. If so, it has no one else to blame. If China’s financial system was hurtling down the road too rapidly, it was because the PBOC (and the Chinese government) had jammed down the accelerator with its credit-driven stimulus measures. Now it is responding by jamming on the brakes.  A policy of alternating extremes seldom works out well.

There is an apocryphal belief that in Chinese the word “crisis” is represented by the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”. (JFK is responsible for popularizing this belief.) The most charitable interpretation of the PBOC’s starving the market of liquidity is that it doesn’t view that belief as apocryphal, but as gospel. That it is running a great danger to seize an opportunity to put the Chinese financial system on a firmer foundation.

Maybe. But that suggests a conceit on the behalf of policymakers: it presumes that once a panic is sparked, they can control it, and the panic will make financiers more prudent in the future by putting the fear of God into them today.

That’s a very, very risky bet that has a very, very high probability of turning out very, very badly.

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About Craig Pirrong 238 Articles

Affiliation: University of Houston

Dr Pirrong is Professor of Finance, and Energy Markets Director for the Global Energy Management Institute at the Bauer College of Business of the University of Houston. He was previously Watson Family Professor of Commodity and Financial Risk Management at Oklahoma State University, and a faculty member at the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago, and Washington University.

Professor Pirrong's research focuses on the organization of financial exchanges, derivatives clearing, competition between exchanges, commodity markets, derivatives market manipulation, the relation between market fundamentals and commodity price dynamics, and the implications of this relation for the pricing of commodity derivatives. He has published 30 articles in professional publications, is the author of three books, and has consulted widely, primarily on commodity and market manipulation-related issues.

He holds a Ph.D. in business economics from the University of Chicago.

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