China Bank Crisis Led by Debt Seen by 61% in Global Poll

Most global investors predict China will face a banking crisis within the next five years, paring their appetite for the nation’s shares and eroding confidence in its leadership, a Bloomberg Global Poll indicated.

Sixty-one percent of respondents said they anticipate a crash in the financial industry by late 2016, and only 10 percent were confident China’s banks will escape trouble, according to the quarterly poll of 1,097 investors, analysts and traders who are Bloomberg subscribers conducted Dec. 5-6.

Evidence of slowing growth in China -- including the weakest manufacturing performance in more than two years, falling home sales and ebbing export growth -- has stoked concern that non-performing loans will climb in the world’s second-largest economy. The risk is a legacy of a record 17.6 trillion-yuan ($2.8 trillion) lending boom unleashed by Premier Wen Jiabao in 2009-2010 amid the global recession.

“The deep-seated misallocation of resources, particularly in the real estate and banking sectors, will lead to a combination of political and economic instability,” says Lance Depew, managing director of UPI Management LLC in Santa Barbara, California, and a participant in the poll. “I expect further macroeconomic weakness and sub-par returns in the stock market for the foreseeable future.”

Stocks Slide

The MSCI China/Financials Index of shares has tumbled 22 percent this year, underperforming the broader MSCI China Index of equities, which is down 17 percent. China Life Insurance Co. (2628) has declined 32 percent and Bank of China Ltd. (3988) 30 percent, contributing the most to the financial index’s losses.

Enthusiasm for Chinese stocks has flagged among Bloomberg users. In the latest poll, 21 percent called China one of the best places to invest over the next year. That was less than half the 44 percent who named China in an October 2009 Bloomberg survey.

Thirty-five percent of respondents said they expect China’s economic growth to slow to less than 5 percent from the 9.1 percent year-on-year pace recorded in the third quarter. Thirty- one percent anticipated “serious political or economic instability that stalls growth.” American investors were the most pessimistic, with 40 percent expecting a Chinese crisis.

A plurality of 46 percent of investors described the Chinese economy as “deteriorating” -- up from 38 percent in September -- compared with 40 percent who said it was “stable.”

Goldman’s Outlook

The skepticism contrasts with the outlook of economists from Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and the International Monetary Fund, who predict China will avoid a growth slump while defusing inflation. Goldman Sachs, in a Dec. 1 report, projected the nation’s gross domestic product will rise 8.6 percent next year and 8.7 percent in 2013.

A relatively low central government debt burden gives Premier Wen Jiabao’s administration the fiscal wherewithal to address a jump in non-performing loans. The IMF estimates the government’s gross debt-to-GDP ratio at 27 percent this year, compared with 100 percent for the U.S. and 233 percent in Japan.

The World Bank said last month that while China faces the risk of a “strong” impact from a real-estate correction, it has “ample” scope to cushion its economy. Policy makers have begun responding to the signs of a weakening outlook, with the People’s Bank of China last week lowering banks’ reserve requirements for the first time since 2008 to encourage lending.

Best in Class

“China, simply put, is the best managed major economy on the planet,” said Anthony Stephens, an equity trader with Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong and a survey participant.

Most investors in the poll don’t anticipate China’s relative economic performance translating into broader influence that would displace the U.S. as the world’s preeminent superpower.

Forty-one percent of poll respondents said that the U.S. would remain militarily dominant even as the Chinese economy eventually overtakes it in size. An additional 27 percent said China would “never surpass” the U.S. as the top global force. Only 25 percent agreed that China would “inevitably replace” it as the No. 1 superpower.

President Barack Obama’s administration has sought to enhance the U.S.’s stature in Asia this year, an initiative Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has described as a “pivot” toward the region after a decade of American focus on war in the Middle East. As part of the approach, the administration is seeking a free-trade agreement with Pacific nations including Malaysia, Vietnam and Singapore, and last month enhanced its security ties with Australia.

U.S. in Asia

Global investors are skeptical of the U.S. effort, highlighted when Obama hosted the annual 21-nation Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu last month and attended an East Asia Summit in Bali, Indonesia. Fifty-six percent said the campaign “will not enhance U.S. influence and end up antagonizing China,” compared with 30 percent who expect it to serve as an “effective counterweight” to Chinese power.

“China’s rising power and the United States’ traditional role are increasingly coming into conflict in the region,” said Michael Swaine, author of “America’s Challenge: Engaging A Rising China in the 21st Century” and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “These two countries have very different views on what sustains prosperity and stability.”

Leadership Assessment

Investors this year have become less enamored of Chinese President Hu Jintao, with 47 percent saying they were optimistic about his leadership, compared with 38 percent who described themselves as pessimistic. In January, Bloomberg customers favored Hu by a 60 percent to 30 percent margin.

China is in the midst of a planned leadership shift that will culminate late next year with the 18th Communist Party Congress. The conclave, which occurs every five years, is likely to tap Vice President Xi Jinping as China’s next president and Li Keqiang, currently vice premier, as prime minister.

Ahead of that comes an annual conference by top government officials this month that may affirm the shift to stimulus already telegraphed by last week’s bank reserve-ratio cut. Goldman analysts also predict an endorsement of “structural” tax cuts in the wake of rapid gains in fiscal revenue.

Global investors are confident the new team will continue the shift toward private enterprise devised in the late 1970s by Deng Xiaoping. In the poll, 49 percent of Bloomberg customers said the Chinese leadership will move toward free markets, while 37 percent forecast a tightening of state control over the economy. Asian investors were most upbeat, with 55 percent anticipating further opening.

Next Administration

Among the tasks that may face the next government is clearing any wreckage left from a surge in non-performing loans. The IMF, in its first formal evaluation of China’s financial system Nov. 15, called for further moves toward a “market-based financial system,” including upgraded bank risk-management systems and additional skilled personnel for the central bank and regulatory agencies.

“Many government liabilities are hiding in the banking system,” says Yin-Chen Chang, a consulting associate at Waterland Securities in Taipei, Taiwan.

The Bloomberg Global Poll was conducted by Selzer & Co., a Des Moines, Iowa-based firm. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.0 percentage points.

To contact the reporter on this story: David J. Lynch in Washington at dlynch27@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Anstey in Tokyo at canstey@bloomberg.net

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