China Rating Outlook Cut at S&P on Risk of Slow Rebalancing

Updated on
  • Move follows Moody's outlook cut earlier in the month
  • Slower pace of Chinese economic rebalancing seen by S&P

China Rating Outlook Cut to Negative From Stable at S&P

Standard & Poor’s has cut the outlook for China’s credit rating to negative from stable, saying the nation’s economic rebalancing is likely to proceed more slowly than the ratings firm had expected.

China’s AA- long-term credit rating now has a negative outlook, S&P said in a statement. Earlier in March, Moody’s Investors Service made a similar revision, highlighting surging debt and questioning the government’s ability to enact reforms.

“We revised the outlook to reflect our expectation that the economic and financial risks to the Chinese government’s creditworthiness are gradually increasing,” S&P said in a statement. “This follows from our belief that, over the next five years, China will show modest progress in economic rebalancing and credit growth deceleration.”

Facing deflationary pressure at home and tepid demand from abroad, China’s policy makers are juggling reforms aimed at cutting overcapacity with stimulus to cushion the blow. Leaders have flagged more fiscal support this year, and room on the monetary front to support growth.

China’s economic expansion will remain at or above 6 percent a year in the next three years, S&P forecast. The investment rate may be “well above” what S&P says are sustainable levels of 30-35 percent of GDP.

Less Resilience

“In our opinion, these expected trends could weaken the Chinese economy’s resilience to shocks, limit the government’s policy options, and increase the likelihood of a sharper decline in trend growth rate,” it said.

Stock-index futures on the FTSE China A50 initially fell after the S&P announcement before rebounding to add 0.4 percent on Thursday. The offshore yuan rose 0.2 percent during U.S. Hours to trade at 6.4639 a dollar.

“They are just reiterating the potential risks that we already know,” said Tommy Xie, Singapore-based economist at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. “It seems like S&P are playing catch up and I doubt we will see any significant impact on markets. If anything we’ll probably see some government-linked media fighting back in the coming days.”

Possible Downgrade

To support economic growth targets, China’s top planning agency is doling out new fiscal stimulus, further raising the amount of money available to local governments this year under a special infrastructure bond program, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg earlier on Thursday.

The National Development and Reform Commission plans to offer 600 billion yuan ($93 billion) in the second quarter to help promote investment growth, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the information hasn’t been made public. That brings the total for the first half of this year to 1 trillion yuan and puts it on an annual pace that would be two-and-a-half times the 800 billion yuan total for all of last year.

A downgrade could follow if S&P sees a higher likelihood that China seeks to stabilize growth at or above 6.5 percent by increasing credit at a “significantly faster rate” than nominal GDP growth. Ratings could stabilize if credit growth is moderated to levels in line with economic expansion, S&P said.

“S&P’s statement was rather gloomy,” Koon Chow, the senior macro and currency strategist at Union Bancaire Privee in London, said by e-mail. “They might downgrade by one notch in the next year,” though they’re unlikely to cut more than one level, he said.

Market Rally

Markets largely shrugged off the outlook cut from Moody’s. China’s Shanghai Composite Index in March capped its steepest monthly advance in almost a year, while a gauge of Chinese companies trading in Hong Kong entered a bull market.

China’s economy is showing signs of stabilizing, Premier Li Keqiang said last week at the Boao Forum. Manufacturing data on Friday will probably show improvement: the official Purchasing Managers’ Index likely rose to 49.4 percent in March from the previous month’s 49, according to the median estimate of a survey by Bloomberg.

“High leverage and slowing economy have been noticed and discussed by the market for a long time,” said Frank Huang, Hong Kong-based head of trading at Sinopac Securities (Asia) Ltd. “They have already been priced in.”

— With assistance by Saijel Kishan, Kyoungwha Kim, and Helen Sun

(Updates with trading in seventh paragraph and analyst comment in 12th paragraph.)
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