Nonstate companies have lost at least $992 billion in market value since mid-June, or about $32 million for every minute of trading, according to data compiled by Bloomberg and WisdomTree Investments Inc. In October their shares tumbled at the fastest pace in more than three years relative to companies with government ownership. Local corporate borrowers, almost all of them privately owned, defaulted on a record $6.6 billion of debt in the third quarter. At least 57 nonstate businesses have accepted government bailouts in 2018. Such a wave of quasi nationalizations would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
The pain has been felt at companies large and small—from internet behemoth Tencent Holdings Ltd. to Jiaxing Linglingjiu Electric Lighting, a producer of thermal bulbs whose owner is weighing whether to ditch the business to go farm a plot of land in China’s rural northeast. “When we meet with fellow factory owners, we don’t ask, ‘How’s business?’ like in previous years,” says Xu Xihong, who started Jiaxing Linglingjiu in 2009 after moving into a factory abandoned by a bankrupt state-run manufacturer of electric fans. “Now it’s ‘Do you think you will make it through the year?’ and ‘When are you going to get evicted?’ ”
Donald Trump’s tariffs and the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate hikes have played a role, but the biggest triggers have been local. By far the most important: the Chinese government’s almost two-year campaign to rein in the country’s $9 trillion shadow banking industry—financial companies that aren’t regulated like traditional lenders. While the clampdown was designed to make China’s financial system safer and more transparent, it’s crimped a key funding channel for private-sector companies that lack access to state-run banks. Faced with a drying up of credit and the country’s weakest economic expansion since 2009, more small businesses are defaulting on debt or liquidating.
The availability of credit and how it is disbursed throughout the economy has been a point of contention in China for decades. The simple fact is that the government and banks do not make enough available but then impose tough growth targets on the regions to meet which encourages credit expansion by any means necessary.
Coupled with the absence of a property tax, regional governments are therefore beholden to land sales and property development for income which has also increased leverage. Tinkering with that system is a fraught with risk but news today that property prices have continued to rise suggests recent measures to improve liquidity may finally be starting to take effect.Back to top