China crisis? Looking for black swans in white snow of Davos

A man walks past a display showing symbols for world currencies on the exterior of a bank in Beijing. The rise of debt in China was among the issues raised at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss reosrt of Davos yesterday. (AP)
Updated 23 January 2018

China crisis? Looking for black swans in white snow of Davos

LONDON: Consumer debt in China, a dirty bomb and an antibiotic-resistant pandemic — all potential candidates for the next “black swan” event.
The annual gathering of global leaders, economists and thinkers in the Swiss alps yesterday looked to predict where the next big global shock would likely emerge.
Speaking at a panel on “The Next Financial Crisis,” Harvard professor Kenneth Rogoff said the Chinese economy was especially vulnerable to shocks caused by a rise in interest rates.
“If interest rates went up, the places that weren’t enjoying as much growth and had a lot of debt — Italy, Japan for example, some emerging markets — they could have a lot of problems. I certainly see China at an earlier stage of this. They didn’t have the financial crisis (in 2008), they did a great job, but they do have a lot of the characteristics of a typical financial crisis building up.”
The sharp rise in household debt in China has been flagged as a potential threat to the global economy, with the IMF recently warning the country’s dependency on credit could be a catalyst for the next financial crisis.
Vice-governor of China’s central bank, Zhu Min, told Reuters on Tuesday that China has little room for raising benchmark interest rates as inflation remains subdued and authorities are trying to reduce the economy’s debt burden.

The world’s second-largest economy expanded 6.9 percent in 2017, accelerating for the first time in seven years due partly to an export-led recovery, defying concerns that intensifying curbs on industry and credit would hurt expansion.
So what should the central bank policy response be if the another financial crisis were to suddenly materialize?

Historically low interest rates worldwide mean there is limited scope for central banks to tackle future financial crises, the session heard.
Still, Professor Rogoff downplayed fears of another big recession, telling the audience that financial crises have a “long afterlife” and that “we’re actually at the tail-end of the last one.”

Speaking on the same panel David M. Rubenstein, co-founder and co-executive chairman at investment firm The Carlyle Group told the audience he was worried about so-called “black swans,” a 9/11 type event that could produce a recession without warning.
He said: “The biggest problem I have is most people think there’s no problem of a recession this year or even next year. Generally when people are very happy and confident, something wrong happens. So I am nervous that the conventional wisdom is that there are no problems.”
Rubenstein also highlighted the high level of US government borrowing as a potential concern for the global economy.

“At some point people will wake up and (see) the US government has 20 trillion dollars of debt,” he said.

Easy credit poses tough challenge for Russian economy minister

Updated 18 August 2019

Easy credit poses tough challenge for Russian economy minister

  • Measures being prepared to help indebted citizens; situation might blow up in 2021

MOSCOW: New machines popping up in Russian shopping centers seem innocuous enough — users insert their passport and receive a small loan in a matter of minutes.

But the devices, which dispense credit in Saint Petersburg malls at a sky-high annual rate of 365 percent, are another sign of a credit boom that has authorities worried.

Russians, who have seen their purchasing power decline in recent years, are borrowing more and more to buy goods or simply to make ends meet.

The level of loans has grown so much in the last 18 months that the economy minister warned it could contribute to another recession.

But it’s a sensitive topic. Limiting credit would deprive households of financing that is sometimes vital, and could hobble already stagnant growth.

The Russian economy was badly hit in 2014 by falling oil prices and Western sanctions over Moscow’s role in Ukraine, and it has yet to fully recover.

“Tightening lending conditions could immediately damage growth,” Natalia Orlova, chief economist at Alfa Bank, told AFP.

“Continuing retail loan growth is currently the main supporting factor,” she noted.

But “the situation could blow up in 2021,” Economy Minister Maxim Oreshkin warned in a recent interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station.

He said measures were being prepared to help indebted Russians.

According to Oreshkin, consumer credit’s share of household debt increased by 25 percent last year and now represents 1.8 trillion rubles, around $27.5 billion.

For a third of indebted households, he said, credit reimbursement eats up 60 percent of their monthly income, pushing many to take out new loans to repay old ones.

Orlova said other countries in the region, for example in Eastern Europe, had even higher levels of overall consumer debt as a percentage of national output or GDP.

But Russian debt is “not spread equally, it is mainly held by lower income classes,” which are less likely to repay, she said.

The situation has led to friction between the government and the central bank, with ministers like Oreshkin criticizing it for not doing enough to restrict loans.

Meanwhile, economic growth slowed sharply early this year following recoveries in 2017 and 2018, with an increase of just 0.7 percent in the first half of 2019 from the same period a year earlier.

That was far from the 4.0 percent annual target set by President Vladimir Putin — a difficult objective while the country is subject to Western sanctions.

With 19 million people living below the poverty line, Russia is in dire need of development.

“The problem is that people don’t have money,” Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Center in Moscow wrote recently.

“This is why we can physically feel the trepidation of the financial and economic authorities,” he added. Kolesnikov described the government’s economic policy as something that “essentially boils down to collecting additional cash from the population and spending it on goals indicated by the state.”

At the beginning of his fourth presidential term in 2018, Putin unveiled ambitious “national projects.”

The cost of those projects — which fall into 12 categories that range from health to infrastructure — is estimated at $400 billion by 2024, of which $115 billion is to come from private investment.