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China's Zombie Factories Provide Illusion of Work and Prosperity; Rebalancing Chinese Style

China has zombie malls and even zombie cities, so zombie factories can hardly be a surprise. And as the malinvestments pile up, so do unrealized shadow bank losses.

The Financial Times reports China Zombie Factories Kept Open to Give Illusion of Prosperity.

In the shadow of a group of enormous smokestacks and abandoned foundries, a peeling sign welcomes visitors to the Wenxi Steel Industrial Park.

Highsee stopped paying its 10,000 employees six months ago. Local officials estimate the plant supported indirectly the livelihood of about a quarter of Wenxi county's population of 400,000. Highsee was the biggest privately owned steel mill in Shanxi, accounting for 60 per cent of Wenxi's tax revenues. For those reasons, the local government was reluctant to allow the company to go out of business, even though it had been in serious financial difficulties for several years.

"By 2011 Highsee was already like a dead centipede that hadn't yet frozen stiff with rigor mortis," says one official who asks not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to foreign reporters. "More than half the plant shut down, but it was still producing steel even though its suppliers wouldn't deliver anything without cash up front and it was drowning in debt."

In the past month alone Chinese media have reported on at least nine large steel mills that appeared to be suspended in limbo after halting production but which are forbidden from going formally bankrupt.

"There are large numbers of companies across China that should go bankrupt but haven't done so," says Han Chuanhua, a bankruptcy lawyer at Zhongzi Law Office, a Beijing legal practice. "The government doesn't want to see bankruptcy because as soon as companies go bust, unemployment spikes and tax revenues disappear. By stopping companies from going bankrupt, officials are able to maintain the illusion of local prosperity, economic growth and stable taxes."

The outstanding volume of non-performing loans in the Chinese banking sector has increased 50 per cent since the beginning of 2013, according to estimates from ANZ, the Australian bank, but the sector-wide NPL ratio remains extremely low, at just over 1.2 per cent.

In private, however, senior Chinese financial officials admit the real ratio is almost certainly much higher, obscured by local governments trying to prop up companies.


Rebalancing Chinese Style

As part of China's rebalancing effort, growth must slow (or an even bigger crash will come later), and shadow banking losses recognized. So far, all we see is the slowdown in growth.

Even then, China recently cut interest rates hoping to keep the illusion alive (as some might see it), or smooth the transition (as others might see it).

Regardless how one sees it, these closures are at the back end of a collapse in commodity prices as China moves from an investment (malinvestment) driven pattern of growth, to a consumer-driven pattern of growth.

The transition will not be easy. The SOEs (state-owned-enterprises), the regional governments, and all those who got wealthy from the prior boom will not let go easily.

Nor it seems will the central government. Failure to recognize absurdly high deposit rates are proof enough.

For a look at unsound deposit rates, please see Chinese Banks Hemorrhaging Deposits, 1st Quarterly Drop Since 1999; Banks Offer iPhones, Even Cars for Large Deposits.

For more on rebalancing implication, please see Pettis on Strains in China's Banking System; Avoiding the Fall.

 

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