Following the market lockdown during October’s Party Congress, many commentators were disturbed by the continued rise in Chinese government bond yields as we returned to “business as usual”, with the 10-year rising to 4%. At the beginning of this month, we discussed the sell-off (see “China: Shadow Bank Inflows Are Critical To Sustain The Ponzi…But They’re Falling”) and noted a useful insight from the Wall Street Journal.
An important anomaly to note about the bond rout: as government bonds sold off, yields on less-liquid, unsecured Chinese corporate bonds barely moved.
That is atypical in an environment of rising rates – usually, bond investors shed their less-liquid holdings and hold on to assets that are more easily tradable, like government debt.
The question was…why had corporate bond yields barely moved? The answer, according to the WSJ, was that China’s deleveraging policy led to redemptions in the shadow banking sector, e.g. in the notorious $4 trillion Wealth Management Products (WMP) sector. Faced with redemptions, shadow banks had to sell something…quickly…and highly liquid government bonds were the “easiest option”. Furthermore…and this is potentially significant…the WSJ noted.
Meanwhile, the nonbanks have held on to their higher-yielding corporate bonds, which at least have the benefit of helping them to maintain high returns.
Not any more (see below).
We agreed with the WSJ’s explanation at the time, but noted that the government bond sell-off was actually a sign of the unravelling of the WMP Ponzi scheme. The Chinese authorities are wise to the Ponzi which is why they announced the overhaul of shadow banking and WMPs last Friday (see “A ‘New Era’ In Chinese Regulation Means Turmoil For $15 Trillion In China's ‘Shadows"). However, the new regulations don’t kick in until mid-2019, a sign to us that when they looked “under the bonnet”, they didn’t like what they saw.
We doubt that China can achieve an orderly restructuring of its shadow banking sector, never mind its much larger credit bubble. A sign that we have taken another step towards China’s “Minsky moment” is that the bond sell-off has spread to the corporate bond market. The chart shows how spreads versus sovereign bonds have blown out during the last few weeks.
Bloomberg noted how the 10-year yield on China Development Bank notes, a quasi-sovereign issue, closed above 5% for the first time since 2014 today while, in another report, it put the corporate bond sell-off in a wider context.
China’s deleveraging campaign is finally starting to bite in the nation’s corporate-bond market, a shift that will make 2018 a clearer test of policy makers’ appetites to let struggling companies fail. Yields on five-year top-rated local corporate notes have jumped about 33 basis points since the month began, to a three-year high of 5.3 percent, according to data compiled by clearing house ChinaBond. Government bonds, which have far greater liquidity, had already moved last month as the central bank warned further deleveraging was needed.
With more than $1 trillion of local bonds maturing in 2018-19, it will become increasingly expensive for Chinese companies to roll over financing — and all the tougher for those in industries like coal that the nation’s leadership wants to shrink. Two companies based in Inner Mongolia, a northern province that’s suffered from a debt-and-construction binge, missed bond payments on Tuesday, in a demonstration of the kind of pain that may come.
Bloomberg tries to put a positive spin on the corporate bond sell-off, defaults are healthy in terms of differentiating good and credits.
In the long haul, that all may be good for China. Allowing more defaults could see its bond market become more like its overseas counterparts, with a greater differentiation in price. And that could mean it channels funds more productively. “The deleveraging campaign and the new rules on the asset management industry will further differentiate good and bad quality credits, and make the onshore credit market more efficient,” said Raymond Gui, senior portfolio manager at Income Partners Asset Management (HK) Ltd. “Weaker companies will find it harder to roll over their debts because funding costs will stay high.” Gui predicts yields will keep climbing. The average for top-rated corporate bonds is already 2.2 percentage points above what investors demanded to hold them in October last year.
The rise comes as authorities show greater determination to shift the economy onto a more sustainable footing, with less debt. The latest move was a plan to discipline the asset-management industry, including banning guaranteed rates of return. People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan graphically depicted the risk of excess leverage, by evoking a "Minsky moment," or sudden collapse of asset values. Key to that endeavor will be scaling back some of the implicit credit guarantees that have backed a broad swathe of Chinese borrowers. The country only started allowing corporate defaults in 2014. Last year there was a record, coming in at at least 29. It’s unclear yet whether that total will be met in 2017.
Bloomberg spoke to an analyst who also believes the recent sell-off in Chinese bonds is more to do with separating the “wheat from the chaff”, rather than anything more profound.
"We expect the divergence of performance between different bond categories (Chinese government bonds, policy bank bonds and credits) to become more prominent into 2018," Albert Leung and Prashant Pande, rates strategists at Nomura Holdings Inc., wrote in a note Wednesday.
We disagree. From our perspective, it looks like early signs of cascading sell-offs within Chinese financial markets, which have long been abused by excessive leverage and Ponzi characteristics. Talking of which, the Shanghai Composite Index suffered its biggest one-day drop since June 2016.
What caused the sell-off? According to some commentators it was fear that the local bond rout was getting out of control…hence "cascade". We noted last week that traders had been stunned by the official warning from Beijing that some stocks – in this case Kweichow Moutai – had risen "too far, too fast". Zhengyang Shen, a Shanghai-based analyst at Northeast Securites commented.
"The decline in Moutai has triggered selloffs in some of this year's best performing stocks."
Which sounds an awful lot like another example of cascading selling…