A sponge wrung dry
China’s private investors keep their hands in their pockets
ORDERS from on high can shape the Chinese economy. In 2013 Xi Jinping, the president, said cities should be more like sponges, sopping up rainwater for reuse when parched. China is now working on some 30 “sponge cities”. Then in 2014 Mr Xi said the government should encourage businesses to invest in state projects. Since then China has announced plans for thousands of “public-private partnerships” (PPP), including sponge cities. But investors do not seem interested. Sponge cities are struggling to soak up private capital.
This month Guyuan, a city in Ningxia, a north-western region that is dry most of the year, launched China’s first sponge-city PPP. However, as is the case with others that are in the works, the “private” side of the partnership was not all it was cracked up to be. The investor, Beijing Capital, is in fact a government-owned firm. And to make the deal viable, the government pitched in a subsidy worth nearly one-fifth of the 5 billion yuan ($750m) total cost.
This points to a bigger problem: a sharp slowdown in private investment in China. New data on September 13th underlined the trend. Over the first eight months of 2016, private-sector investment rose by just 2.1% from the same period a year earlier, virtually the lowest rise since records began in 2005. Meanwhile state-backed investment has soared (see chart). It might seem unsurprising that the government is driving China’s economy. But it marks a big shift: the private sector was responsible for roughly two-thirds of investment over the past decade.
And since investment accounts for nearly half of GDP, private caution clouds the growth outlook.
The simplest explanation for the slowdown is that the state has crowded out the private sector.
Government-backed entities have long had better access to banks. In the past private companies have compensated by using their own earnings and tapping shadow lenders. Both routes are harder this year. Profits are not growing at the heady double-digit rates of not long ago. At the same time regulators have curbed shadow banks, leery of the risks brewing inside them. A side-effect has been to deprive some private firms of financing.
Yet that is only part of the problem. Many companies have money but are not spending it, says Zhu Haibin of JPMorgan Chase. They are keenly aware of the overcapacity in industries from coal mining to solar-panel making. Returns on capital have fallen by a third since 2011 to about 7%, according to Société Générale. With average bank lending rates just a touch lower at 5.25%, many are holding back, hoping profitability will improve. State firms can afford to pay less attention to the bottom line. Despite weaker returns than their private peers, they have kept investing.
The politics of big infrastructure projects are also a stumbling block. Local governments are reluctant to cede their most promising projects to private investors. Many officials are suspicious of private firms. Beijing municipality recently signed a PPP agreement for a new highway, and picked China Railway Construction Corp, a mammoth state-owned enterprise, as its partner. The official in charge suggested that private companies had neither the ability nor the capital necessary. And with ventures such as the sponge cities, it is not clear to private investors how they will make returns. Unlike toll roads or power stations—normal fodder for PPP deals—better drains and reservoirs are not easily converted into profits.
This being China, there are, as ever, questions about the quality of the data on investment. Some economists believe the public-private gap is exaggerated because of the government’s stockmarket rescue last summer, when the state acquired bigger stakes in companies. As these ownership changes filter into the data, they may be adding to the apparent increase in state investment. Separately, catastrophic numbers from Liaoning, a north-eastern province, have wreaked havoc with national statistics this year. Investment there is down by nearly 60%, but this may largely reflect a clean-up of previously embellished figures, not an economic disaster.
The government itself, however, is certainly behaving as if the problem is more than a statistical accident. This summer it dispatched teams of inspectors to 18 of China’s 31 provinces to see why private companies were not investing. Earlier this month the cabinet unveiled measures to encourage them to spend more. It promised to treat private firms the same as public ones when investing in sectors such as health and education. It called on banks to lend more to them. And it said it would roll out more PPP projects, enticing private investors with larger state subsidies.
These pledges may well show some results in the coming months, especially now that the government is talking so openly about the need to spur private investment. But many economists say that bigger changes are needed. To begin with, China could make it easier for private businesses to invest in state-controlled sectors such as finance and transportation. The government could also break up some of the state-owned enterprises that currently dominate these sectors. For the time being, though, it is moving in the opposite direction, merging state firms to create even bigger national champions.
The silver lining in all this is in what it says about the acumen of China’s private investors.
Their caution reveals how big a role market forces, as opposed to top-down orders, now play.
The government would love to see companies open their wallets. Instead, they are behaving like sensible businesses anywhere. They are conserving their cash and waiting for better opportunities than sponge cities to emerge.