Haver Analytics
Haver Analytics
| Mar 05 2024

China’s NPC: Old Wine in a New Bottle

China’s National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) meeting kicked off today with Premier Li’s announcing its first Government Work Report. It’s definitely an interesting day for all China watchers and investors, as we are all looking for clues in China’s upcoming plans to prop up an economy that is grappling with deflation, a property market slump, heightened debt levels and low level of foreign direct investment. Before the meeting, many market participants are looking for bazooka-style stimulus or long-term structural reforms, however, the annual NPC is not really a platform for these policy announcements. Instead, we get a flurry of economic and budget targets, and a to-do-list for this coming year. In a nutshell, there is nothing juicy or new in this government report – with a couple of exceptions – it appears that China is still using old tools to fix the current economic problems.

Let’s start with the targets, a couple of highlights. The 5% GDP growth target was in line with market expectations, and consistent with early growth targets released by the local governments. In my view, it is an aggressive target to achieve compared with last year’s, because 2023 growth target benefits from the low base in the year before when the economy was mired in zero Covid policy. By contrast, the base effects this year is unfavourable. Also, it is more difficult to hit target this year without any forms of fiscal and monetary support, given the deepening property market slump and lingering local government debt problems. The Chinese government realised the hurdles and hinted at further targeted stimulus, as Premier Li said in his speech “It is not easy for us to realise these targets. We need policy support and joint efforts from all fronts.”

Interestingly, the unusual issuance of RMB 1tn central government bonds is a nice addition to the fiscal impulse from the local government special bonds quotas of RMB 3.9tn for 2024. This is the fourth time in the last 26 years to issue such sovereign bonds, the last couple of times it happened was in 2020 and 2023, to fund Covid-related expenses and post-disastrous reconstruction in north-eastern China after a major flood. We expected the central government to share the credit burden with the local governments going forward, because the hands of provincial authorities are tied. Local governments get a significant share of income from land sales to developers, but this is getting difficult on the back of tumbling demand for housing. Therefore, it makes sense for the central government to step in and allocate resources back to provinces, probably on more favourable debt servicing terms given its higher credibility and lower indebtedness.

Property sector, which accounts for over 25% of the economy, saw no new concrete measures mentioned in this report. The NDRC did say they will try to address the root causes of the property malaise and mounting debt problems, but they stop short of spelling out what the solutions are. The crux of the property problem remains low level of confidence of prospective homebuyers, leading to a collapsed in demand for off-plan new housing. Homebuyers would rather sit on the sideline, worrying that troubled developers will not have sufficient funding to complete the projects. This in turn reduces the cashflow of property developers, including heathier ones. And the negative feedback loop repeats itself.

But note a glimmer of hope that President Xi’s property slogan “housing is for living in, not speculation” is omitted in the policy wordings this time, suggesting that authorities are more determined to prop up the property market. Before this, mixed signals were sent to the market when property measures were relaxed, reducing the efficacy of the stimulus.

Thus far, the government implemented a slew of measures to support the ailing real estate market, such as slashing the 5-year LPR, increasing the PSL funding, lowering the LTV requirements for first-time buyers and buy-to-let investors, also encouraging banks to lend more to white-listed property projects selected by local governments. Unfortunately, none of them had material impact on lifting sentiment or breaking the negative feedback loop. Rather, we continue to hear news in recent weeks about investors filing a lawsuit against Country Garden and Vanke delaying its debt repayments, further denting buyers’ confidence.

In all, this is a fiscally expansionary budget, and it should cushion the economy currently in deflationary mode. The 5% growth target is only achievable with a strong dose of stimulus, so expect more targeting measures to be deployed. The Chinese authorities are still aiming for quality development over sheer growth, but structural changes for “new productive forces” and consumption to take hold won’t happen overnight, more stimulus measures are therefore needed in the interim period. But the lack of creative policymaking in Zhongnanhai to bridge this gap suggests that China may still be using old tools for new problems. We are not looking for sizable credit-fuelled stimulus in the past which would normally result in unproductive capacity, but timely and well-packaged policies that can address deficiency more quickly and broadly would vastly improve the recovery experience.

  • Kelvin Ho-Por Lam is a former Greater China economist with HSBC Global Markets. Before joining HSBC, he was a member of the Asia economics team at Citigroup Global Markets in Hong Kong. Prior to his return to Hong Kong in 2015, he was a UK economist at Santander in London and a property economist at MSCI Inc. In 2019, Mr. Lam was elected as a Hong Kong district councillor for the Southern district.   Kelvin graduated from the University of Southampton in 2001 where he studied economics and finance. He also holds an MSc degree in economics from the University of York and an MSc in management from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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