China faces a “better than even chance” of a another downgrade to its local currency debt rating because of rising defaults and high inflation following a credit binge, Fitch Ratings said yesterday.
Fitch also said Chinese policymakers would face a dilemma ahbout how to respond to another global downturn, with rising consumer prices and bad debts preventing a repeat of the massive stimulus launched nearly three years ago.
In April, Fitch downgraded its outlook on China’s local currency rating from “stable” to “negative” on concerns about a huge rise in potentially destabilizing debt since the end of 2008.
Fitch’s rating for China’s yuan-denominated debt currently stands at “AA-,” four notches below its top classification.
“Bank asset quality ... will deteriorate quite meaningfully in the medium term,” Andrew Colquhoun, head of Asia-Pacific Sovereigns at Fitch Ratings, said on the sidelines of a seminar.
Colquhoun said Beijing might need to bail out the banks as more local governments and companies default, and forecast a “better than even chance” for another downgrade to China’s local currency debt rating within two years.
China launched a 4 trillion yuan (US$586 billion) stimulus program in late 2008 to combat the global crisis and ordered banks to open their credit valves to spur activity and prevent the economy sliding into recession.
New lending nearly doubled to a record 9.6 trillion yuan and reached 7.95 trillion yuan last year, fueling inflation and sending property prices soaring.
Fitch has estimated that the volume of new loans will reach 8 trillion yuan this year, but said total new financing — which includes lending by non-bank financial institutions — could hit 18 trillion yuan.
China has been pulling on a variety of levers to restrict lending and tame inflation, which hit a three-year high of 6.5 percent last month, by raising interest rates and increasing the amount of money banks must keep in reserve.
However, if the economic woes in the US and Europe were to trigger another global recession and slump in trade, China would have limited policy options left to cushion the impact, Colquhoun said.
“The range of options has narrowed and if there were further stimulus that would lead to more problems coming through down the road,” he said.
Charlene Chu, head of Fitch’s ratings of Chinese banks, also raised concerns about the already “stretched” balance sheets of banks and their growing exposure to debt-laden local governments.
The Chinese National Audit Office recently put the debt held by authorities at 10.7 trillion yuan.