BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s state planner pledged on Wednesday to keep debt levels under control even as Beijing rolls out fresh stimulus to support the stumbling economy as a trade war with the U.S. deepens.
The comments by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) came a day after China reported surprisingly weak data that showed investment growth has slowed to a record low.
To stabilize business conditions and weather the trade war, Beijing is stepping up infrastructure spending and injecting more funds into the banking system, which is lowering borrowing costs. New loans by China’s largely state-backed banks surged 75 percent in July from a year earlier.
But some China watchers fear Beijing’s shift in priorities may mark a return to its unrestrained, credit-fueled growth, reversing years of work by regulators to reduce risks in the financial system and stem a rapid build-up in debt.
NDRC spokesman Cong Liang told a media briefing that new spending on roads, railways, elderly care and education will not be as heavy as in the past and will aim to meet real demand, reducing the risk of over-capacity.
Authorities are also hoping to attract private investment in such projects to reduce the government’s debt burden, he said, noting that regulators are relaxing restrictions on local governments’ ability to sell special bonds to fund projects.
Several large rail projects have been announced in just the last few days.
On Wednesday, the NDRC gave Jiangsu Communications Holdings the green-light to sell up to 20 billion yuan ($2.90 billion) of so-called enterprise bonds, or debt issued by state-owned firms.
Of the proceeds, 12 billion yuan will be used to finance high-speed railway and toll road projects.
The issuance was the biggest enterprise bond approved by the NDRC since mid-June.
In a more tangible sign of pump-priming, builders and engineers started work on a revamp of a train station in southwest Beijing on Monday. The station is said to be the biggest in Asia by size, and the project is budgeted to cost 7.2 billion yuan.
However, analysts such as Capital Economics have cautioned that new projects are unlikely to put a floor under economic growth until the middle of next year.
Cong reiterated a pledge made by the ruling Communist Party’s Politburo last month that China will still meet this year’s economic growth target of around 6.5 percent, despite the trade war.
Analysts say that will surely require more spending, but Cong maintained that the government will push ahead with its “structural deleveraging” in a gradual and orderly way.
Highlighting the dangers policymakers face in stimulating the slowing economy without fueling asset bubbles, data on Wednesday showed China’s new home prices accelerated at their fastest pace in almost two years in July.
Cong said China would “resolutely curb” property price rises.
“We still have sufficient capacity to cope with impact from escalating trade frictions, and ensure the successful completion of the economic and social development goals set at the beginning of the year,” Cong said.
At the start of this year, China’s leaders had made risk and debt reduction their top priority, even if it led to somewhat slower growth.
That scenario appeared to be playing out roughly to plan earlier in the year, before the trade war erupted, with growth easing only slightly to 6.7 percent in the second quarter year-on-year.
Some economists are now cutting their second-half and full-year growth estimates for China in the wake of Tuesday’s weak readings.
While stressing it does not see a hard landing for the world’s second-largest economy, ING said in a note it has trimmed its 2018 forecast to 6.6 percent from 6.7 percent.
It sees growth cooling to 6.5 percent and 6.3 percent in the third and fourth quarters, respectively, as tougher U.S. tariffs start to bite.
So far, official data shows trade frictions have had limited impact on the economy, and any impact from higher tariffs will be “controllable”, the NDRC’s Cong said.
Many local governments and state firms are still saddled with debt following China’s massive stimulus during the global financial crisis.
Despite some progress in its risk crackdown in the last few years, China is still among the economies most at risk of a banking crisis, the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) said earlier this year.
China’s overall debt level rose 2.7 percentage points in 2017 to 250.3 percent of gross domestic product, according to the central bank.
The corporate debt ratio fell 0.7 percentage points to 159 percent of GDP - the first decline since 2011, but the household debt ratio climbed 4 percentage points to 55.1 percent of GDP.
($1 = 6.9070 Chinese yuan renminbi)
Reporting by Kevin Yao; Additional reporting by Stella Qiu and Lusha Zhang; Writing by Ryan Woo; Editing by Sam Holmes and Kim Coghill