China’s government is cash-strapped with Covid-19, tax breaks and a property downturn pulling down income while spending keeps rising to pay for economic stimulus and containing virus outbreaks. One option Beijing has to fill the gap is to sell special sovereign bonds, a rarely used financing tool it last dusted off in 2020 to help lift the economy without inflating the budget deficit. Before that, they were employed during the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s and to help seed China’s sovereign wealth fund in 2007.
1. What are special sovereign bonds?
Unlike regular government debt, special bonds raise cash for a certain policy or to help solve a particular problem. They are not part of China’s official budget and thus not included in deficit calculations. The State Council, China’s cabinet, can propose the sale of such bonds, which then requires approval only by a standing committee of the National People’s Congress, which generally meets every two months, rather than the full legislative body, which meets only once a year. That means they can be issued in a more flexible way than regular bonds, which have to be planned for in the budget and approved by the annual session of the NPC.
2. Why use this tool now?
China has a target for gross domestic product growth of around 5.5% for this year, but with Covid lockdowns and a property slump, economists say the government is nowhere close to achieving that. One way President Xi Jinping is hoping to fuel a faster recovery is by spending trillions of yuan on infrastructure projects. Funding that kind of stimulus through the budget will be challenging though, given the plunge in tax revenues this year. Part of the financing will come from China’s state-owned development banks, like China Development Bank and Agricultural Development Bank of China, which have been given an additional 800 billion yuan ($120 billion) credit line to provide loans for infrastructure investment. Special sovereign bonds could be an additional source, given some were used for that purpose in 2020. Wang Yiming, an adviser to the central bank’s monetary policy committee, highlighted special national bonds as an option. More likely, the notes may be used to bridge the fiscal gap and finance the stimulus measures the government announced in May, according to Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. analysts Betty Wang and Xing Zhaopeng.
3. How were these bonds used before?
Some 1 trillion yuan of notes were sold in 2020, early in the pandemic. Exceptionally that time, the Communist Party’s all-powerful Politburo decided to sell the bonds and the NPC gave the official go-ahead at its full session in May. Some 700 billion yuan from that sale was transferred to local governments to support their Covid control efforts and infrastructure investment, according to a report by the Ministry of Finance. The rest was brought into the central government’s general public budget for subsidizing local spending on the outbreak, it shows. Before that:
• In 2007, 1.55 trillion yuan of special government bonds were issued to capitalize China Investment Corp., the sovereign wealth fund. The bond proceeds were used to buy currency reserves from the People’s Bank of China, and those funds then went to CIC. Some of the bonds worth around 950 billion yuan will come due in the second half of this year, Bloomberg-compiled data show.
• During the Asian financial crisis, China sold 270 billion yuan of special government bonds — at the time the country’s largest bond issue — to raise capital for its big state banks and help offset losses from nonperforming assets.
4. How might the bonds affect financial markets?
A surge of bond supply would drive down prices of the securities and push up yields. The issuance in mid-2020 helped to boost the yield on China’s 10-year government bond by more than 20 basis points in about three weeks, to a near six-month high. At the time, liquidity conditions were tight because of a deluge of local government bond supply before the special debt hit the market and the central bank’s cautious approach to monetary easing, in part to avoid fueling asset bubbles. The situation is different now. Interest rate cuts and other central bank easing measures mean the nation’s banks are flush with cash that they can use to soak up any extra bond supply. Also, local governments — which issue their own special bonds used mainly for infrastructure investment — have been ordered to sell almost all of this year’s quota of 3.65 trillion yuan of debt by the end of June. That should leave room for the market to absorb new debt issuances in the second half of 2022.
5. How much are we talking?
Jia Kang, a former head of a finance ministry research institute, said the 1 trillion yuan sold in 2020 could serve as a “reference” for policy makers when deciding on how much to issue this year. Others think it might be more. Larry Hu, head of China economics at Macquarie Group Ltd., estimated that the Covid outbreaks this year in China likely caused a budget shortfall of 1 trillion to 2 trillion yuan. A sale that size could contribute 1-2 percentage points to gross domestic product growth given the extra financial boost it will give local governments to spend, he estimated, adding the impact on the financial market is expected to be “limited.”
More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com
©2022 Bloomberg L.P.
Adblock test (Why?)