China says meets debt control target as it ramps up economic support

Chinese 100 yuan banknotes are seen in a counting machine while a clerk counts them at a branch of a commercial bank in Beijing, China, in this March 30, 2016 file picture. (Reuters)
Updated 25 February 2019
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China says meets debt control target as it ramps up economic support

  • Concern about China’s debt is rising again as Beijing ramps up support for a slowing economy

BEIJING: China has met its target for reducing debt levels but will keep cracking down on riskier types of financing to contain risks to its financial system, the banking and insurance regulator said on Monday, urging banks to step up lending to smaller companies.
Concern about China’s debt is rising again as Beijing ramps up support for a slowing economy. New bank loans hit a record in January despite increasing bad loans and record defaults in 2018.
Though top officials have repeatedly pledged not to resort to another massive spending spree like that during the global financial crisis, analysts say it is vital for policymakers to revive weak credit growth to avoid a sharper slowdown.
“After two years of work, various financial disorders have been effectively curbed,” Wang Zhaoxing, vice chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC), told a news conference.
“This breaks overseas predictions that the ‘barbaric’ growth of shadow banking and the financial overheating of real estate might lead to systemic financial risks and crises in China.”
China has never revealed a specific target for its multi-year risk containment campaign and does not release comprehensive statistics on debt loads.
But documents provided by the regulator said the leverage level in the economy stabilized in 2018, meeting the target, after growing by an average of more than 10 percent a year.
“Our leverage level is basically stable. This is a marvelous achievement,” said Zhou Liang, another CBIRC vice chairman.
Authorities have tried since a 2015 downturn to curb riskier types of financing and a build-up in debt which international monitors like the International Monetary Fund say could trigger a banking crisis in the world’s second-largest economy.
However, the regulatory pressure drove up borrowing costs last year and made it harder for small firms to secure funding, dragging on business activity and prompting policymakers to shift their focus back to growth boosting measures.
Analysts worry that any halt to the financial risk campaign may also delay much-needed structural reforms, such as allowing market forces to dictate a more efficient use of capital.
Corporate bond defaults hit a record last year, while banks’ non-performing loan ratio hit a 10-year high, but authorities have kept pressure on largely state-owned, banks to keep lending to cash-strapped companies facing “temporary” difficulties.
The last round of China’s leverage crackdown is over for now, said Hao Zhou, senior emerging markets economist at Commerzbank, adding that the cycle of policy tightening and loosening normally shifts every two to three years.
“Although China is loosening now, it’s possible that the loosening will end as soon as economic growth gathers momentum,” he said.

END DISCRIMINATION
The regulator said in a statement on Monday that it had ordered all of the country’s banks to sharply increase financial support for private companies, with big state-owned banks told to increase loans to smaller firms by more than 30 percent.
The private sector accounts for over half of China’s economic growth and most of its new jobs, but firms have been facing higher borrowing costs and a tougher time obtaining financing as they carry higher credit risks than state firms.
The regulator said banks will now be prohibited from discriminatory practices when approving loans for private firms.
To crack down on “rampant and blind” expansion of financial institutions, the CBIRC has targeted practices ranging from less regulated interbank activities to the shadow banking sector, which has been a major funding source for private companies.
It has also pressed banks to speed up disposal of bad loans and encouraged companies to convert debt into equity to free up capital for new lending.
The scale of high-risk assets shrank by about 12 trillion yuan ($1.79 trillion) in the previous two years, while lenders disposed of 3.48 trillion yuan in non-performing loans, the regulator said.
More than 2 trillion yuan worth of debt-for-equity swap deals have been signed by lenders, it added, though details of many of those arrangements have been murky.
It has also banned consumer loans from being used illicitly to speculate on property to avoid fueling real estate bubbles.
The CBIRC said shadow banking risks have now been contained, which will allow policymakers to better balance the need for stable economic growth this year while continuing to reduce financial risks.
The IMF estimated in 2017 that China’s total non-financial sector debt would rise to almost 300 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) by 2022, up from 242 percent in 2016.
But hidden borrowing by Chinese local governments could be as high as 40 trillion yuan — amounting to “a debt iceberg with titanic credit risks,” S&P Global Ratings said in a report late last year.
When including off-balance sheet local government debt, China’s ratio of government debt to gross domestic product (GDP) could have reached an “alarming” level of 60 percent in 2017, according to S&P. ($1 = 6.6903 Chinese yuan renminbi)


Nicaragua puffing up status in rarefied world of premium cigars

Updated 12 min 42 sec ago
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Nicaragua puffing up status in rarefied world of premium cigars

  • Nicaraguan cigar exports to the US have increased by 40 percent since 2008
  • Half of town of Esteli is employed in the tobacco industry

ESTELI, Nicaragua: From “rich and full-bodied” to “complex with hints of licorice,” aficionados exhaust the lexicon to capture the essence of Nicaragua’s most highly-prized produce — not wine, but cigars, which are especially popular in the United States.
The recognition turns the vibrant green hills of Esteli, in the troubled Central American country’s northwest, into a hive of activity come harvest time.
Here, 800 meters (2,620 feet) above sea level, half of the population of 110,000 is employed in the tobacco industry — picking, drying or curing, or rolling cigars in factories.
“No one has soil as good for tobacco as Nicaragua,” explains Nestor Plasencia, whose family business is one of the country’s leading cigar exporters, as he sits and savors the sweet aroma of one of their creations.
Nutrient-rich volcanic soil and know-how imported from Cuba more than 50 years ago, as well as a knowledgeable workforce have set Nicaragua apart when it comes to growing flavorful top-quality tobacco.
Apart from Esteli, the two other tobacco-growing regions are the Condega and Jalapa valleys in the north, each with their own distinct soils and minerals.
Part of the lure of Nicaraguan tobacco is that “the same seeds planted in different soils and climatic regions give different flavors,” Plasencia said, between spiralling puffs.
Cuban cigars may easily outsell the lesser-known Nicaraguan product in Europe, but Nicaraguan brands have taken advantage of the crippling US embargo on Havana — in place since 1961 — to sell to the Americans.
Nicaraguan cigar exports to the US have increased by 40 percent since 2008, reaching 140 million cigars in 2018, outstripping the Dominican Republic and Honduras, according to figures from the Cigar Association of America (CAA).
Nicaragua’s industry is a young one — it was started by Cuban exiles who fled Fidel Castro’s revolution in 1959. When the Central American country’s civil war ended at the start of the 1990s, the industry started to flourish.
“My family started in tobacco in Cuba in 1865. Today we operate in Nicaragua and Honduras,” says Plasencia, whose father hails from the Caribbean island.
Today, the country has 70 factories producing more than 5,000 brands, says the director of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Tobacco Producers, Wenceslao Castillo.
Karina Rivera, a quality control supervisor at Plasencia Cigars, tests an average of eight cigars a day.
“If I see that it’s not at the level of quality demanded by customers, we report immediately to find out where the problem is,” she said.
Smokers say a lot is going on in a cigar during puffs, tasting richness, balance and complexity — a variety of flavors and aromas that have helped several Nicaraguan brands conquer the US market.
In 2018, American trade magazine Cigar Aficionado named seven Nicaraguan brands in the top 10 of its annual ranking.
As for the Best Cigar of the Year, the “E.P. Carrillo Encore Majestic” is made in the Dominican Republic, but with Nicaraguan tobacco, the magazine says.
“The strength of the Nicaraguan tobacco industry is our focus on quality, which is why we are today the largest exporter of premium cigars to the United States,” Castillo says proudly.
It’s clear that in the rarified world of premium cigars, names are important. To the aficionado, in clubs and the best bars, they trip off the tongue — La Opulencia Toro, La Imperiosa, Villiger La Vencedora Churchill...
“We believe that 60 to 70 percent of our success is due to the way tobacco is dried and the time spent on fermentation and aging — we don’t rush things,” says Castillo.
“The trilogy of this success is the soils, the microclimate and the people, the care they put into their work,” says Plasencia, who runs two factories in the Central American country and exports 15 million cigars a year to the United States.
The cigar industry has had to do more that resist climatic changes to survive.
It’s one of the few to emerge largely unscathed from the political and economic crisis that has rocked Nicaragua for more than a year, after a violent crackdown on anti-government demonstrations left more than 325 people dead and forced 62,000 into exile.
It also put 400,000 out of work in an economy that had enjoyed annual 4.0 percent growth, according to the private sector.
“If it weren’t for these factories, Esteli would surely be deserted,” says 43-year-old Silvia Moreno, who has worked in the tobacco industry for half her life.