Overview

  • Policy changes have helped to rein in credit growth and reduce the reliance of economic growth on public investment. If these trends continue, risks to China's economic and financial stability could moderate.
  • China's economic growth is likely to slow further in the next few years. The economy is also likely to face elevated uncertainties owing to U.S.-China tensions and ongoing efforts to restructure the economy and reduce financial risks.
  • We affirm our 'A+' long-term and 'A-1' short-term sovereign credit ratings on China.
  • The stable outlook reflects our view that China will maintain above-average headline GDP growth and improve its fiscal performance over the next three to four years.

Rating Action

On Sept. 30, 2019, S&P Global Ratings affirmed its unsolicited 'A+' long-term and 'A-1' short-term sovereign credit ratings on China. The outlook on the long-term ratings is stable.

Outlook

The stable outlook reflects our view that China will maintain above-average headline GDP growth and see improved fiscal performance over the next three to four years. We expect per capita real GDP growth to stay above 5% annually, even as public investment growth slows further. In addition, we anticipate the stricter implementation of restrictions on the off-budget borrowings of subnational government to lead to a declining trend in fiscal deficits, as measured by changes in net general government debt in terms of GDP.

We may raise our ratings on China if credit growth slows further and is sustained below nominal income growth even as structural reforms help to maintain healthy real GDP growth. Fiscal support should also improve if general government deficits are lower than we currently expect. In this scenario, we believe risks to financial stability and medium-term growth prospects will lessen.

A downgrade could ensue if we see a higher likelihood that China will ease its efforts to stem rising financial risk and allow higher credit growth to support economic expansion in an unsustainable manner. We expect such a trend would weaken the Chinese economy's resilience to shocks, limit the government's policy options, and increase the likelihood of a sharper decline in the trend GDP growth rate.

Rationale

The ratings on China reflect our view of the government's reform agenda, growth prospects, and strong external metrics. We weigh these strengths against certain credit factors that are weaker than what is typical for similarly rated peers. For example, China has lower average income, less transparency, and a more restricted flow of information.

Institutional and economic profile: Reforms to budgetary framework and financial sector in progress

  • China's policymaking has helped it to maintain consistently strong economic performances since the late 1970s.
  • We project China's per capita GDP to rise to nearly US$12,000 by 2022, from a projected US$10,000 for 2019.
  • We expect real GDP per capita growth to remain above 5% annually in the next three years. We believe the current growth trajectory is less driven by credit disbursed by financial institutions than in previous years.

A number of factors have come together to put pressure on Chinese economic growth in the near future. These include the government's efforts to rein in financial risks, the weakening global economic growth and uncertainties associated with the bilateral tensions with the U.S. This has led to weaker expectations of Chinese economic growth for the next few years. Nevertheless, we continue to see real GDP growth of above 5% annually for the next three to four years.

The sustainability of superior economic performance, compared to peers at similar income levels, is likely to require further structural reforms in China. We do not expect U.S.-Chinese relations to normalize in the foreseeable future. This likely means that Chinese exports and manufacturing sector investment could see little growth over the next few years. U.S. restrictions on technology transfers to China could also hinder productivity improvements. In this environment, China is more likely to maintain strong economic growth if the reform momentum picks up.

The Chinese government appears to be taking new steps to improve economic efficiency and reduce financial risks. Policy measures to stabilize growth announced or implemented this year have differed from previous rounds of economic stimulus. While infrastructure spending remains a means of stimulating demand, the government has continued to rein in off-budget financing at local governments. It has also made more effort to support smaller enterprises that have recently come under greater pressure.

The government appears willing to accept the somewhat weaker economic growth that comes with these less direct support measures. We believe this tolerance for slightly slower growth is the reason broad credit growth has not picked up strongly despite the weaker growth prospects. We no longer believe strong credit growth will keep economic performance unsustainably strong. If stable or weakening credit growth persists, it could reduce the risk of financial instability that could affect the wider economy.

In the past year or so, the government has introduced new initiatives to experiment with further liberalization measures and greater openness to international investment. It recently ended ownership limits on foreign investors in the financial sector. Controls on foreign capital inflows to its financial markets were eased. The Chinese government also plans to liberalize economic laws and regulations in the city of Shenzhen, next to Hong Kong, and to expand the Shanghai free trade zone.

China's ability to adapt and change in response to the environment has helped the country to maintain consistently strong economic performances since the late 1970s. However, coordination issues between the ministries and the State Council sometimes lead to unpredictable and abrupt policy implementation. The authorities also have yet to develop an effective communication channel with the market to convey policy intent, heightening financial volatility at times. Moreover, China does not benefit from the checks and balances usually emanating from the free flow of information. These characteristics can lead to the misallocation of resources and may foster discontent over time.

Flexibility and performance profile: Capital account liberalization could lead to further growth of foreign holdings of Chinese financial assets

  • We expect liquid financial assets held by the public and financial sectors to exceed total external debt by almost 70% of current account receipts (CAR) at the end of 2019. At the same time, we estimate China's total external assets will exceed its external liabilities by 70%-75% of its CAR.
  • For 2019-2022, we project net general government debt to increase annually by 3%-4% of GDP. We project that net general government debt will fall below 52% of GDP in the period to 2022, and interest cost to government revenue will remain below 5% throughout the forecast horizon.
  • In our view, China's monetary policy is largely credible and effective. We believe the liberalization of interest rates at banks in recent years is an important reform that could further improve monetary policy transmission.

China's external profile remains a key credit strength, reflecting its position as a large external creditor and increasing international use of the renminbi. We expect financial assets held by the public and financial sectors to be close to 70% of CAR at the end of 2019. At the same time, we estimate that China's total external assets will exceed its external liabilities by more than 60% of its CAR. Its external liquidity position is equally robust. We anticipate China's current account will be nearly balanced in 2019-2021. Annual gross external financing needs in 2019-2022 should total 70%-75% of CAR plus usable reserves.

We believe the increasing global use of the renminbi bolsters China's external financial resilience. According to the Bank for International Settlements' (BIS) "Triennial Central Bank Survey," published in 2016, the renminbi was traded in 4% of foreign exchange transactions globally. We therefore assess the renminbi as an actively traded currency.

Demand for renminbi-denominated assets has increased in recent years. We expect the share of renminbi-denominated official reserves to rise. If the renminbi achieves reserve currency status (which we define as more than 3% of aggregated allocated international foreign exchange reserves), it could strengthen external and monetary support for the sovereign ratings. Although the People's Bank of China (the central bank) does not operate a fully floating foreign exchange regime, it has allowed greater flexibility in the nominal exchange rate over the past decade.

Even as economic growth slows, China continues to implement its ambitious fiscal reform to improve fiscal transparency, budgetary planning and execution, and subnational debt management. Despite the significant increase in subnational government bond issuances in 2019, infrastructure investment growth has remained low so far in the year. This could indicate stringent enforcement of measures to curb off-budget borrowing by local governments. Over time, we expect these reforms to help improve fiscal stability and efficiency of public spending.

In 2019-2022, we expect the Chinese government to keep the reported general government deficit close to, or below, 3% of GDP. However, off-balance-sheet borrowing could continue during this period. This reflects both the financing needs of public works started previously as well as some new projects that the central government is willing to authorize to support growth.

The use of off-balance sheet capital spending by local governments complicates the estimation of general government debt in China. In our view, the official disclosure of this indicator underestimates the fiscal debt burden as debts incurred by local government financing vehicles (LGFVs) for public investment are not included. For this reason, we have added our estimates of such debts to the official general government debt. We have also included the debts of the recently restructured China State Railway Group Co. Ltd. in general government debt. The company was previously the Ministry of Rail but was incorporated as a special industrial enterprise. Bonds issued by the company are held on the books of Chinese banks at a lower capital charge compared with other corporate debt. We have also added some debts related to the establishment of the national asset management companies more than a decade ago.

We offset these debts to compute net general government debt with fiscal deposits held by the government, net assets of the China Investment Corp., net assets of the National Council of Social Security Funds, and our estimate of liquid assets held by LGFVs. Using this method, we project net general government debt will fall below 52% of GDP in the period to 2022 and interest cost to revenue will remain below 5% throughout the forecast horizon. These forecasts in turn follow from our assumptions regarding real growth and ample domestic liquidity keeping financing costs low for the government. Using the estimates above, we project the increase in net general government debt in each of these years at 3%-4% of GDP.

Based on our assessment of China's Banking Industry Country Risk at '6' and the banking sector's balance sheet size of just above 200% of GDP, we see limited contingent liabilities coming from the financial system. In computing the gross assets of the banking sector, we reduce the total amount by the sectors' claim on the government. We also see limited sovereign exposure to other sources of contingent liability.

We believe China's monetary policy is largely credible and effective, as demonstrated by its record of low inflation and its pursuit of financial sector reform. Consumer price inflation is likely to remain below 3% annually over 2019-2022. Although the central government--through the State Council--has the final say in setting interest rates, we believe the central bank has significant operational independence, especially regarding open-market operations. These operations affect the economy through a largely responsive interbank market and a sizable and fast-expanding domestic bond market. The liberalization of commercial interest rates at banks in recent years is an important reform that could further improve monetary transmission in China.

Key Statistics

Table 1

China -- Selected Indicators
2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Economic indicators (%)
Nominal GDP (bil. LC) 59,296 64,128 68,599 74,006 82,075 90,031 97,565 105,382 113,743 122,566
Nominal GDP (bil. $) 9,570 10,438 11,016 11,138 12,144 13,608 14,079 14,624 15,689 16,906
GDP per capita (000s $) 7.0 7.6 8.0 8.1 8.7 9.8 10.0 10.4 11.1 11.9
Real GDP growth 7.8 7.3 6.9 6.7 6.9 6.6 6.2 5.8 5.7 5.5
Real GDP per capita growth 7.3 6.7 6.4 6.1 6.3 6.2 5.7 5.4 5.4 5.2
Real investment growth 8.2 6.0 2.9 5.5 7.4 7.1 5.2 6.0 5.8 5.6
Investment/GDP 47.6 47.2 45.6 44.5 44.3 44.1 44.8 44.7 44.9 45.4
Savings/GDP 49.1 49.5 48.4 46.3 46.0 44.4 45.0 44.9 44.8 45.1
Exports/GDP 24.6 23.6 21.4 19.7 20.0 19.5 18.7 18.0 17.0 16.3
Real exports growth 3.8 2.6 (3.9) (0.6) 9.9 5.0 2.0 2.0 1.7 2.3
Unemployment rate 4.1 4.1 4.1 4.0 3.9 3.8 3.7 3.8 3.9 3.9
External indicators (%)
Current account balance/GDP 1.5 2.3 2.8 1.8 1.6 0.4 0.3 0.1 (0.1) (0.3)
Current account balance/CARs 5.7 8.6 11.6 8.2 7.1 1.7 1.2 0.6 (0.4) (1.6)
CARs/GDP 27.1 26.3 23.8 22.0 22.6 21.4 21.1 20.7 19.8 19.1
Trade balance/GDP 3.8 4.2 5.2 4.4 3.9 2.9 2.8 2.6 2.3 1.9
Net FDI/GDP 2.3 1.4 0.6 (0.4) 0.2 0.8 0.5 0.4 0.4 0.3
Net portfolio equity inflow/GDP 0.3 0.5 (0.2) (0.1) 0.0 0.3 0.4 0.5 0.5 0.3
Gross external financing needs/CARs plus usable reserves 53.8 52.9 55.8 53.5 59.6 66.5 69.8 70.5 72.6 75.1
Narrow net external debt/CARs (115.4) (99.1) (101.7) (97.8) (83.8) (71.4) (67.2) (63.9) (58.0) (51.5)
Narrow net external debt/CAPs (122.4) (108.5) (115.0) (106.6) (90.2) (72.6) (68.0) (64.3) (57.7) (50.7)
Net external liabilities/CARs (77.0) (51.3) (56.5) (71.6) (69.3) (65.6) (61.5) (57.1) (52.0) (46.5)
Net external liabilities/CAPs (81.7) (56.2) (63.9) (78.0) (74.6) (66.8) (62.3) (57.4) (51.7) (45.8)
Short-term external debt by remaining maturity/CARs 29.8 36.3 50.5 37.6 33.3 41.8 45.4 45.9 48.2 50.0
Usable reserves/CAPs (months) 16.6 18.6 20.2 18.5 14.5 13.5 12.9 12.8 12.5 12.0
Usable reserves (mil. $) 3,880,267 3,899,811 3,479,955 3,071,129 3,228,316 3,166,927 3,207,084 3,254,375 3,301,441 3,352,158
Fiscal indicators (general government; %)
Balance/GDP (0.4) (0.6) (2.3) (2.8) (2.4) (2.8) (3.0) (2.7) (2.5) (2.3)
Change in net debt/GDP 0.6 0.9 50.9 1.0 (1.9) 6.2 4.0 4.0 3.7 3.3
Primary balance/GDP 0.0 (0.1) (1.9) (2.3) (1.9) (2.4) (2.5) (2.2) (1.9) (1.7)
Revenue/GDP 28.7 28.9 29.2 28.4 28.1 28.6 28.5 28.7 28.8 28.8
Expenditures/GDP 29.1 29.5 31.5 31.2 30.5 31.5 31.5 31.4 31.3 31.1
Interest/revenues 1.6 1.6 1.4 1.6 1.6 1.6 1.7 1.9 2.1 2.1
Debt/GDP 16.9 17.3 76.5 72.7 65.0 66.1 65.6 65.5 65.0 64.2
Debt/revenues 59.0 60.1 262.0 256.3 231.5 230.7 230.3 228.1 225.6 223.0
Net debt/GDP 11.8 11.8 62.0 58.4 50.8 52.5 52.4 52.6 52.3 51.8
Liquid assets/GDP 5.1 5.6 14.5 14.3 14.2 13.6 13.2 12.9 12.6 12.4
Monetary indicators (%)
CPI growth 2.6 2.0 1.4 2.0 1.6 2.1 2.1 2.0 1.9 1.9
GDP deflator growth 2.1 0.8 0.1 1.1 3.7 2.9 2.1 2.1 2.1 2.1
Exchange rate, year-end (LC/$) 6.10 6.12 6.49 6.95 6.51 6.85 7.15 7.25 7.25 7.25
Banks' claims on resident non-gov't sector growth 16.7 16.7 14.1 17.6 10.1 14.1 9.0 8.5 8.5 8.5
Banks' claims on resident non-gov't sector/GDP 146.6 158.1 168.7 183.9 182.6 189.9 191.0 191.8 192.8 194.2
Foreign currency share of claims by banks on residents N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Foreign currency share of residents' bank deposits 2.6 2.9 3.0 3.3 3.2 2.9 3.0 3.0 3.0 3.0
Real effective exchange rate growth 5.5 3.2 9.8 (4.9) (2.9) 1.3 N/A N/A N/A N/A
Sources: National Bureau of Statistics (Economic & Monetary indicators), Ministry of Finance of the People's Republic of China,National Bureau of Statistics (Fiscal indicators), State Administration of Foreign Exchange (External Indicators). Adjustments: Some bonds issued by the 4 central government owned AMCs and debt of China Rail is included in GG debt. Definitions: Savings is defined as investment plus the current account surplus (deficit). Investment is defined as expenditure on capital goods, including plant, equipment, and housing, plus the change in inventories. Banks are other depository corporations other than the central bank, whose liabilities are included in the national definition of broad money. Gross external financing needs are defined as current account payments plus short-term external debt at the end of the prior year plus nonresident deposits at the end of the prior year plus long-term external debt maturing within the year. Narrow net external debt is defined as the stock of foreign and local currency public- and private- sector borrowings from nonresidents minus official reserves minus public-sector liquid assets held by nonresidents minus financial-sector loans to, deposits with, or investments in nonresident entities. A negative number indicates net external lending. N/A--Not applicable. LC--Local currency. CARs--Current account receipts. FDI--Foreign direct investment. CAPs--Current account payments. e--Estimate. f--Forecast. The data and ratios above result from S&P Global Ratings' own calculations, drawing on national as well as international sources, reflecting S&P Global Ratings' independent view on the timeliness, coverage, accuracy, credibility, and usability of available information.

Ratings Score Snapshot

Table 2

Ratings Score Snapshot
Key rating factors Score Explanation
Institutional assessment 3 Policy choices generally deliver sustainable public finances and strong economic growth. Significant improvement in business environment in recent years. However, corruption still remains an issue and transparency is relatively weaker.
Economic assessment 3 Based on GDP per capita (US$) and growth trends as per Selected Indicators in table 1.
Weighted average real GDP per capita trend growth over a 10-year period is close to 6%, which is well above sovereigns at similar levels of average income.
External assessment 1 Based on narrow net external debt and gross external financing needs/(CAR + useable reserves) as per Selected Indicators in table 1.
China's renminbi is an actively traded currency, accounting for more than 1% of global foreign exchange market turnover. The sovereign displays current account surpluses, on average, in 2018-2021 (as per Selected Indicators in table 1).
Fiscal assessment: flexibility and performance 4 Based on the change in net general government debt (% of GDP) as per Selected Indicators in table 1.
Fiscal assessment: debt burden 2 Based on net general government debt (% of GDP) and general government interest expenditures (% of general government revenues) as per Selected Indicators in table 1.
Monetary assessment 3 China's renminbi is an actively traded currency with the exchange rate regime of managed float. The central bank (PBoC) intervenes intermittently in foreign exchange markets, based on the developments of the foreign exchange market and economic and financial situation.
PBoC has significant operational independence and is able to act as lender of last resort.
Indicative rating a As per table 1 of "Sovereign Rating Methodology."
Notches of supplemental adjustments and flexibility 1 An improvement in one rating factor could lead to a two-notch change in the indicative rating level to 'aa-', as per table 1 of the Sovereign Rating Methodology.
Foreign currency A+
Notches of uplift 0 Default risks do not apply differently to foreign- and local-currency debts.
Local currency A+
S&P Global Ratings' analysis of sovereign creditworthiness rests on its assessment and scoring of five key rating factors: (i) institutional assessment; (ii) economic assessment; (iii) external assessment; (iv) the average of fiscal flexibility and performance, and debt burden; and (v) monetary assessment. Each of the factors is assessed on a continuum spanning from 1 (strongest) to 6 (weakest). S&P Global Ratings' "Sovereign Rating Methodology," published on Dec. 18, 2017, details how we derive and combine the scores and then derive the sovereign foreign currency rating. In accordance with S&P Global Ratings' sovereign ratings methodology, a change in score does not in all cases lead to a change in the rating, nor is a change in the rating necessarily predicated on changes in one or more of the scores. In determining the final rating the committee can make use of the flexibility afforded by §15 and §§126-128 of the rating methodology.

Related Criteria

Related Research

  • Banking Industry Country Risk Assessment Update: September 2019
  • Sovereign Ratings List, Sept. 4, 2019
  • Sovereign Ratings History, Sept. 4, 2019
  • Sovereign Ratings Score Snapshot, Sept. 2, 2019
  • Credit FAQ: Hong Kong Government Ratings Have Buffer To Absorb Impact Of Protests, Aug. 30, 2019
  • China Credit Spotlight: The Trade War Is A Distraction, Aug. 27, 2019
  • Asia-Pacific Sovereign Rating Trends Midyear 2019, July 26, 2019
  • Global Sovereign Rating Trends: Midyear 2019, July 26, 2019
  • Sovereign Risk Indicators, July 12, 2019; a free interactive version is available at http://www.spratings.com/sri
  • Default, Transition, and Recovery: 2018 Annual Sovereign Default And Rating Transition Study, March 16, 2019

In accordance with our relevant policies and procedures, the Rating Committee was composed of analysts that are qualified to vote in the committee, with sufficient experience to convey the appropriate level of knowledge and understanding of the methodology applicable (see 'Related Criteria And Research'). At the onset of the committee, the chair confirmed that the information provided to the Rating Committee by the primary analyst had been distributed in a timely manner and was sufficient for Committee members to make an informed decision.

After the primary analyst gave opening remarks and explained the recommendation, the Committee discussed key rating factors and critical issues in accordance with the relevant criteria. Qualitative and quantitative risk factors were considered and discussed, looking at track-record and forecasts.

The committee's assessment of the key rating factors is reflected in the Ratings Score Snapshot above.

The chair ensured every voting member was given the opportunity to articulate his/her opinion. The chair or designee reviewed the draft report to ensure consistency with the Committee decision. The views and the decision of the rating committee are summarized in the above rationale and outlook. The weighting of all rating factors is described in the methodology used in this rating action (see 'Related Criteria And Research').

Ratings List

Ratings Affirmed

China

Sovereign Credit Rating A+/Stable/A-1
Transfer & Convertibility Assessment
Local Currency A+

China

Senior Unsecured A+
|U~ Unsolicited ratings with no issuer participation and/or no access to internal documents.

This unsolicited rating(s) was initiated by a party other than the Issuer (as defined in S&P Global Ratings' policies). It may be based solely on publicly available information and may or may not involve the participation of the Issuer and/or access to the Issuer's internal documents. S&P Global Ratings has used information from sources believed to be reliable based on standards established in our policies and procedures, but does not guarantee the accuracy, adequacy, or completeness of any information used.

Certain terms used in this report, particularly certain adjectives used to express our view on rating relevant factors, have specific meanings ascribed to them in our criteria, and should therefore be read in conjunction with such criteria. Please see Ratings Criteria at www.standardandpoors.com for further information. Complete ratings information is available to subscribers of RatingsDirect at www.capitaliq.com. All ratings affected by this rating action can be found on S&P Global Ratings' public website at www.standardandpoors.com. Use the Ratings search box located in the left column.

Primary Credit Analyst:KimEng Tan, Singapore (65) 6239-6350;
kimeng.tan@spglobal.com
Secondary Contact:Rain Yin, Singapore (65) 6239-6342;
rain.yin@spglobal.com

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