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Identifying 'Gray Rhinos' Key to Reducing Their Risk

August 29, 2017

It's only recently that the term "gray rhino" entered the lexicon of the economic world, but what it indicates — large and obvious risks that are often neglected — has always been around.

In China's case, the "gray rhinos" could stem from shadow banking, the real estate bubble, high leverage at State-owned enterprises (SOEs), local government debt and illegal fundraising, according to the Office of the Central Leading Group on Finance and Economic Affairs, China's top economic policymaking office.

Identifying "gray rhinos" is important in dealing with them. How can we guard against a certain risk if we don't even acknowledge its existence? The US subprime mortgage crisis was a typical example of failing to recognize the "gray rhino." Before the crisis, many people were aware that there was a problem with subprime mortgages, but combined with the inattention of regulatory bodies to this problem, some were inclined to believe that the problem would somehow go away, which proved to be wishful thinking.

The "gray rhinos" threatening China are well-known to the public, which has heard numerous warnings from various experts. Take the real estate bubble as an example. It's apparent to many that the current state of China's economic development can hardly sustain high property prices in major cities for long.

However, since the real estate sector is a pillar industry of the economy, any attempt to prick the bubble may trigger a crisis and have a negative impact on the overall economy. Therefore, deflating the bubble without pricking it is a delicate, long-term balancing act for the government.

While the real estate bubble seems relatively urgent and severe, it should be pointed out that shadow banking has played a crucial role in the formation of almost all the "gray rhinos" in China, contributing not only to the bubble in the property sector but also to SOEs' high leverage.

But shadow banking itself is not the real cause of the problem, and a proper understanding of the origin of "gray rhinos" is needed to address the risks. The rise of the shadow banking sector is driven by financing needs that cannot be met through either the formal banking system or the capital market.

China's banking system has developed unevenly and it is not completely market-driven. The inadequate incentive structure in the financial system keeps lenders from serving the needs of all enterprises and consumers. China's financial imbalances and excessive liquidity have also contributed to the growth of shadow banking, as excessive liquidity has failed to flow into the real economy and has instead circulated in the financial system. This situation has in turn exacerbated the real estate bubble, SOEs' high leverage, excess local government debt and other risks.

Addressing such risks without pricking the bubble requires a delicate balance of measures, meaning that decision-makers need a high level of wisdom to steer the whole economy.

An "iron fist" approach should be avoided or it may risk triggering a new crisis. For instance, when China's securities regulators cracked down on margin financing outside the brokerage system in June 2015 to reduce mounting risks in the stock market, their action backfired as it stoked market fears and led to plunges in stock prices.

With high leverage seen as a source of financial risks, some are concerned that the deleveraging process will cause a slowdown in economic growth, which may generate new risks and cause new crises. Such worries could be justified if China's economic environment remained stuck in the past, when financial institutions and SOEs relied heavily on excess liquidity and high leverage.

To break out of this cycle, China must further facilitate the growth of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as well as innovative companies. That requires strong policy support from the government, such as lowering the entry barriers to key industries for non-SOEs and reducing the tax and regulatory burdens of SMEs to improve their profitability. Capital always seeks the highest returns, so if SMEs improve their revenues and profits, capital will naturally be drawn into them and keep liquidity from flowing out of the real economy.

To defuse China's "gray rhinos," authorities need to control risk and reduce leverage in traditional sectors, while at the same time providing incentives to guide capital into SMEs and innovative industries that will be the new drivers of continued economic growth.


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