IN ITS never-ending quest to rein in profligate local officials, China this week ordered its indebted cities and provinces to draw up detailed repayment plans. But for these rules to work, the central government must prove that it is willing to let the miscreants default. Creditors doubt its resolve and expect it to go on bailing out the spendthrifts. As a result, they systematically give more generous lending terms to state-owned enterprises (SOEs) than to their private peers.
The bias is not immediately obvious. Looking at interest costs, China seems to have a level playing field. A 2011 survey, for example, revealed that the median interest rate on bank loans to private firms was 7.8%, just above the 7.5% average at the time. Borrowing rates for both SOEs and private firms have remained in line with each other since then, declining in tandem.
But this appearance of parity is superficial. Borrowing costs only tell half the story. The other half is the borrower’s quality. When investors assess the risk of lending to Chinese companies, they price in the assumption that the state will stand behind SOEs. How much is this…Continue reading