China vows to control debt despite fresh stimulus for cooling economy

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Chinese Finance Minister Xiao Jie (2nd L) attends a news conference during the ongoing National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament. Reuters

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s state planner pledged yesterday to keep debt levels under control even as Beijing rolls out fresh stimulus to support the stumbling economy as a trade war with the US deepens.

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The comments by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) came a day after China reported surprisingly weak data that showed investment growth has slowed to a record low.

To stabilise business conditions and weather the trade war, Beijing is stepping up infrastructure spending and injecting more funds into the banking system, which is lowering borrowing costs. New loans by China’s largely state-backed banks surged 75 percent in July from a year earlier.

But some China watchers fear Beijing’s shift in priorities may mark a return to its unrestrained, credit-fuelled growth, reversing years of work by regulators to reduce risks in the financial system and stem a rapid build-up in debt.

NDRC spokesman Cong Liang told a media briefing that new spending on roads, railways, elderly care and education will not be as heavy as in the past and will aim to meet real demand, reducing the risk of over-capacity.

Authorities are also hoping to attract private investment in such projects to reduce the government’s debt burden, he said, noting that regulators are relaxing restrictions on local governments’ ability to sell special bonds to fund projects.

Several large rail projects have been announced in just the last few days.

Yesterday, the NDRC gave Jiangsu Communications Holdings the green-light to sell up to 20 billion yuan ($2.90 billion) of so-called enterprise bonds, or debt issued by state-owned firms.

Of the proceeds, 12 billion yuan will be used to finance high-speed railway and toll road projects.

The issuance was the biggest enterprise bond approved by the NDRC since mid-June.

In a more tangible sign of pump-priming, builders and engineers started work on a revamp of a train station in southwest Beijing on Monday. The station is said to be the biggest in Asia by size, and the project is budgeted to cost 7.2 billion yuan.

However, analysts such as Capital Economics have cautioned that new projects are unlikely to put a floor under economic growth until the middle of next year.

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