At the end of 2021, Hegang, a city in Heilongjiang Province, suddenly canceled its plan to recruit new staff because of strained finances. The local government’s revenue could only cover 16.8 percent of its expenditure in 2021. In November 2021, Bazhou in Hebei Province was ordered to stop collecting arbitrary fees from businesses to fill its coffers. “The budgetary imbalances of some local governments have become more pronounced,” this year’s government work report said.
Some places are short of both capital and projects, said Liu Shijin, deputy director of the economic committee of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, according to a conducted survey. As heavy debt burdens local governments, particularly hidden debt, they are not active in financing, including issuing special bonds. Liu Yuanchun said that many local governments are unwilling or incapable to invest in infrastructure.
China’s fiscal deficit ratio (deficit-to-GDP ratio) for 2022 is set at 2.8 percent, lower than the previous two years, to maintain fiscal sustainability. This year, tax rebates and cuts will reach 2.5 trillion yuan (US$393b), over 10 percent of the government’s total revenue, a big expenditure for local governments, Yao Yang said.
But this will not make the financial situation worse for local governments, Liu said, explaining that even though the deficit-to-GDP ratio is lowered by 0.4 percent compared to 2021, the total deficit scale will increase as GDP expands. Besides, as Zhang Liqun pointed out, State-owned financial institutions and specialized institutions will turn over their balance of profit in recent years to budgetary funds, making it possible to expand fiscal expenditure by at least 2 trillion yuan (US$314b) in 2022. The added expenditure will be allocated to bail out enterprises and stabilize employment to stimulate consumption and demand, Zhang said.
Meanwhile, transfer payments from the central to local governments will increase by 18 percent over the previous year, the biggest rise in years, for a grand total of 9.8 trillion yuan (US$1.5t). This capital will also go to the grassroots level to help ensure people’s wellbeing, wages and the normal operation of governments.
The work report said that special bonds for local governments will reach 3.65 trillion yuan (US$573.8b) to aid government investment, the same level as last year. Direct investment from the central government will reach 640 billion yuan (US$100.6b), 30 billion yuan (US$4.7b) over 2021. “The increase in government investment in infrastructure is clear,” Zhang said.
The real estate market, an important source of fiscal revenue, has shown signs of recovery. Since January, new real estate regulation policies have emerged in many places to stabilize the housing market and send signals of loosening regulation. Credit policies are relaxing too. Some banks in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, and Suzhou and Nanjing in Jiangsu Province have reduced mortgage rates.
But Yao Yang said that familiar tools such as infrastructure or real estate do not offer a way out. He has more faith in alternative paths tested in other countries, like directly giving subsidies to low-income groups to stimulate consumption.
While there is a consensus that consumption could change the situation of oversupply and insufficiency in demand, Liu and Zhang agree that consumption is slow to make change, as the promotion of consumption depends on many factors.
Liu pointed out that promoting consumption must correctly target the right groups for better marginal utility, and giving subsidies will involve concerns about fairness. Besides, local governments have no internal incentive to stimulate consumption, as investing in infrastructure will help improve local government officials’ performances and increase tax income, which cannot be achieved with consumption. Also, promoting consumption requires the government to put in real money, while with infrastructure the government only needs to plan projects and invest in startup capital, which can leverage private capital.
Investment has been a useful tool in China’s macro-economy regulation. This year, it still prefers to use government investment to attract private capital and boost economic development. But the results remain to be seen.