Chinese accounting is ‘highly questionable’: Strategist

Corporate earnings balance sheet
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Financial reporting in China was back in the spotlight again Friday, with one strategist claiming Chinese businesses were using "accounting trickery" to mask underlying credit problems.

China looks like it's heading towards a credit bust, Chris Watling, CEO and chief market strategist at Longview Economics told CNBC on Friday, explaining that cash borrowed by mainland firms is primarily being used to service debts.

"We've been looking a lot at Chinese accounting recently and it is highly questionable," he said.

The corporate sector is increasing borrowing to pay interest, while instances of fraud and default are on the rise, he added in a note published Thursday.

He said there were many examples where operating profit has been high, while cash flow has been negative — a "classic sign" that firms aren't generating a profit, he added.

Watling highlighted that the balance sheets of commercial banks were particularly worrying.

"In an economy which has undergone a credit boom, all of the lending is not necessarily readily apparent from the top level data," he said.

"Accounting trickery is often at work," Watling claimed.

Chinese corporates would reject the accusations, but this isn't the first time there has been speculation over the accuracy of Chinese figures.

Back in September, the state's statistics bureau announced it would officially change the way it calculated gross domestic product amid skepticism over the credibility of the numbers as the government sought to sooth reaction to China's economic slowdown.

Watling now claims lenders are using tricks like labelling loan collateral as revenue in their balance sheets, rather than as a creditor.

And it may be helping inflate banks' balance sheets, which in aggregate have increased tenfold in 10 years to over three times gross domestic product at $30 trillion, he said.

However, whether this will help lead to a devastating credit bust isn't clear, Watling explained, saying that while the cracks are starting to show, the economy is managed so differently that normal market rules don't necessarily apply.

A current slowdown in Chinese growth comes at a time when the country's leadership is stepping up regulation, curbing an overheated credit market and switching an export-focused economy into a consumer-driven one.

After double-digit growth for the last decade, investors and officials in China are coming to terms with growth that has fallen below 7 percent, hitting a 25- year low.

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