The Bank of International Settlements (BIS) has sounded the alarm about excessive debt in the Chinese financial system. According to the BIS – an international banking watchdog – China’s credit-to-GDP gap has now reached 30.1. The next highest country on the list is Canada with 12.1.
rating above 10 indicates a banking crisis within the next three years.
problem stems from the fact that Beijing has long relied on credit expansion to
fuel its economic growth. This credit has been used to expand SOEs, build new
infrastructure and government buildings, engage in property speculation, and,
more recently, simply to pay down preexisting loans. According to The
Economist, roughly two-fifths of all new debt goes directly toward paying
interest from previous loans. Unsurprisingly, it’s getting more and more
difficult to convert credit into productive GDP value.
speed of China’s debt accumulation was singled out by the BIS as particularly
worrisome. China’s total debt-to-GDP ratio grew to 255% this year, up from 147%
debt problem is obvious, but dealing with it is a question of political will.
The issuance of new debt has ensured continued growth under difficult global
circumstances; turning off the taps will slow the economic engine, which is a
sensitive issue for the Party. The debate is surely playing out behind the
closed doors of the Xi administration, as is the norm for Chinese
politics. We caught a glimpse of it back in May, when an anonymous letter
from a top official was published in People’s Daily. The letter
took policymakers to task for allowing debt to balloon, warning that
debt-fueled growth could not go on forever.
Chinese policymakers believe that now is not a good time to deal with the debt
situation. China is currently facing a laundry list of serious, albeit
manageable economic issues. Capital is flowing out of the country at a steady
clip (2016 has seen $400 billion transferred offshore so far), foreign reserves
are being drained to prop up the yuan, yet another property bubble seems to be
inflating (Shanghai home prices rose 4.4% in August), the huge state-owned
industry is largely unproductive and in need of reform, and memories of the
stock market crashes of last year still remain.
issues are contributing to pressure not to ‘rock the boat’ of economic
development, and as a result debt continues to expand at a frenetic pace.
are two takes on where this will all end. Some believe that the problem is
controllable given the Chinese government’s large foreign reserves and the
amount of government control in the Chinese context. China is still a close
financial system, and most of the banks in question – and their debtors – are
owned by the government. For now, bad debts can be rolled over at Zhongnanhai’s
behest, corroding the productivity of the world’s second-largest economy. If
things get really bad, the government can just step in and eat the write-off
similar to TARP in the United States post-2009.
believe that the massive size of the problem makes it impossible to contain.
Chinese banks now account for a staggering $34 trillion in assets. Should an
inflection point be reached and non-performing loans start to erode asset
prices, even a modest reduction would reverberate around the global economy.
way, two things appear likely in the short-term: Beijing will lack the kind of
decisiveness that Chinese governance has come to represent when it comes to the
debt issue, allowing for the continued expansion of the country’s debt
footprint, and at some point government finances will be tapped into in a major
way to contain the problem and bailout non-performing loans and public