China’s Next Time Around
Chinese officials cut the country’s banking reserve ratio twice in February in an effort to encourage borrowing and, they hope, drive economic growth. Given China’s debt has already nearly doubled as a percentage of GDP since 2008, these latest efforts beg some important questions. Will the Chinese put this capital to productive use? Can the world debt markets handle it if they do not?
How worrying are China’s debts? They are certainly enormous. At the end of 2015 the country’s total debt reached about 240% of GDP. Private debt, at 200% of GDP, is only slightly lower than it was in Japan at the onset of its lost decades, in 1991, and well above the level in America on the eve of the financial crisis of 2007-08. Sooner or later China will have to reduce this pile of debt. History suggests that the process of deleveraging will be painful, and not just for the Chinese.
Explosive growth in Chinese debt is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most of it has accumulated since 2008, when the government began pumping credit through the economy to keep it growing as the rest of the world slumped. Chinese companies are responsible for most of the borrowing. The biggest debtors are large state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which responded eagerly to the government’s nudge to spend.
The borrowing binge is still in full swing. In January banks extended $385 billion (3.5% of GDP) in new loans. On February 29th the People’s Bank of China spurred them on, reducing the amount of cash banks must keep in reserve and so freeing another $100 billion for new lending. Signs of stress are multiplying. The value of non-performing loans in China rose from 1.2% of GDP in December 2014 to 1.9% a year later. Many SOEs do not seem to be earning enough to service their debts; instead, they are making up the difference by borrowing yet more. At some point they will have to tighten their belts and start paying down their debts, or banks will have to write them off at a loss — with grim consequences for growth in either case.