May 11th 2016

Rescaling China’s Debt Mountain

by Barry Eichengreen

Barry Eichengreen is Professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

MONTREAL – There is widespread agreement on two facts about the Chinese economy. First, the slowdown has ended and growth is picking up. Second, not all is well financially. But there is no agreement on what happens next.

The good news is that domestic demand continues to grow. Car sales were up nearly 10% in March over the same month in 2015. And retail spending grew at an annual clip of 10% in the first quarter.

The most dramatic increase, though, is in investment. Real estate investment is growing again, following its collapse in 2015. Industrial investment, especially by state-owned enterprises, has been rallying strongly.

At the root of this turnaround is enormous credit growth, as the authorities, concerned that the earlier slowdown was excessive, encourage China’s banks to lend. Credit growth, known in China as “total social financing,” grew at an annual rate of 13% in the fourth quarter of 2015 and again in the first quarter of this year – that is, double the rate of annual GDP growth. Since the financial crisis erupted in September 2008, China has had the fastest credit growth of any country in the world. Indeed, it is hard to point to another credit boom of this magnitude in recorded history.

The bad news is that credit booms rarely end well, as the economists Moritz Schularick and Alan Taylor have reminded us. China’s credit tsunami is financing investment in steel and property, sectors already burdened by massive excess capacity. The companies doing the borrowing, in other words, are precisely those least capable of repaying.

The International Monetary Fund, which tends to adopt a conservative posture on such matters (not least to avoid antagonizing powerful governments), estimates that 15% of Chinese loans to nonfinancial corporations are at risk. With nonfinancial corporations’ debt currently standing at 150% of GDP, the book value of the bad loans could be a quarter of national income.

It still may be possible to sell off vacant apartments for a fraction of their construction cost. It may be possible to sell off rolling mill machinery to other countries, or as scrap. But where the loans at risk are concentrated – in steel, mining, and real estate – suggests that losses will be substantial.

This is why the supposedly painless solution, debt-for-equity swaps, will not be painless. Yes, bad loans can be purchased by asset-management companies, which can package them up and sell them off to other investors. But if the asset managers pay full book value for those loans, they will incur losses, and the government will have to foot the bill. If they pay only market value, it will be the banks that incur losses, and the government will have to repair their balance sheets.

This leaves three unpalatable options. First, the authorities can issue bonds to raise the funding needed to recapitalize the banks. In doing so, they would effectively transform the corporate debt problem into a public debt problem. This would place the financial burden squarely on the shoulders of future taxpayers, which would not enhance consumer confidence.

It also would not enhance confidence in the public finances. Public debt in China is still relatively low; but, as any citizen of Ireland can tell you, it can balloon when banking crises strike.

Alternatively, the central bank could finance the repair by providing credit. But, while the authorities relied on this approach in 1999, the last time they were faced with a serious bad-loan problem, running the money printing press is not compatible with officials’ other stated goal: a stable exchange rate. We saw last August how investors can panic when the renminbi exchange rate moves unexpectedly. Currency depreciation may not only precipitate a destabilizing spiral of capital flight; it could also destabilize the banks, from which money leaving the country must first be withdrawn.

The final option is to imagine that the bad-loan problem will solve itself. The banks would be encouraged to “evergreen” their loans: to roll them over when repayment falls due. The fiction that the banks are well capitalized will be maintained. Borrowers that need to be liquidated or reorganized will instead stay alive, thanks to the drip-feed of bank finance. The result will look familiar to aficionados of Japan’s banking crisis: zombie banks lending to zombie firms, which apply artificial pressure on viable firms, stifling their growth.

Financing bank recapitalization through bond issuance is probably the least bad option. This doesn’t mean that it will be painless. Nor is there any assurance that Chinese policymakers will opt for it. But if they don’t, the consequences could be dire.


Barry Eichengreen is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Cambridge. His latest book is Hall of Mirrors: The Great Depression, the Great Recession, and the Uses – and Misuses – of History.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2016.
www.project-syndicate.org

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "