China’s authorities must manage debt to avoid a financial crisis

China’s authorities must manage debt to avoid a financial crisis
China’s authorities must manage debt to avoid a financial crisis



International estimates of China’s debt levels vary widely. The Bank for International Settlements (BIS) estimated China’s debt at around 255 percent of GDP in Q1 2016. In contrast, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently reported a lower estimate – at around 225 percent of GDP. Both of these measures are based on China’s official Aggregate Financing data – which (as we’ve previously noted) captures only some of the country’s shadow banking sector – the major contributor to debt growth since 2012.


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China’s authorities must manage debt to avoid a financial crisis


Our estimate of debt draws on a broader measure of shadow banking, combined with bank loans and corporate and government bonds. This produces a much larger value for debt– at almost 323 percent of GDP in Q2 2016 – a level that places China among the highest debt advanced economies – an unprecedented position for a still developing economy. Risks related to shadow banking are distributed unevenly across the financial sector – with the IMF reporting that smaller banks are far more exposed (in terms of capital buffers) than the big four state-owned banks.

The majority of the debt sits in China’s corporate sector, particularly State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), which effectively ties the strategies of authorities in managing the debt to the broader challenges of SOE reform. Misallocation of debt to SOEs has contributed to excess production capacity in a number of sectors – particularly heavy industry – as well as expanding the debt-to-GDP ratio.

Standard & Poor’s notes that China’s private sector leverage declined in 2015, while SOE leverage continued to grow. Median SOE debt levels in 2015 were six times earnings (EBITDA), meaning that a large amount of cash flow would be required to service debt, reducing the amount available for re- investment or debt reduction.


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China’s authorities must manage debt to avoid a financial crisis


Earlier this year, the IMF estimated that the potential losses from the corporate loan portfolios of China’s banks could be around 6.9 percent of GDP – an estimate that the organisation described as conservative, given that it excluded potential additional risks related to shadow banking exposures.



In many respects, China’s financial system is shielded in ways other countries are not – allowing credit to accumulate rapidly (near or above the BIS danger level since 2009) without yet enduring a crisis. Domestic banks are relatively well capitalised, maintaining an internationally high reserve ratio (as mandated by Chinese authorities) and have a strong deposit base.

This means that banks are less reliant on international wholesale funding – which has a tendency to be withdrawn during periods of high risk concerns – while remaining capital controls restrict the capacity of residents from migrating their wealth (albeit not completely prevent it, as capital outflows in recent years demonstrate).

That said, the stability of funding is beginning to weaken – with banks increasingly using the short term interbank market. According to IMF’s October Global Financial Stability Report, wholesale funding (primarily domestic interbank and repo markets) provided over 30% of total bank funding in 2015, up from around 18% in 2014, with smaller banks particularly reliant on these sources. The short term nature of this funding is mismatched to the longer term loans to corporates.


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China’s authorities must manage debt to avoid a financial crisis


Despite the relatively shielded nature of the financial sector, these characteristics do not mean that China’s government can afford to ignore the debt issue (particularly as funding stability declines), but provides them with some time to appropriately address it. 



In the short term, Chinese authorities should seek to control, rather than reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio – as severe cuts to credit necessary to produce the latter would likely lead to a sharp slowdown in economic growth. Standard & Poor’s estimates that banks would require around RMB 11.3 trillion in recapitalisation if current credit growth rates persisted for the next five years. Controlling the debt issue will require increasing the efficiency of lending, particularly reducing the share of funding directed to SOEs. 

The IMF note a range of measures that Chinese authorities should consider – noting that a comprehensive response to the debt issue, while it is still manageable, offers the greatest chance for success. These include imposing harder budget constraints on SOEs, restructuring or liquidating highly indebted firms and managing losses across a range of parties, including the government where necessary. The IMF also recommends introducing social assistance for displaced workers and encouraging the entry of private firms across the economy. 

Plans to restructure SOEs have focussed largely on mergers and partial privatisation. Allowing firms to swap debt for equity (a policy approved by China’s State Council in early October) is one way to address the debt issue, but poorly performing, highly indebted firms are unlikely to be attractive opportunities for investors – particularly those still scarred by the 2015 share market bubble burst. Similarly there are concerns that banks could be forced to swap bad loans for equity in so-called zombie firms, achieving little in terms of restructuring. Harder decisions around the weakest SOEs – including liquidation – must be considered. This would require the development of a sound and consistent bankruptcy framework understood by all market participants. 

Greater competition is also a way to improve the efficiency of lending – particularly if banks are incentivised to lend to more innovative private sector firms. SOEs continue to enjoy preferential barriers to entry in a range of industries – including fast growing service sectors such as communications. Greater market access for private banks in the finance sector would likely contribute to reducing SOEs share of corporate debt – as profit rather than relationships would likely drive lending decisions. 


Warnings from the BIS and IMF have elevated concerns around China’s corporate debt levels. While the nature of China’s financial markets provides authorities with some additional time to address the issue, urgent reform to SOEs and increased competition across the economy will be necessary to avoid a medium term financial crisis. 

Gerard Burg is senior economist, Asia for NAB and can be contacted here.


China Financial Crisis

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