WHEN, AS IS expected later this year, the U.S. Federal Reserve starts to raise interest rates, it will put renewed strain on emerging economies’ debt management. Those most vulnerable are countries with high levels of dollar-denominated external debt and those with high public debt.
Where does that leave China? As so often, slightly oddly placed.
China’s external debt exposure is low. Foreign debt is estimated to be equivalent to less than 10% of GDP. That modest figure by international standards is because China funded its infrastructure building domestically and not by borrowing from abroad. Thus it has avoided one of the textbook potential triggers of an emerging market debt crisis. It helps that China has a financial system that is semi-detached from global capital markets.
On the other hand, China’s domestic borrowing is huge. Total debt, including debt of the financial sector, nearly quadrupled between 2007 and 2014, by the reckoning of the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI), rising from $7.4 trillion to $28.2 trillion, or from 158% of GDP to 282%. This increase was a consequence of the investment-driven stimulus Beijing launched to offset the 2008 global financial crisis and which was funded by bank credit, albeit domestic not external borrowing.
That new debt was largely taken on by non-financial corporations. MGI calculates that that set’s debt accounts for 125% of GDP. Rating agency Standard & Poor’s estimates that China surpassed the United States as the largest corporate debt borrower in 2013.
China’s non-financial corporations are a broad church, however. Their debt is concentrated within state-owned enterprises, not anymore in private companies with the one significant exception of firms in the property sector. MGI estimates that approaching half of non-financial corporate debt connects in some way to real estate development, with 60 firms accounting for two-thirds of it.
An IMF Working Paper on corporate indebtedness in China published by Mali Chivakul and W. Raphael Lam in March puts it thus, “while leverage on average is not high, there is a fat tail of highly leveraged firms accounting for a significant share of total corporate debt, mainly concentrated in the real estate and construction sector and state-owned enterprises in general.”
Chivakul and Lam go on to argue that development and construction firms could withstand a modest interest rate shock, but other corporations in the wider economy would feel the knock-on effect of a slowdown in the property sector. “The share of debt that would be in financial distress would rise to about a quarter of total listed-firm debt in the event of a 20% decline in real estate and construction profits,” they say.
A separate report from economists at the Hong Kong Monetary Authority comes up with a similar analysis — that China’s debt problem is largely an SEO debt problem — and points the finger at ‘policy driven lending’. “SOEs’ leveraging has been mainly driven by implicit government support amid lower funding costs than private enterprises,” they say.
There is now less such politically driven new lending than before. That partly reflects the passing of the post-2008 stimulus but also a recognition that private firms create the new jobs that are critical to social stability. It also reflects the shuttering, particularly since 2012, of small, inefficient and heavily polluting and indebted SOEs in industries such as steel, cement and mining.
A further round of such ‘SOE reform’ seems likely. And to this Bystander, the corruption investigations into SOEs seems in part an attempt to accelerate those reforms, given that SEOs are seen as acting as a drag on the wider push for reform and economic rebalancing.
From SOEs it is but a short step to China’s other deep pool of domestic-debt concern — local government borrowing. Outstanding debt has reportedly reached 16 trillion yuan ($2.6 trillion), up 47% from June 2013. Overall, government debt is equivalent to 55% of GDP, again not a concerning high level by international standards. But it is concentrated in pockets, closely tied to real estate, and a further drag on an already slowing economy.
Beijing has both the political will and the financial wherewithal to underwrite local government defaults and forestall any threat of financial systemic risk. However, policy makers will use the mere hint of it to push local government finance reform and deepening municipal bond markets.
Local governments have relied on land sales for revenue, and also seek to turn a yuan from commercial activities conducted through captive off-balance-sheet special financing vehicles, which have borrowed heavily from both mainstream and shadow banks. So the threat of contaigion is real. Rising interest rates will only make it more so, and aid the cause of local government finance reform.