China’s black box economy

July 5, 2011

The more you know about Rising China, the more you want to know. Minxin Pei gives some valuable perspective on the nation’s suddenly emerging debt problem:

Based on the figure released by the National Audit Office (NAO) at the end of June, local governments have accumulated debts totalling 10.7 trillion renminbi (RMB) or $1.65 trillion – about 27 percent of China’s GDP in 2010. Because the NAO’s figure was based on a sampling of 6,500 local government-backed financial vehicles (out of more than 10,000 such vehicles nationwide), the actual magnitude of local government indebtedness is much greater. The People’s Bank of China, the central bank, recently estimated that local government debt totalled 14 trillion RMB (most of which was owed to banks), almost 30 percent higher than the NAO figure.

… On paper, China’s debt to GDP ratio is under 20 percent, making Beijing a paragon of fiscal virtue compared with profligate Western governments. However, if we factor in various government obligations that are typically counted as public debt, the picture doesn’t look pretty for China. Once local government debts, costs of re-capitalizing state-owned banks, bonds issued by state-owned banks, and railway bonds are included, China’s total debt amounts to 70 to 80 percent of GDP, roughly the level of public debt in the United States and the United Kingdom. Since most of China’s debt has been borrowed in the last decade, China is on an unsustainable trajectory at the current rate of debt accumulation, particularly when economic growth slows down, as it’s expected to do in the coming decade.

The longer term effects of massive non-performing loans owed to state banks by local governments are likely to manifest not in the form of a banking crisis, but in other more insidious – yet equally – harmful ways. Because the Chinese state owns trillions of RMB in assets (land, natural resources, state-owned monopolies, and $3 trillion in foreign exchange), Beijing should have enough resources to bail out local governments when these loans have to be repaid. But there’s no free lunch. Bailing out local governments with valuable financial resources in the coming decade – a decade in which China will experience the end of the demographic dividend, rising costs of healthcare and pensions, and slower economic growth – will mean China will have less capital to invest. For an investment-led economy, this implies even more sluggish growth.

I dunno.  Covering local debt, dealing with an aging population — is there really enough dough left over for a military that can project power globally?

2 comments

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How does that compare to the paragon of economic powers – the United States? If you add up the total government obligations – unfunded pensions, social security, medical costs, etc., they total more than the assets in private hands in the U.S. ($55 Trillion), and would be 4 or 5 TIMES the GDP.

I suppose it is all relative. When you go beyond a certain number, it matters not anymore.

Posted by zhubajie | Report as abusive

“Once local government debts, costs of re-capitalizing state-owned banks, bonds issued by state-owned banks, and railway bonds are included, China’s total debt amounts to 70 to 80 percent of GDP, roughly the level of public debt in the United States and the United Kingdom.”

It is clearly misguide and wrong statement. 80% of GDP is counting only US federal debt. If all local and state government added together using same measurement, it is way more than 80%.

Posted by jim1981 | Report as abusive