World Economy

China's debt is growing at a faster pace despite years of efforts to contain it

Key Points
  • China's debt grew at the fastest pace in four years in September, a Reuters analysis showed
  • The build-up has continued despite years of efforts to contain the explosive growth of debt
  • Debt in the real estate sector multiplied the most over the last five years, followed by industrials, according to the analysis by Reuters

For years China's top officials have touted their ambitious policy priority to wean the world's second-largest economy off high levels of debt, but there is not much to show for it.

On the contrary, a Reuters analysis shows the debt pile at Chinese firms has been climbing in that time, with levels at the end of September growing at the fastest pace in four years.

The build-up has continued even as policymakers roll out a series of measures to end the explosive growth of debt, including persuading state firms and local governments to prune borrowing and tighter rules and monitoring of banks' short-term borrowing.

By some estimates, China's overall debt is now as much as three times the size of its economy.

Without a comprehensive strategy to tackle the overhang, there is a growing risk China will have a banking crisis or sharply slower growth or both, the International Monetary Fund said last year.

China's central bank governor, Zhou Xiaochuan, made global headlines with a warning last month of the risks of a "Minsky moment", referring to a sudden collapse in asset prices after long periods of growth, sparked by debt or currency pressures.

On the sidelines of a key, twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress in October, Zhou referred to relatively high corporate debt and the fast pace of growth in household lending.

While also pledging to fend off such risks, Zhou has acknowledged it will take some time to bring debt down to more manageable levels.

Reuters analysis of 2,146 China listed firms showed their total debt at the end of September jumped 23 percent from a year ago, the highest pace of growth since 2013. The analysis covered three-fifths of the country's listed firms, but excluded financials, which have seen the brunt of government de-risking and deleveraging efforts so far.

The analysis revealed that debt in the real estate sector multiplied the most over last five years, followed by industrials.

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The share of industrials in the total debt for the companies covered went up by 3 percentage points since the end of 2012, while that for the real estate sector went up by 7 percentage points.

As of September, state-owned enterprises (SOEs) reported a comparatively faster pace of growth in their debt. Total debt at 75 of the CSI Central SOE 100 index companies, which excludes financials, increased by more than 27 percent from a year ago, the biggest increase in many years.

Highlighting the size of the problem and the drag on current and future economic growth, debt servicing costs have gobbled up about a fourth of state-owned firms' revenues in the last few quarters.

The ratio rose to around 27 percent in the second quarter — the highest in at least five years — before declining slightly to 24.47 percent in the third quarter due to a jump in revenues.

A scrutiny of corporate debt showed that borrowing through the issue of bonds has fallen, however, possibly as the regulatory clampdown has pushed up financing costs.

October's data on aggregate social financing of corporate bonds, released by the central bank, showed aggregate financing of corporate bonds stood at 18.34 trillion yuan ($2.77 trillion) at the end of October after increasing 4.4 percent from a year ago, the lowest growth rate in two years.

China's central bank just warned of a sudden collapse in asset prices
China's central bank just warned of a sudden collapse in asset prices

The gap in funding needs appeared to have been filled by off-balance sheet financing in China's murky and opaque shadow banking sector.

Cumulative total social financing, which also includes shadow banking, stood at 172.2 trillion yuan at the end of October, though the exact size of shadow banking is unknown. Total social financing for the month of October 2017 was 1.04 trillion yuan.

China's deleveraging push appears to have intensified after the 19th Communist Party Congress in late October. In its latest salvo on the shadow banking sector, the central bank on Nov. 17 issued sweeping guidelines to tighten rules on asset management business, which the central bank estimates is a $9 trillion market.

While China's government debt remains contained, at 46.9 percent of GDP as per latest figures from the Bank for International Settlements, top policymakers have recently raised concerns about a sharp build-up in household debt.

Outstanding household consumer loans have surged close to 30 percent since the middle of last year and reached 30.2 trillion yuan as of October.

Outstanding yuan-denominated property loans amount to 31.1 trillion yuan and individual mortgage loans totals to 21.1 trillion yuan as of the third quarter of 2017, data from the People's Bank of China showed.