Geographies in Depth

Is credit to blame for China’s slowing growth?

Zhang Jun
Professor, University, Shanghai
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The days of double-digit economic growth in China are over. Indeed, the annual growth rate, which has been lingering at about 7.5% since 2012, is predicted to fall to 7% this year – and is likely to go lower. This is China’s “new normal,” characterized, according to China’s leaders, by “medium-to-high-speed” (instead of high-speed) growth. But perhaps even this is optimistic.In the last two years, credit grew almost twice as fast as GDP, and total social financing grew even faster. Yet GDP growth slowed considerably – from an annual average of 10.2% in 2002-2011 – suggesting that China may be moving closer to a medium-to-low-speed growth path.One possible explanation for the divergence between credit and GDP growth is that potential growth has already dropped to 7%. But such a sharp decline in potential growth typically implies a powerful brake, in the form of an external shock or major internal adjustments. Under normal circumstances, an economy’s potential growth rate adjusts naturally and gradually, as structural change progresses.In fact, there is no definitive evidence that China’s potential growth rate has plunged. China weathered the 2008 global economic crisis better than other emerging economies. And, though structural factors, including an aging population and shrinking labor force, can certainly undermine potential growth, their effects are not sudden

So what explains the sharp decline in China’s economic output, in an environment of rapid credit expansion? The answer is simple: the way the credit is being used.

Before the crisis, credit expansion in China kept pace with GDP growth. Since the end of 2008, however, credit amounting to 35% of GDP has been issued annually, causing the credit-to-GDP ratio to soar from less than 150% before the crisis to 250% today. That means that credit has become much less efficient.

The problem stems from the CN¥4 trillion ($660 billion) stimulus plan that the government launched in 2008, which fueled the creation of about CN¥14 trillion worth of credit – and supported a rapid increase in fixed-asset investment, especially in infrastructure and real-estate development. When, in late 2009, the investment-intensive economy began to show signs of overheating, the government imposed strict macroeconomic controls, forcing investors to halt ongoing projects. Growth fell immediately.

Meanwhile, debt continued to rise – not least because of the continued accumulation of interest. Indeed, according to the political economist Victor Shih, the interest that accrued to all debts in China in 2010 amounted to 80% of incremental nominal GDP. In 2012, the two figures were nearly equivalent, with interest rising to 140% of incremental nominal GDP in 2013 and, Shih expects, to 200% for 2014.

Local governments, in particular, have struggled with a colossal volume of bad debt, which has undermined their capacity for capital expenditure and frozen out private demand for productive investment. Stringent controls on the real-estate market placed a heavy burden on the developers themselves, as well as related industries like steel.

Yet China’s government failed to acknowledge – much less address – the bad debts in a timely manner, instead allowing them to grow even larger. Given that the only way to enable borrowers to avoid default – at least temporarily – has been to provide an ever-increasing amount of liquidity, even banks facing liquidity constraints have remained willing to extend new loans.

Though China’s high national savings rate means that it does not have to borrow liquidity from abroad or print large amounts of money, the risks it faces should not be underestimated. With such a large share of the new liquidity being used to cover debt service, there is little left to finance new, growth-stimulating investment.

Moreover, as debts grow ever larger, banks’ willingness to lend will decline, driving debtors to the unregulated shadow-banking sector, where interest rates are extremely high, for their liquidity needs. The rising cost of financing will further undermine fixed-asset investment (and thus economic growth).

China’s “new normal” is actually not normal at all. While the growth curve and structural changes in the East Asian economy from the 1960s to the 1990s suggest that China could experience medium-to-high growth rates for another decade, the country must address its debt problem first.

The first step is to cut interest rates immediately, thereby reducing the burden on debtors and bolstering GDP growth. The government must also pursue a more active fiscal policy, rather than focusing on monetary policy.

Furthermore, given that local governments and state-owned enterprises are responsible for the majority of China’s bad debts, write-offs, funded by central-government bonds, will probably be necessary – and soon. Though the “debt swap” scheme that the finance ministry just introduced – which allows highly leveraged local governments to swap CN¥1 trillion of debt maturing this year for bonds with lower interest rates – is a step in the right direction, it is far from adequate. With the central government enjoying such favorable fiscal conditions – its debt-to-GDP ratio stands at only about 20% – now is the ideal time to initiate a much larger debt-swap program.

Of course, curbing future debt accumulation is also vital to China’s long-term prosperity. That is why China must reduce local governments’ dependence on banks to meet their financing needs, by nurturing bond and equity markets.

The debt-induced distortions in China’s economy today are precisely that – distortions. They are not a fundamental feature of the economy, and they need not characterize China’s new normal. With the right strategy, the authorities can eliminate these distortions and allow the economy to reach its medium-to-high-speed growth potential over the next decade.

This article is published in collaboration with Project Syndicate. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Zhang Jun is Professor of Economics and Director of the China Center for Economic Studies at Fudan University, Shanghai.

Image: A bird flies over the National Olympic Stadium, also known as the Bird’s Nest. REUTERS/Jason Lee
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Geographies in DepthGeo-Economics and PoliticsFinancial and Monetary Systems
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