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The Politics of a Slowing China

SINGAPORE – The recent financial turmoil in China, with interbank loan rates spiking to double digits within days, provides further confirmation that the world’s second-largest economy is headed for a hard landing. Fueled by massive credit growth (equivalent to 30% of GDP from 2008 to 2012), the Chinese economy has taken on a level of financial leverage that is the highest among emerging markets. This will not end well.

Indeed, a recent study by Nomura Securities finds that China’s financial-risk profile today uncannily resembles those of Thailand, Japan, Spain, and the United States on the eve of their financial crises. Each crisis-hit economy had increased its financial leverage – the ratio of domestic credit to GDP – by 30 percentage points over five years shortly before their credit bubbles popped.

Economists who insist that China’s financial leverage is not too high are a dwindling minority. Certainly the People’s Bank of China, which engineered a credit squeeze in June in an attempt to discourage loan growth, seems to believe that financial leverage has risen to dangerous levels. The only questions to be answered now concern when and how deleveraging will occur.

At the moment, China watchers are focusing on two scenarios. Under the first, a soft economic landing occurs after China’s new leadership adopts ingenious policies to curb credit growth (especially through the shadow banking system), forces over-leveraged borrowers into bankruptcy, and injects fiscal resources into the banking system to shore up its capital base. China’s GDP growth, which relies heavily on credit, will take a hit. But the deleveraging process will be gradual and orderly.