China’s Hidden Debt Risk

BEIJING – In the last 200 years, there have been more than 250 cases of sovereign-debt default, and 68 cases of domestic-debt default. None of these was an isolated incident. Indeed, such defaults – combined with factors like large current-account or fiscal deficits, overvalued currencies, high public-sector debt, and insufficient foreign-exchange reserves – have always triggered financial crises, from the Mexican peso crisis in 1994 to the Russian ruble crisis in 1998 to the American subprime mortgage crisis in 2008.

Since China’s era of reform and opening up began, the country has experienced three instances of large-scale public-finance problems. In the late 1970’s, the country faced a debilitating fiscal deficit. In the 1990’s, its corporate sector was plagued by “triangular debts” (when a manufacturer that has not been paid for its product is unable to pay its suppliers, which in turn struggle to pay their suppliers). Later that decade, financial institutions were burdened by bad debts generated by state-owned enterprises.

Now China is experiencing a fourth instance of elevated debt risk, this time characterized by high levels of accumulated local-government and corporate debt. To be sure, China’s national balance sheet, which boasts positive net assets, has garnered significant attention in recent years. But, in order to assess China’s financial risk accurately, policymakers and economists must consider the risks that lie in the country’s asset structure – and the liabilities that are not included on its balance sheet.

The current problems are rooted in the government’s response to the 2008 global financial crisis. The first round of fiscal stimulus, supported by credit easing, led local governments and the financial sector to increase their leverage ratios. As a result, by 2010, China’s overall leverage ratio had risen by 30%.