Looming Problem of Local Debt in China– 1.6 Trillion Dollars and Rising

Did China accomplish the impossible?  Did it generate almost 9% growth and maintain low debt to GDP ratio even as its exports plummeted by 20%?  What about claims that the torrent of investment in China has come without too much leveraging? After spending half a year looking into the debt level of local government investment entities– some 8000 of them– my conclusion is no. 

As in the past, the Chinese government just ordered banks to lend to investment companies set up by both central and local governments.  Local governments have fully taken advantage of the green light in late 2008 and borrowed enormous sums from banks and bond investors starting in late 2008 (well, a large amount even before that).  In an editorial in yesterday’s Asian Wall Street Journal, I outline some problems with this massive amount of borrowing:

Beijing is no longer sure how much money local investment entities have borrowed from banks and raised from bond and equity investors. The amount, however, must be large. In September, the Chinese press, citing government sources, suggested that these entities have borrowed $880 billion (6 trillion yuan). In a January interview with the Twentieth Century Business Herald, a Chinese newspaper, the vice chairman of the Finance and Economic Committee of the National People’s Congress, Yi Zhongliu, revealed that local investment entities borrowed some $735 billion in 2009 alone.

These are mere guesses, however. A National Audit Agency audit conducted late last year uncovered so many problems with the data that Premier Wen Jiabao ordered another large-scale audit of local investment entities. Until a thorough audit is completed and the results announced to the public, no one really knows the total scale of local borrowing.

Given the information vacuum surrounding this issue, I spent half a year collecting data that would allow me to provide an estimate of total local debt (and also for each of China’s provinces). Again, in the WSJ piece, I briefly outline my methodology and the results in the piece.

To obtain an independent estimate, I collected data from thousands of sources, including regulatory filings, bond-rating reports and press releases of government-bank cooperative agreements. I estimate local investment entities’ borrowing between 2004 and the end of 2009 totals some $1.6 trillion. The data are far from perfect because borrowing by low-level government entities and lending by small banks are difficult to track. Nonetheless, my evidence suggests that the scale of the problem is much larger than previous government estimates. At $1.6 trillion, the size of local debt is roughly one-third of China’s 2009 GDP and 70% of its foreign-exchange reserves.

So basically, in addition to the 20% of official debt-to-GDP ratio, one has to add an additional 30%.  We also have to add other debt that the central government guarantees, such as the nearly 1 trillion RMB in Ministry of Railway bonds and bonds issued by the asset management companies.  All of this gives China a high debt to GDP ratio. Also, there are some disturbing implications of this high debt. For one, local governments would have to sell lots and lots of land every year for many years to come to pay interest payments on this debt.  Thus, to the extent that there is a real estate bubble today, it must continue for local governments to remain solvent.  Regardless of what you believe about Chinese real estate, you have to think that this growth in real estate and land prices must slow or reverse at some point.

I think that the best course of action for the Chinese government is to credibly stop leveraging by local investment companies.  Instead of the half measures in place today, a public and stern order should be given to banks to stop lending to all new projects undertaken by these local entities. Other measures should follow:

Since county governments are in the poorest fiscal shape and have the least ability to repay banks, the central government should take over the debt of almost all of the county-level investment vehicles. Although this will increase China’s debt-to-GDP ratio significantly, the total would still be low by international standards.

A sudden contraction of lending to local investment vehicles will generate a wave of nonperforming loans, but a greater reliance on market mechanisms can easily solve this problem over the next few years. First, banks will fully recover the debt of the healthiest local entities, which may account for half of total local debt. For the remainder, the government needs to allow banks to directly sell subprime or distressed loans to both foreign and domestic investors. Beijing need not fear that China’s listed banks will sell their nonperforming loans at below-market prices, as these banks report to shareholders. Banks, in conjunction with investment banks and distressed-asset investors, should also explore ways to securitize local debt for sale to both domestic and international investors. The latter in particular would have a healthy appetite for yuan-denominated security, anticipating a currency revaluation soon.

Basically, I think the Chinese government can turn this into a great opportunity for market reform in the financial system and the internationalization of the RMB.  However, it has to act soon before local debt gets too large to handle.