How Long Can China's Debt Continue To Grow Before A Systemic Crisis Strikes?

Nearly three years ago, Morgan Stanley may have jumped the shark (a little) when its strategists Cyril Moulle-Berteaux and Sergei Parmenov declared that China's Minsky Moment has arrived. While that may have been partially true, the fact that China managed to incur an additional $12 trillion in total debt in the interim period, suggests that Beijing at least managed to postpone the inevitable.

And since in the 3 years since little has changed, questions about how much longer the Chinese debt-fueled growth "farce" can continue have once again emerged, in their latest incarnation courtesy of UBS, whose economist Tao Wang asks "How long can debt continue to grow before a Minsky moment or systemic debt crisis?"

Here is the proposed answer:

China's debt is set to rise further in the coming years, likely exceeding 300% of GDP within 2 years. As the government continues to rely on credit-fuelled investment growth to offset downward pressures within the domestic economy and from a subdued global environment, unless there is major debt restructuring, China's debt/GDP ratio is set to rise further. We don't think that there is a "magic"  level at which a debt crisis will take place. Many countries ran into debt crises at levels of debt significantly lower than China's current level, often because debt was financed by foreign resources due to low domestic savings, and/or because of duration mismatch (Figure 11).


Conversely, there are countries (e.g. Japan, Figure 2) where debt levels have risen ever higher without triggering any obvious financial sector distress.


Four factors make a typical systemic debt crisis unlikely for China. Typical debt crises are often liquidity crises of the financial system. In China,


1) over 95% of debt is domestic debt financed mainly via banks;

2) there is a very high domestic savings & under-developed capital markets, so saving largely exists as deposits or quasi-deposits in the banking system to finance debt (Figure 12);

3) capital controls still exist to keep liquidity at home; and

4) a high degree of government control over the financial sector and largest borrowers (SOEs) means that debt restructuring can take place gradually with government coordination rather than in a disorderly manner forced by the market. A central bank that always stands ready also helps to shore up depositor confidence in the banking system, helping to reduce the risk of liquidity events. This is why we still think that China's credit cycle may be a more drawn out process than one that is disrupted by a typical liquidity-related  debt crisis.


However, while a conventional debt crisis may be avoidable, UBS admits that ever-rising debt is problematic even if problems do not manifest themselves in a crisis.

The fact that debt is rising much faster than output year after year and an increasing share of debt is allocated in nonproductive or excess capacity sectors means misallocation of resources. Such systematic misallocation will depress long term productivity and economic growth, and wasted resources mean more potential bad debt will be created. While the aforementioned unique factors can allow China's credit cycle to last much longer than in other economies and with less volatility, this lack of a market-clearing mechanism could depress corporate profitability and investment, leading to lower or stagnant economic growth over a prolonged period of time. Eventually, the cost of accumulating so much bad debt will have to be borne by the financial sector and savers, asset prices will have to correct, and the ultimate cost of adjustment may be substantially larger.

How will this debt cycle play out and what to watch?

In the likely scenario that China's debt cycle is a drawn out process, the government would have to balance the need to stabilize growth and defuse debt problems by slowing credit expansion gradually, taking actions to gradually restructure the stock of debt (including by writing off bad debts, divesting some state assets and closing down "zombie" companies), and reform to encourage growth in less debt-dependent sectors. In any large credit event, banks and related financial institutions would likely be required by the government to bring some of the culprit debt on to their balance sheets, to gradually restructure its underlying assets to help the economy avoid a serious liquidity/credit crunch. If confidence in shadow bank channels drops, so long as the government retains control over the capital account, liquidity would most likely flow back to the banking system


Risk of a more disruptive break in the credit cycle has risen in recent years. The credit cycle could be more easily disrupted if 1) banks run out of "free" liquidity and have to rely on wholesale funding to finance balance sheet expansion, which provides less reliable funding. Banks may be forced to slow credit expansion sharply in the event of a market confidence collapse or asset price plunge; and 2) Large capital outflows persist for a prolonged period, with the resultant domestic liquidity tightening increasing banks' exposure to international market conditions. Indeed China is experiencing rising capital outflows as a result of the government's earlier push for capital account opening and the more recent weakening of market confidence (Figure 13).


The rapid shadow credit expansion is a risk. Shadow credit is less regulated and adds multiple layers of intermediation that increases risks and financing costs. More importantly, when multiple layers of shadow credit underpins the economy's overall funding structure, it becomes much harder for the government to quickly identify where funding problems may be or as they appear, compromising their ability to promptly oversee and manage any liquidity situation to prevent it from warping into a bigger systemic issue. As shadow credit becomes increasingly important, the government's ability to use banks to bailout the shadow banking sector will also be diminished.

So while on net UBS is not yet sounding the alarm on the imminent bursting of the world's biggest debt bubble, here are the four warning signs investors should watch for when it comes to China: 

  1. Liquidity (LDR) in the broad banking system after adjusting for shadow credit;
  2. change in profit margins and/or return on assets in the corporate sector;
  3. size of shadow credit relative to traditional banking; and
  4. net capital outflows – persistent large outflows will erode China's domestic liquidity buffer.


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