research / Working papers

China’s debt challenge: stylised facts, drivers and policy implications

July 29 2016

This paper begins by showing that even after conditioning for factors that might justifiably lead to a country having relatively high leverage, China remains a debt outlier. In this sense China can be regarded as over-leveraged and its debt may present a potential risk to growth and financial stability. The corporate sector is central to China’s debt story, accounting for two-thirds of the total. The corporate sector has also been mostly responsible for China’s leverage cycles, including the leveraging up since 2008 and an earlier deleveraging phase starting in 2003. Two major but under-appreciated drivers of Chinese corporate leverage cycles are then identified. The most important is the share of internally-funded corporate capital expenditure, which is a combined consequence of evolving corporate earnings and capital expenditure. The second is the rising importance of real estate and construction firms as holders of corporate debt. China’s corporate leverage landscape is also shown to be more complex than a story of zombie state-owned enterprises in industrial segments with excess capacity being ever-greened with loans from state banks. A balanced mix of policy responses will be needed to manage a warranted and orderly deleveraging cycle in the years ahead.

Authors: Guonan Ma, Visiting Fellow, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney; James Laurenceson, Deputy Director and Professor, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney.

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