China's Awkward Debt Problem

Alice Han  Chris Miller

When the chairman of China’s Dongbei Special Steel Group hanged himself last year, it was clear that something at the firm was going horribly wrong. Next, the company defaulted on nine separate corporate bonds, telling creditors that it lacked the money to pay its bills. Dongbei declared bankruptcy last October.

In the fall of 2015, before Dongbei’s slide into insolvency, Chinese President Xi Jinping had declared that Beijing would soon implement “supply-side structural reforms” to cut debt and overcapacity in Chinese industry. With its record of unprofitability, Dongbei might seem to be a perfect candidate for the policy.

But Dongbei isn’t being shut down. Nor is it being restructured. Courts in the troubled industrial province of Liaoning, where Dongbei is based, have yet again postponed discussion of the firm’s restructuring plan. Rather than cutting output, the province’s steel production hit a record in April, up 4.6% from last year. And Dongbei still owes $6.4 billion to Chinese banks, most of which will probably never get repaid.

China has long relied on debt to fuel growth. The country’s debt burden expanded over 2.5 times faster than its economy in 2016, and its ratio of corporate debt to GDP is one of the highest ever seen in a big economy.

Mr. Xi has repeatedly said that China intends to cast off this model of development. Earlier this year, he declared that “financial security”—including debt sustainability—was key to China’s “national security.” But change has been slow, and as long as the government provides cheap loans to spendthrift provinces and bankrupt businesses, the risk of a debt-driven financial crisis will grow.

Why can’t China kick its debt addiction? The obstacles are political, not economic. Local governments and bosses of state-owned enterprises benefit immensely from government-subsidized loans, and these groups form the backbone of the Chinese Communist Party.

After taking power in 1949, the party nationalized industry on the grounds that it needed to control the capitalists. “To exterminate the bourgeoisie and capitalism in China,” Mao Zedong said, “is a very good thing.” Yet since the country cast off state socialism in the 1980s, crony capitalists have come to control the Communist Party.

The most powerful business interests within the party are those that benefit most from cheap, state-funded lending, fueling China’s debt bubble. The bosses of state-owned firms are in theory subordinate to the party hierarchy. In reality, they constitute a powerful lobby, demanding cheap loans from state banks and the ability to use public assets for the private interests of the monopolies they run. When Sinosteel appeared on the brink of bankruptcy several years ago, for example, regulators intervened, forcing state-owned banks to lend cheaply to the steel firm to keep it running.

Provincial and local government officials are even more powerful than the bosses of state-owned firms. Real-estate development—which is no less reliant on cheap credit—has driven growth in many regions. It is also a lucrative source of corruption, as local officials sell off property to developers on the cheap in exchange for kickbacks. Last year, former Guangzhou Party Secretary Wan Qingliang was jailed for taking bribes from a real-estate developer in return for choice plots of land.

Beijing regularly promises to restore party discipline, and doing so would help to restrain the political networks that take advantage of government-backed lending. Mr. Xi’s anticorruption campaign, launched in 2012, ostensibly sought to punish the “tigers” in the party who used political power for personal gain.

But Mr. Xi’s net caught only his political rivals, from Zhou Yongkang, the former high-ranking security chief, to Ling Jihua, the party leader who was fired after his son’s death in a Ferrari crash. Most of the business lobbies within the party that are loyal to Mr. Xi have not been touched.

He is now preparing for a crucial party congress this autumn, when five new members will likely be appointed to China’s seven-person Politburo Standing Committee. The event will shape China’s political future for some time to come. To get his protégés appointed, Mr. Xi needs support from various party elites, and a time-tested method for securing it is to supply subsidized credit to their provinces and enterprises, whatever the long-term cost. This is what has allowed bankrupt companies like Dongbei to get the credit that they need to keep running.

Mr. Xi’s supporters say that the president is tolerating debt growth today to achieve his political goals at the party congress. Off the record, Chinese economists promise that once Mr. Xi consolidates power, he will have the clout needed to push through tough reforms. But will the president really be willing to turn on his supporters immediately after the party congress?

A decade ago, China’s breakneck growth in debt could be explained as part of its effort to develop its financial markets. But returns to capital investment have fallen sharply since the early 2000s, according to research by the economists Chong-en Bai and Qiong Zhang. Despite this, debt-financed corporate investment continues to increase. A sizable portion of the new investment will prove unprofitable, at which point the debt that funded loss-making projects will pose risks to financial stability. China’s corporate indebtedness is already near or above the levels that preceded the 1997 Asian financial crisis or the eurozone crisis.

In advance of this year’s party congress, Mr. Xi is committed to hitting China’s 6.5% GDP growth target, even if it requires more wasteful, debt-financed stimulus. Letting big firms go bankrupt or tolerating local government defaults is impossible in China’s equivalent of an election year.

The argument that Mr. Xi can more easily tackle the debt burden once he has consolidated his political position is logical—but it is the same promise that Beijing made in advance of the last party congress, five debt-fueled years ago. As Mao noted, Chinese officials “fight among themselves for power and money; they extend their hands into the Party; they want fame and fortune.” Mr. Xi can only tackle China’s debt addiction if he is willing to take on his own party first.


This piece was originally published in The Wall Street Journal.