, a professor at Northwestern University who specialises in China warns that the country has only achieved its blistering GDP growth through massive leverage on a scale nobody currently appreciates.
Here’s what he wrote in an op-ed in WSJ Asia in regards to figure out the true level of provincial, local debt:
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.
What does this mean in practice?
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 payment 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.
If true, these are extraordinary numbers. Of all the problems China is thought to have, high public debt in not considered one of them. But if a real estate bust triggered a wave of regional government insolvencies (which obviously would have to be bailed out by Beijing), the problem of public debt could be significant.