China is the focus of a lot of investors’ worries about the level of its debt.
Since 2008, the country’s debt-to-GDP level has nearly doubled, rising at the fastest rate of any major economy.
According to analysts at HSBC, state-owned companies have been mostly to blame, building up debt at unsustainable levels.
These companies mostly operate in the transportation, energy and telecom sectors, as well as steel and cement, and would have gone bankrupt without support from local governments and banks.
But China’s central government in Beijing is beginning to lose patience with the local state-owned and loss-making companies, and is starting to pull the plug.
Rather than bail them out, the government has given incentives for local officials to shut them down, meaning a huge jump in the number of non-performing loans (loans which are at least 90 days overdue) on banks’ books.
Here is HSBC (emphasis ours):
NPLs have started to increase recently. By 1Q 2016, the NPL ratio released by the China Banking Regulatory Commission stood at 1.75%, the highest reading since September 2009.
Various research agencies have come up with their own estimates that put the NPL ratio at between 5% and 8% of total loans by commercial banks.
A more aggressive estimate by the IMF Global Financial Stability Report suggests that nearly 15% of corporate loans are owed by companies whose revenues cannot support making even interest payments.
And here is the chart:
There are worrying signs for the whole of the Asian economy that debt-fuelled growth will have to come to a screeching halt at some point soon. Here is what HSBC said last week:
The worry is that growth across much of Asia continues to be highly credit dependent. That can’t go on forever: the higher debt-to-GDP ratios climb, the more likely a sudden, and painful, correction becomes.