For China bulls, things are starting to look up. The property market has been showing signs of life, and October retail sales, investment, and industrial production have come in above forecasts. A manufacturing index also showed improvement, and exports increased 11.6 percent in October, the fastest pace in five months.
Yet one figure is going in the wrong direction: China’s corporate debt has risen from 108 percent of the entire economy last year to 122 percent in 2012, its highest level in 15 years, estimates GK Dragonomics, a Beijing-based economic consultancy. That makes China’s corporate sector one of the most debt-laden in the world. “Companies have seen their business slowing down and revenues were not what they had expected. They have bridged the gap by taking on more debt,” says GK Dragonomics Research Director Andrew Batson.
Key industries such as steel, construction machinery, aluminum, and coal are facing overcapacity, squeezed margins, and most alarmingly, debt. “That is dragging down corporate investment, and that matters for the overall economy,” says Louis Kuijs, chief China economist at Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) in Hong Kong. “I don’t expect the uptick in growth to be very sharp.” He predicts fourth-quarter gross domestic product will rise 7.1 percent, below the average forecast of 7.7 percent in a Bloomberg survey of economists. Kuijs expects most companies to focus more on debt reduction than on building another plant or opening another mine.
Complicating matters is that many of the heavily indebted companies are state-owned, and the banks that lent to them are state-controlled, too. That means the government may have to pick up the tab if any of these companies is unable to manage its debt. The sudden bankruptcy of a giant state corporation would have political as well as financial consequences. This implicit government guarantee behind a portion of China’s corporate debt means the government’s actual obligations are likely higher than the 49 percent figure estimated by GK Dragonomics. Lump together corporate, public, and household debt, says the research firm, and you get a figure close to 206 percent of GDP.
One sign of how tough it is for companies is the return of a problem that plagued China in the 1990s: triangular debt. That’s when a manufacturer that hasn’t been paid for its product is unable to pay its suppliers, which in turn struggle to pay their suppliers. By Sept. 30, total accounts receivable—money owed for products already delivered—for China’s industrial companies had reached 8 trillion yuan ($1.3 trillion), up 16.5 percent from September 2011, according to the national statistics bureau. “China has already tipped over the precipice into a very bad debt crisis,” warns Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of J Capital Research, a Beijing-based equities analysis firm.
The origin of this morass dates back to late 2008, when the country unleashed a massive wave of loans from its state-owned banks to the corporate sector. That stimulus helped Beijing avoid the major unemployment and dire downturn that afflicted much of the world. Hopes were that the surge in loans would be a temporary measure. Instead, China’s banks, trust companies, and other financing operations are on track this year to issue new credit equal to one-third of GDP, the fourth year in a row of such a sizable expansion, according to Fitch Ratings.
China’s banking assets will have grown by almost $14 trillion between 2008 and 2013 (Fitch includes an estimate of loans issued by the informal banking sector and offshore banks—data not included in Beijing’s official figures). “This is equivalent to replicating the entire U.S. commercial banking sector in just five years,” says Charlene Chu, head of Chinese bank ratings at Fitch, in a Nov. 8 note. “Rising leverage either will swamp borrowers’ ability to repay, or banks’ funding and capital needs will fall short of existing resources.”
Accounts are appearing in the Chinese press of litigation by companies that haven’t been paid. As of the end of September, a logistics unit of state-owned Anhui-based Maanshan Iron & Steel had filed 23 lawsuits for the recovery of money and goods it was owed, reported the official Xinhua News Agency. Maanshan announced on Oct. 8 that “the logistics company has become insolvent.” Maanshan did not respond to requests for comment.
In August, state media reported that China’s central bank, as well as various commissions and ministries, had launched an investigation to uncover the scale of corporate indebtedness among state and private companies. “The lurking debt risk, which once hit China in the 1990s, could take a huge toll on the real economy,” warned Xinhua on Oct. 28. At China’s top four listed steel companies, debt as a percentage of equity now averages 80 percent, with anything above 50 percent considered very high, says Helen Lau, senior analyst for metals and mining at UOB Kay Hian (UOBK:SP), a Singapore-based securities company.
Any turnaround in the corporate sector will involve tackling overcapacity. Lau estimates that the steel industry has 900 million tons of productive capacity, some 200 million tons too much. Yet shuttering the excess production lines may not happen anytime soon. “All the big producers have strong backing from the state banks. That is why they have been adding new capacity. This is not a commercial decision but a political one,” says UOB’s Lau. It’s happening because “the government wants to boost local economies.”
One likely result: a jump in bad bank loans. Standard & Poor’s (MHP) is predicting that the portion of nonperforming loans will grow from about 2 percent of total bank lending at the end of 2011 to 3 percent by the end of the year. That could rise to 5 percent by yearend 2013, says S&P’s Liao Qiang, director of ratings for financial institutions in the Asia-Pacific region. “The challenge for China,” says GK Dragonomics’ Batson, “is to look for ways to not just mobilize vast amounts of money but to put their money in the right places.”