IMF Urges China to Tackle ‘High’ Corporate Debt Immediately

  • Lipton, No. 2 official, says problem is serious and growing
  • China’s challenges are manageable, growth strong, he says

IMF Urges China to Tackle Debt

The International Monetary Fund’s No. 2 official urged China to take immediate steps to tackle rising corporate debt or risk “dangerous detours” during the country’s transition to a consumption-oriented economy.

“Corporate debt remains a serious -- and growing -- problem that must be addressed immediately and with a commitment to serious reforms,” David Lipton, the IMF’s first deputy managing director, said in a speech to an economics conference on Saturday in Shenzhen, China.

David Lipton

Photographer: Kiyoshi Ota/Bloomberg

The comments build on other recent warnings from the global crisis lender about China’s debt, including an estimate of a possible $1.3 trillion in loans extended to borrowers that don’t have sufficient income to cover interest payments. China has accumulated debt faster than any Group of 20 nation over the past decade, climbing to 247 percent of gross domestic product, according to Tom Orlik, an economist for Bloomberg Intelligence.

Premier Li Keqiang said in March that the country may use debt-to-equity swaps to cut the leverage ratios of Chinese companies. An IMF staff report in April said China’s plan to rid banks of bad loans could backfire, allowing debt-laden “zombie” companies to stay afloat and creating conflicts of interest for bankers.

China has made “limited progress” in addressing corporate debt and restructuring, Lipton said. He gave an estimate of total debt at 225 percent of GDP and corporate debt at 145 percent of GDP, “which is very high by any measure.”

Rapid Increase

“With the rapid increase in credit growth in 2015 and early 2016, and the continued high rates of investment, the problem is growing,” said Lipton, a former U.S. Treasury and White House official. “This is a key fault line in the Chinese economy. It is surely within China’s powers to address this problem. And it is important that China tackles it soon.”

In addition to addressing the problem quickly, China must fix balance sheets at companies as well as banks, and improve governance to prevent a new debt bubble, he said.

Lipton and other IMF staff members are meeting with officials in China as part of an annual assessment of the nation’s economy.

Macquarie Capital Ltd. said in a June 8 report that China’s debt is a concern but unlikely to result in a crisis. The borrowing is backed largely by bank deposits instead of other, more volatile funding, and the central bank could intervene quickly if needed, according to the report by Hong Kong-based analysts Larry Hu and Jerry Peng.

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