economics

Chinese Need to Learn to Save Again

After decades of thrift, they're taking on too much personal debt.

Skyrocketing home prices have driven much of the debt surge.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/In Pictures Ltd./Corbis/Getty Images

For years, economists and policymakers have hailed the propensity of Chinese to save. Among other things, they’ve pointed to low household debt as reason not to fear a financial crash in the world’s second-biggest economy. Now, though, one of China’s greatest economic strengths is becoming a crucial weakness. 

Over the past two weeks, as they’ve held their annual work meetings, China’s various financial regulatory bodies have raised fears that Chinese households may be overleveraged. Banking regulators sound especially concerned, and understandably so: Data released Monday showed that Chinese households borrowed 910 billion renminbi ($143 billion) in January -- nearly a third of all RMB-denominated bank loans extended that month. 

QuickTake China’s Debt Bomb

While too much can be made of the headline number -- lending is always disproportionately large in January, and bank loans are rising as regulators crack down on more shadowy forms of financing -- the pace of growth for household debt is worrying. Between January and October last year, according to recent data from Southwestern University of Finance and Economics, Chinese household leverage rose more than eight percentage points, from 44.8 percent to 53.2 percent of GDP -- a record increase.

By contrast, between 2009 and 2015, households had added an average of just three percentage points to their debt-to-GDP ratio each year, and that includes a large jump of 5.5 percentage points in 2009 as banks ramped up lending in response to the global financial crisis. Before 2009, household debt levels had hovered around 18 percent of GDP for five years. In other words, the debt burden for Chinese consumers has nearly tripled in the past decade. 

Part of that rapid debt expansion has been deliberate. China’s government has encouraged increased borrowing and spending on items like cars and houses, to boost both consumption and investment. At the G-20 summit in February 2016, China’s sober central bank chief Zhou Xiaochuan remarked that rising household leverage had “a certain logic to it.”

At the same time, a generational shift is unfolding. Younger, urban Chinese are proving more willing to bring their consumption forward to today rather than pushing it off to the future as their parents did. 

Most worryingly, though, skyrocketing home prices seem to be driving much of the increase in household debt. Higher mortgage rates -- and, especially, government policy -- have compounded the problem. In order to slow rising prices, officials have raised down-payment requirements, pushed banks to slow mortgage lending, and placed administrative restraints on purchases. That’s led buyers to borrow from different, often more expensive, channels. Online peer-to-peer lenders, for instance, who charge much higher rates than banks, have become popular sources for borrowing cash for down payments. 

QuickTake How China Is Getting Serious About Financial Risk: QuickTake Q&A

Throughout 2017, borrowers also began classifying their loans as more bread-and-butter consumer loans, as opposed to mortgages. That’s undercut banks’ attempts to reduce lending to the property sector. Over RMB 1 trillion worth of short-term consumer loans were created in just the first seven months of 2017 -- nearly triple the same period in 2016. 

Regulators have started getting wise. In September, banking regulators in Beijing, Shenzhen and the province of Jiangsu all began requiring greater documentation and disclosure for obtaining consumer loans, to prevent the money from illegally finding its way into the housing market. Guangzhou even began requiring borrowers to produce invoices after the fact, showing exactly what was purchased with the loan. Other cities sought to close glaring loopholes, such as the fact that some “personal consumption” loans carried maturities of 30 years. Shenzhen, one of 2017’s hottest property markets, lowered the maximum to five years. 

Despite these efforts, households are still in the mood to borrow, as the lending data from January show. That’s the first and most vexing consequence of the government’s well-meaning efforts to boost consumption: Once the debt genie is out of the bottle, it’s very difficult to squeeze back in. If China’s households continue borrowing at their current pace, it would take only four or five years before their debt-to-GDP ratio reaches the same level as in the U.S. just before the 2008 crash.

Moreover, even while the overall ratio of household debt to GDP is lower in China than in the U.S., brisk debt growth -- in any sector -- creates implicit fragilities. That's evident from the willingness of Chinese to take on increasingly burdensome interest rates from increasingly dodgy lenders. If the trend continues, it would add a rapidly rising interest-payment burden to an ever-increasing stock of debt. That’s hardly a good mix, as it would leave households exposed to even the slightest of property price corrections.

One can see why policymakers, faced with a slowing economy, would want to open the credit taps to ordinary citizens. But the potential of a clean household balance sheet to support economic growth is much like a nuclear deterrent: It’s most effective if you never have to use it. A solid base of household deposits helps to fund relatively cheap investment and acts as a safety valve if banks run into asset or liquidity problems. But once households start borrowing and spending more, the pool of cash to finance investment dries up and banks lose their most potent firefighting tool: a stable funding base. For China, the old ways may indeed have been best. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Andrew Polk at ap@triviumchina.com

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

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