How Will Market React to China's New Total Debt to GDP Ratio?

07/23/2014 3:00 pm EST

Focus: GLOBAL

Jim Jubak

Founder and Editor, JubakPicks.com

It seems the markets are more focused on prospects for GDP growth than the Chinese credit/debt bubble, but MoneyShow’s Jim Jubak believes that one day the Beijing government will say something to spark a renewal of worries.

The amount of air in the Chinese credit/debt bubble that will need to be let out eventually is truly scary according to new estimates from Standard Chartered Bank.

China’s total debt load—that’s debt at all levels and not just national government debt—hit 251% of GDP at the end of June. That compares to a total debt load of 260% for the United States at the end of 2013, 277% for the United Kingdom, and 415% for world total debt leader Japan. (All these ratios are from calculations by Standard Chartered so they are apples to apples comparisons.)

The increase in China’s total debt load to GDP ratio is even more disturbing than the ratio itself.  At the end of 2008, China’s total debt load to GDP ratio was just 147%.

There are no signs—according to the Standard Chartered numbers—that Beijing’s recent talk of the need for credit restraint is making a dent in the problem. New credit in China totaled 1.96 trillion yuan in June. That's the highest monthly total since March. Loans from China’s shadow banking sector, which had declined recently, climbed again in June.

And it’s likely that a return to the days of discounted mortgages will make the problem worse in the second half of 2014. 74% of analysts and economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect that Chinese banks will resume offering preferential mortgage rates in response to continued weakness in China’s real estate market. New home sales fell 9.2% in the first half, as banks did tighten mortgage lending due to pressure from the People’s Bank. That pressure has started to ease, however, in May, the central bank called on lenders to accelerate their mortgage lending. The 3.7% drop in mortgage lending in the first six months of 2014 now looks to be a result of tighter lending restrictions in the first quarter.

The likely short-term financial market response to this new total debt to GDP ratio? Not much. The markets are much more focused on prospects for GDP growth in China. If China’s credit bubble succeeds in keeping growth at 7.5% or driving it higher in the rest of 2014, no one will worry much at the unsustainable nature of China’s credit growth.

Store those worries away as a source of future volatility, though, because the Beijing government will be compelled to do—or at least “say”—something about excessive credit somewhere down the road again, and that will lead to a renewal of worries about growth of the sort that have a demonstrated ability to rock not just the Chinese, but also, the global financial markets.

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