Inflated Chinese business lending set to burst?

A hard landing could be on the horizon.

Well this isn't good. The Wall Street Journal has a story about the growing credit bubble in China. Dinny Mcmahon and Colum Murphy write:

Analysts at Standard Chartered PLC estimate that Chinese corporate debt was equivalent to 128% of gross domestic product by the end of 2012, up from 101% at the end of 2009. In a 2011 research paper, economists at the Bank for International Settlements found that when a country's corporate debt exceeds 90%, it becomes a drag on growth.

While accessible loans may be good news for China's struggling companies, it could be bad news down the road. Some economists worry such heavy debt in China's financial system could create serious problems for the economy if borrowers are unable to meet their obligations. Soured loans could ultimately force companies to consolidate—which could lead to politically unpalatable job losses—or force leaders into some sort of expensive bailout.

The news is yet more evidence that a significant proportion of China's growth could be illusory. Chinese infrastructure spending is notoriously wasteful, leading to the creation of ghost cities, collapsing bridges and impossible promises.

So much of the rest of the world's economy is based on Chinese growth remaining well about 5 per cent that the prospect of that not happening — a so-called "hard landing" — is usually held up as the third of the big economic disasters waiting to happen, after a US debt-ceiling default and a Eurozone breakup.

If the private economy is as unsustainably inflated as the state sector is, that hard landing is looking uncomfortably possible.

A Chinese labourer works at a saltern in Hami. Photograph: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why relations between Theresa May and Philip Hammond became tense so quickly

The political imperative of controlling immigration is clashing with the economic imperative of maintaining growth. 

There is no relationship in government more important than that between the prime minister and the chancellor. When Theresa May entered No.10, she chose Philip Hammond, a dependable technocrat and long-standing ally who she had known since Oxford University. 

But relations between the pair have proved far tenser than anticipated. On Wednesday, Hammond suggested that students could be excluded from the net migration target. "We are having conversations within government about the most appropriate way to record and address net migration," he told the Treasury select committee. The Chancellor, in common with many others, has long regarded the inclusion of students as an obstacle to growth. 

The following day Hammond was publicly rebuked by No.10. "Our position on who is included in the figures has not changed, and we are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included," a spokesman said (as I reported in advance, May believes that the public would see this move as "a fix"). 

This is not the only clash in May's first 100 days. Hammond was aggrieved by the Prime Minister's criticisms of loose monetary policy (which forced No.10 to state that it "respects the independence of the Bank of England") and is resisting tougher controls on foreign takeovers. The Chancellor has also struck a more sceptical tone on the UK's economic prospects. "It is clear to me that the British people did not vote on June 23 to become poorer," he declared in his conference speech, a signal that national prosperity must come before control of immigration. 

May and Hammond's relationship was never going to match the remarkable bond between David Cameron and George Osborne. But should relations worsen it risks becoming closer to that beween Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Like Hammond, Darling entered the Treasury as a calm technocrat and an ally of the PM. But the extraordinary circumstances of the financial crisis transformed him into a far more assertive figure.

In times of turmoil, there is an inevitable clash between political and economic priorities. As prime minister, Brown resisted talk of cuts for fear of the electoral consequences. But as chancellor, Darling was more concerned with the bottom line (backing a rise in VAT). By analogy, May is focused on the political imperative of controlling immigration, while Hammond is focused on the economic imperative of maintaining growth. If their relationship is to endure far tougher times they will soon need to find a middle way. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.