China’s $13 Trillion Problem Is Becoming Everyone’s

Date: Dec 20, 2019
By: William Pesek, Contributor 

Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, sings with performers during a cultural performance in Macau … [+]

China’s Xi Jinping probably tops any list of people who can’t wait to see the back of 2019.

 These last 12 months produced the slowest mainland growth since the early 1990s, the biggest pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong’s history and mounting criticism of Beijing’s human rights record. By taking such an authoritarian stance, Taiwan has slipped further away from Beijing’s grip, while some political wags questioned whether Communist Party members were losing faith in President Xi’s governing style.

 But Xi has an even bigger challenge on his hands, and not just Donald Trump’s trade war antics. Make that 13 trillion challenges.

 This figure refers to the size, in U.S. dollar terms, of China’s onshore bond market. And generally, its growth and development have long been touted as a vital rite of passage for the second-biggest economic power. The trouble with debt markets, though, is they tend to expose cracks in financial systems.

Herein lies Xi’s biggest problem. Keeping growth north of 6% is reasonably easy for a command economy. Even amid the trade war, Xi’s party can order up giant infrastructure projects, slash taxes and cajole local governments to ramp up fiscal stimulus. It has its own ATM—the People’s Bank of China.

Trouble is, the more you borrow, the more investors can push back and the more even the most authoritarian of governments can lose control as punters vote with their feet. That risk is increasing along with a recent jump in private-sector debt defaults to a record high.

According to Fitch, 4.9% of private companies missed bond payments from January to November, up from 4.2% for all of 2018. When you combine state and private companies, China Inc.’s onshore defaults risks are growing apace—from none a few years back to at least $18 billion so far this year.