【英语中国】中国上空的债务阴云 China’s debt-fuelled boom is in danger of turning to bust

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2014-1-30 08:44

小艾摘要: Forget Argentina. The big story of 2014 in the emerging world is the black cloud of debt hanging over China.Debate rages over how this tale will end. Most analysts believe that the Chinese economy wil ...
China’s debt-fuelled boom is in danger of turning to bust
Forget Argentina. The big story of 2014 in the emerging world is the black cloud of debt hanging over China.

Debate rages over how this tale will end. Most analysts believe that the Chinese economy will once again expand by more than 7 per cent this year, despite ballooning private sector debts. But the pessimistic minority has history on its side. Only five developing countries have had a credit boom nearly as big as China’s. All of them went on to suffer a credit crisis and a major economic slowdown.

These are powerful precedents. Recent studies have isolated the most reliable signal of a looming financial crisis and it is the “credit gap”, or the increase in private sector credit as a proportion of economic output over the most recent five-year period. In China, that gap has risen since 2008 by a stunning 71 percentage points, taking total debt to about 230 per cent of gross domestic product.

A credit boom of this scale is not likely to end well. Looking back over the past 50 years and focusing on the most extreme credit booms – the top 0.5 per cent – turns up 33 cases, with a minimum credit gap of 42 percentage points. Of these nations, 22 suffered a credit crisis in the subsequent five years and all suffered an economic slowdown. On average, the annual economic growth rate fell from 5.2 per cent to 1.8 per cent. Not one country got away without facing either a crisis or a major economic slowdown. Thailand, Malaysia, Chile, Zimbabwe and Latvia have had a gap higher than 60 points. All those binges ended in a severe credit crisis.

Although there have been no exceptions to this rule, most economists still believe China will prove exceptional. For 30 years it has defied sceptics, maintaining a growth rate that has averaged 10 per cent, and has not fallen below 7 per cent since 1990.

China has hit its ambitious growth targets so consistently that many analysts can no longer imagine a miss. The consensus forecast is for growth of 7.5 per cent this year, right on target. Growth is widely expected to continue at an average rate of 6-7 per cent for the next five years. It is hard to find a prominent economist who forecasts a significant slowdown, much less a credit crisis.

History foretells a different story. In the 33 cases in which countries built up extreme credit gaps, the pace of GDP growth more than halved subsequently. If China follows that path, its growth rate over the next five years would average between 4 per cent and 5 per cent.

The key to foretelling credit trouble is not the size but the pace of growth in debt, because during rapid credit booms more and more loans go to wasteful endeavours. That is China today. Five years ago it took just over $1 of debt to generate $1 of economic growth in China. In 2013 it took nearly $4 – and one-third of the new debt now goes to pay off old debt.

Those who trust in China’s exceptionalism say it has special defences. It has a war chest of foreign exchange reserves and a current account surplus, reducing its dependence on foreign capital flows. Its banks are supported by large domestic savings, and enjoy low loan-to-deposit ratios. History, however, shows that although these factors can help ward off some kinds of trouble – a currency or balance-of-payments crisis – they offer no guarantee against a domestic credit crisis.

These defences have failed before. Taiwan suffered a banking crisis in 1995, despite having foreign exchange reserves that totalled 45 per cent of GDP, a slightly higher level than China has today. Taiwan’s banks also enjoyed low loan-to-deposit ratios, but that did not avert a credit crunch. Banking crises also hit Japan in the 1970s and Malaysia in the 1990s, even though these countries had savings rates of about 40 per cent of GDP. Furthermore, there is no strong link between the state of the current account and the outbreak of credit crises.

The unravelling of the 33 most extreme credit binges before China’s suggests that it faces a serious risk of at least a major slowdown. Such an outcome may yet be avoided. But it is a long shot, even for an exceptional country such as China.

The writer is head of emerging markets and global macro at Morgan Stanley Investment Management and author of ‘Breakout Nations’

忘掉阿根廷吧。2014年新兴市场的重头戏将是笼罩在中国上空的债务阴云。

有关这场戏将如何收场的争论如火如荼。多数分析人士相信,尽管私有部门的债务不断膨胀,今年中国经济将再次增长7%以上。然而,历史站在悲观的少数派一边。只有五个发展中国家出现过规模与中国接近的信贷繁荣,它们后来全都遭遇了信贷危机和显著经济放缓。

这些是非常有说服力的先例。最近,有研究发现了预示一场金融危机迫在眼前的最可靠信号。这个信号就是“信贷扩张差额”(credit gap),也就是最近五年里私有部门信贷占经济产值比例的增长值。在中国,自2008年以来这一数字足足扩大了71个百分点,导致总债务与国内生产总值(GDP)之比上升至230%。

如此规模的信贷繁荣不太可能平稳收场。回顾过去50年,关注一下史上最极端(排在前0.5%之列)的信贷繁荣例子,一共可以找到33起,其中最低的信贷扩张差额为42个百分点。在这些国家中,有22个在随后五年里遭遇了信贷危机,所有国家都出现了经济放缓。平均来说,年经济增长率从5.2%跌至1.8%。没有一个国家能够二者同时幸免,即使没有爆发危机,经济也大幅放缓了。泰国、马来西亚、智利、津巴布韦和拉脱维亚的信贷扩张差额曾超过60个百分点,这些信贷疯狂扩张的国家全都以严重信贷危机收场。

尽管这条规律至今从没出现过例外,多数经济学家仍然相信中国会被证明是个特例。30年来,中国屡屡让怀疑论者跌破眼镜,经济增长率保持在平均10%的水平,1990年以来从未跌至7%以下。

中国的高增长目标一直都能实现,导致许多分析人士已经无法想象实现不了的情形。目前分析师们的共识是,今年中国经济将增长7.5%。这是恰如其分的。人们普遍预期,今后五年中国平均增长率将保持在6%到7%之间的水平。你很难发现有哪个著名经济学家会预测中国经济将出现大幅放缓,更不要说预测会出现信贷危机了。

历史却昭示着一个完全不同的故事。在33个出现极端信贷扩张的例子中,相关国家的GDP增速在后来下降了一半以上。如果中国也走上类似轨道,今后五年中国经济年平均增长率将在4%到5%之间。

预测信贷危机的关键不是看债务规模,而是看债务增长速度。这是因为在信贷快速增长期间,越来越多的贷款会被投入缺乏效益的项目。这正是中国的现状。5年前,在中国只需要1美元的债务就能获得1美元的经济增长。而到2013年,要实现1美元的增长,却需要近4美元的债务,并且现在有三分之一的新债被用于偿付旧债。

那些相信中国例外论的人表示,中国有特殊的防护机制。中国拥有大量外汇储备作为后备基金,经常项目也处于盈余状态,这降低了中国对外国资本的依赖。中资银行能得到规模巨大的国内储蓄的支持,贷存比也很低。然而历史证明,尽管这些因素可能有助于避免某些麻烦,比如货币危机或国际收支危机,但它们却无法保证不会出现国内信贷危机。

实际上,这些防护机制过去就曾失效过。1995年,尽管台湾外汇储备与GDP的比例为45%——略高于中国今天的水平,台湾还是遭遇了银行业危机。台湾银行业的贷存比同样很低,却依然无法避免信贷紧缩。上世纪70年代的日本和90年代的马来西亚也同样爆发了银行业危机,尽管它们的储蓄与GDP之比在40%左右。而且,经常账户的状态与是否会爆发信贷危机之间并没有很强的联系。

在中国之前出现的那33个最极端信贷狂欢的湮灭表明,中国正面临重大风险,至少是经济有可能显著放缓。这样的结果也许还能够避免,但机会不大,即便是像中国这么特别的国家。

本文作者是摩根士丹利投资管理公司(Morgan Stanley Investment Management)新兴市场与全球宏观部主管,著有《一炮走红的国家》(Breakout Nations)。

译者/何黎

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