Evergrande and other ”accidents” in China – not really a conundrum

20 September, 2021

China’s international reputation has obviously lost further ground in the course of 2021, to a high extent caused by increasing state interventions in people’s privacy and activities of many (foreign) companies. Such a policy orientation counteracts, of course, a necessary structural reform that China badly needs – the improvement of transparency. Lagging transparency is a major shortcoming that I have pointing at for many years (see, for example, my article published already eight years ago by BOFIT in Finland  (https://helda.helsinki.fi/bof/bitstream/handle/123456789/12599/172270.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y).

The debt problem includes massive corporate debt

The source mentioned above puts focus on the insufficient transparency of government debt, both concerning central and local government debt. I have the uncomfortable feeling that my conclusions from 2013 fully remain in place. Looking at data from the multinational central bank BIS (where China is a member) reveals that China roughly doubled its total-debt ratio to GDP in the past decade, nowadays more than 160 % only for corporate debt – a ratio that in my view is underrating reality but impossible to measure exactly in a country like China.

Why? There are so many implicit corporate debt obligations outside accessible and readable corporate balance sheets that any good estimate of total corporate debt and, consequently, total domestic debt seems to be impossible. Even if one applies the debt numbers of the Chinese governmental think tank National Institute for Finance and Development (NIFD) – 270 % of GDP at the end of 2020 – it still would be an awful number. However, this number still seems to be too low. It should be clearly higher (by the way, Sweden’s debt total number is even higher).

Unfortunately, I do not see any chance to make a reasonable guestimate myself but I note that the BIS for Q4 last year noted China’s total debt at 289,5 % of GDP (https://stats.bis.org/statx/srs/table/f1.1) – 20 percentage points higher than the NIFD number). Find more financial statistics for China at FRED  –> (https://fred.stlouisfed.org/tags/series?t=china%3Bdebt&ob=pv&od=desc).

What will happen to Evergrande?

Anyway, whatever China’s real debt may be in relation to GDP, the shortcomings in transparency should have strongly contributed to the immense debt problems in the second largest economy in the world (in USD terms) – and previously also to other “accidents” in the Chinese economy. Most domestic investors in troubled Evergrande had certainly no clue about the enormous debt burden of this gigantic real-estate company. These people are angry. How many more Chinese real-estate companies are in the concrete risk zone as well?

The Chinese political leadership faces in the 100th anniversary year of the Communist Party a completely undesirable dilemma if the situation for Evergrande worsens further:

¤  to save Evergrande for avoiding social unrest, contagion to other real-estate companies, bank problems (NPLs) and bank runs, and possibly also turmoil on bond markets  or

¤  to react in the tough way by demonstrating that not all companies in major troubles will be rescued in the future.

Sure, I cannot give a well based answer on the possibly necessary political solution of this dilemma when writing this blog. However, my historical feeling about Chinese reactions on serious problems tells me that the first alternative seems to be the most probable. On the other hand, the verification of the second alternative would be a major surprise and at the same time meaning a kind of reversal to a more market-oriented Chinese policy approach in a very sensitive issue.

For the time being, global financial markets will watch the ongoing development of Evergrande very carefully.

Hubert Fromlet
Affiliate Professor at the School of Business and Economics, Linnaeus University
Editorial board


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Global protectionist threats are not over

3 September, 2021

During President Trump’s presidency, increasing concerns about global protectionism were clearly visible. In the meanwhile, one may almost get the impression that protectionism has become a less hot topic.

However, in reality this is not the case. Many (global) companies still consider protectionism as a big or even the biggest concrete challenge beyond acute covid-19 and the current threat of overheated (asset) markets. With the knowledge we have today, this may be a realistic scenario,

The main source for the concerns about remaining or growing protectionism is the fear of further increasing nationalism. There are different signs of this.

First, there are still no encouraging signals from the U.S. pointing at more harmonization with friendly-minded countries. Rather the opposite seems to be the case when considering the American exit from Afghanistan.

Second, there is an obvious risk that future American presidential administrations will continue to apply Trump’s “America first ” policy also with friends – at least to a substantial extent – and go on conducting trade policy in the most favorable national interest of the U.S. “America first” is – of course – a kind of protectionism as well.

Third, China – as we have seen in the past – has its own definition of “free trade”. Generally spoken, China is supporting free trade when it benefits itself from such a policy. This may be a somewhat harsh description but should be more or less correct. Or differently explained: China has its own trade and FDI restrictions when it feels that its competitive position could be jeopardized by required deregulation of trade and inward FDI. According to the European Chamber of Commerce in China’s latest survey from June 2021, market access impediments were reported by 45% of the interviewed European members  (https://www.europeanchamber.com.cn/en/press-releases/3345). China’s further superpower development does not indicate a more relaxed free trade policy in the foreseeable future. However, all this is still a scenario and should not be treated as an already well-based forecast.

But check out anyway reports from World Trade Alert for getting more information about different (emerging) countries’ stance of trade policy and affected favored products (https://www.globaltradealert.org/country/95)! India is a typical country with long-time protectionism. Sure, India has been gradually opening its commercial borders in recent years – but not consequently enough (https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47857583). Historical protectionism is deeply rooted in this mega country. Watch therefore India’s trade policy in the future!

Even the EU demonstrates sometimes worrisome protectionism. In my view, the next German chancellor – representing the largest European economy – should do everything possible to convince the whole EU about the decisive need to work more ambitiously for free trade. Since trade policy is in the hands of the EU, it should speak to a global public with only one voice. The EU should act more outside its borders and not too exclusively deal with its internal issues. This includes also future relations to China.

Time to wake up!

Hubert Fromlet
Affiliate Professor at the School of Business and Economics, Linnaeus University
Editorial board


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China’s industry needs more qualitative upgrading

12 July, 2021

Western politicians and business representatives often point at the big future technological challenges that companies from their own country will face from Chinese competitors. This will come true in many cases but certainly not automatically. My long-time feeling remains in place: Western knowledge about China continues mostly to be too general.

China is such a giant county

My impression from many trips to China still is in place that certain academically oriented views from Chinese researchers may be relatively open and humble. This seems to be possible when the Chinese feel that their discussions with foreign colleagues can be conducted in a fair way, of course “fair” according to some kind of international scientific definition. This can even provoke critical economic standpoints about the future by the Chinese themselves which, for example, can be found in the following article http://global.chinadaily.com.cn/a/202106/12/WS60c4045ba31024ad0bac671a.html).

At a seminar in June 2021 industry experts said according to the above-quoted article that “… the industrial structure of China needs urgent transformation during which the country should establish an entire industry chain that moves limited resources to high-end industries…”. Without doubt, there is an insight that China should manage a qualitative upgrading as soon as possible – meaning that China should be able to include everything in terms of industry chains.

However, we should at the same time try to understand the large-scale dimensions of the necessary improvements/innovations of products and industry chains. So much must happen in the giant country of China to come up to relevant macroeconomic dimensions!

At least many Chinese themselves are aware of this phenomenon and necessity. They know that China will have to work very hard itself. There is no automatic success story.


Hubert Fromlet
Affiliate Professor at the School of Business and Economics, Linnaeus University
Editorial board


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