How Large can the Chinese Banking Sector be?

June 5, 2012, by Iikka Korhonen, Helsinki

The Chinese growth model has depended on high level of investments. In this China is very similar to many other fast-growing Asian countries, including Japan and Korea. During the 1980s and 1990s share of investments in GDP fluctuated between 30% and 40%, but the last decade or so has seen an upward trend in the share. Furthermore, during the 2009 economic crisis the Chinese government used e.g. infrastructure investments as a fiscal stimulant, and the investment ratio jumped close to 50% (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 Investment ratios

Extensive investment activity has been financed from two main sources. From companies’ retained earnings (as in most other countries) and from bank loans. According to the Chinese flow-of-fund data, non-financial enterprises borrowed from Chinese banks amount equaling some 23% of GDP in 2009. The Chinese banking sector was very large (relative to China’s income level) already before the crisis, but Chinese banks’ balance sheets expanded sharply in 2009 and 2010, as the government used banks as an instrument of economic policy, i.e. in financing the vastly increased infrastructure spending by the local authorities.

Figure 2 shows the positive correlation between the size of the banking sector (domestic credit as percentage of GDP) and a country’s income level (per capita GDP adjusted for purchasing power parity). Many high-income OECD countries have very large banking sectors, as we can see. Also, most banking sectors do not exceed 100% of GDP, even at relatively high income levels. Therefore, in international comparison, China (denoted by red markers) stands out as an outlier. China is also very different from the formerly socialist countries in the Central and Eastern Europe, where domestic credit remains even below 50% of GDP. One can also note the very large jump upward in the size of the Chinese banking sector from 2008 (104% of GDP) to 2009 (127%). Currently the Chinese domestic credit is on the level more commonly seen in countries where per capita GDP is well over $20,000.


Figure 2 Domestic credit to private sector and per capita GDP 2005-2010

China’s banking sector is already very large relative to its size. This is a result of both the chosen growth strategy and the relatively stringent controls on the financial sector still in place. E.g. Chinese banks’ interest rate margin is almost directly controlled by the authorities. When the financial market liberalization progresses further, competition in the market will increase. Also, Chinese households and companies will have greater access to other forms of investment than bank deposits. All this will mean smaller relative size of the Chinese banking sector.







Iikka Korhonen
Head of Bofit (Institute for Economies in Transition) at the Bank of Finland

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