Think American Debt Is Bad? Try China

By Benjamin Carlson

China is amassing debt at a blistering pace.

Since June of last year, more than 10 provinces and cities in China have loaded up on fresh stimulus plans that total up to 20 trillion yuan ($3.3 trillion), according to a recent report by the Chinese newspaper First Financial Daily.

Even in China, where everything is bigger, that figure is huge.

Jaw-droppingly huge.

To compare, it's roughly five times the amount the government pumped into China's economy to stave off the global financial crisis in 2008-2010.

Worse yet, it's a mountain on top of a mountain.

In September, people were shocked when a government researcher estimated that local debts totaled $3.3 trillion at the end of 2012 - double the 2010 figure.

Now, if First Financial Daily's numbers are correct, debts have basically doubled - yet again.

No wonder that yields on Chinese public debt - meaning the price governments pay to borrow - have soared to their highest levels in almost nine years.

According to the report, Sichuan is rolling out 4.76 trillion yuan of new spending, roughly 180 percent of the southwestern province's total annual output. Coastal Fujian, a well-off province traditionally known for tea, is going in for 3.95 trillion yuan. Guangdong, an export-dependent wealthy southern province, will drop 1.41 trillion yuan.

The huge figures call attention to the problems the central government faces trying to wean local governments off using risky debt infusions to jack up GDP.

This was a core issue at November's Third Plenum, a major meeting of Communist Party officials. They agreed on a few reforms, though the details are still hazy.

One idea is to change the way Party leaders are evaluated, so that GDP growth isn't the end-all-be-all of every politico's career. Another is to create new streams of local tax revenue. Another is to let governments issue bonds, instead of turning to shady shadow financing for loans.

None of it seems like a silver bullet, but Beijing still sounds optimistic.

Last Wednesday, Yang Weimin, vice head of the Office of the Central Leading Group on Finance and Economic Affairs, said that the amount of local debt is risky but "under control."

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