This article originally appeared on John’s blog Key Trends in Globalisation on the 22nd of July.
Inaccurate articles sometimes appear claiming China faces a “severe debt crisis.” Factually these are easily refuted. Changyong Rhee, the IMF’s Asia and Pacific Department director, pointed out that China’s national and local government debt is only 53% of its GDP, compared to U.S. government debt which is roughly as big as GDP, or in Japan where government debt is 240% GDP. Foreign debt is 9% of China’s GDP – insignificant set against the world’s largest foreign exchange reserves.
Factually, it is therefore unsurprising that China’s predicted “Lehman” or “Minsky” moment, a financial collapse, invariably fails to occur. But there is another, even more fundamental, reason why China’s economy does not suffer severe financial crises of the type that struck the Western economies in 2008 or wracked the Eurozone. As this illustrates a way that China’s economic structure is superior to the West’s, it is worth analyzing.
Starting with fundamentals, the way the argument is constructed that China faces a “serious debt crisis” violates the most elementary accounting rule – more precisely that of double entry book keeping, which was invented in Italy “merely” eight centuries ago! This is that for every debit entry there has to be a credit one, and vice versa. Discussion of only of one side of a balance sheet without the other is financial nonsense. Claims, such as in the Financial Times, that the big story of 2014 is “the black cloud of debt hanging over China” are financially meaningless given they do not discuss assets to be set against debt.
To illustrate this elementary accounting principle, take a simple example. A company borrows $100 million at 5% interest, uses it to build houses, and sells them at 15% profit. To declare “there is a crisis – the company has a $100 million debt” is evidently nonsense. The company has debts of $100 million but assets of $115 million. It can repay $105 million and make $10 million profit – there is no “debt crisis” whatever. That its assets are greater than its debt illustrates why it is financially illiterate to discuss only debt without assets. A “balance sheet” is called that because it has two sides, not one.