TOO BIG TO FAIL

China’s banking system is riskier than it has ever been, the latest global data shows

Obsession
China's Transition
Obsession
China's Transition

China’s outstanding bank credit to GDP gap, a key measure of financial systems’ health, has hit a new record high and is now three times the level considered risky by the Bank for International Settlements.

The gap stood at 30.1% at the end of March 2016, the BIS, as the Basel-based agency that analyzes central bank data is known, said in its latest quarterly report (pdf, p. 28), released Sept. 18. That’s more than double the level of the next highest country, Canada, and well above the 10% level that’s considered a red flag by the agency.

It is also the highest it has been since the BIS started tracking the gap in 1995:

The figure represents the difference between the ratio of outstanding credit (to non-financial companies and individuals) to GDP and its long-term trend. It “has been found to be a useful early warning indicator of financial crises,” the agency explains. Ahead of the 2008 financial crisis, for example, the credit-to-GDP gap was over 10% in the United States.

Still, China’s credit-to-GDP gap has been over that 10% threshold since the third quarter of 2009, without a crisis, a sign the tightly government-controlled system does not perform like other financial systems. The People’s Bank of China, China’s central bank, has loosened credit controls several times in recent years, hoping a torrent of cash will strengthen the country’s slowing economy. Most recently, mortgage lending shot up, as consumers went on a new home-buying boom.

When, or even if, this unprecedented flood of lending, and China’s record-high credit-to-GDP gap, will result in an actual banking crisis in China is the subject of much debate but few clear conclusions.

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