Easy credit drives young Chinese into the red

Quick cash loans for cars and homes raise concerns over mounting household debt

Ms Charlie Liu in her apartment in Beijing. She rents it out on Airbnb to help cover the repayments on her 1.4 million yuan mortgage.
Ms Charlie Liu in her apartment in Beijing. She rents it out on Airbnb to help cover the repayments on her 1.4 million yuan mortgage.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BEIJING • When Ms Wu Qi and her husband traded in their Mazda 3 for a more expensive Mercedes- Benz sedan, they applied for a 200,000 yuan (S$41,000) bank loan to help pay for it.

They got the money within minutes of their application.

Quick and easy access to credit has encouraged many young Chinese to go into the red to buy cars and apartments they cannot otherwise afford.

They are the faces of China's growing addiction to debt, which, along with government and corporate borrowing, has raised fears of a looming crisis and prompted Moody's ratings agency to slash the country's credit score last week for the first time in nearly three decades.

"It is very easy - the car company encourages you to borrow the money and enjoy the car," said Ms Wu, 39, adding that the couple is also paying off a one million yuan mortgage for a three-bedroom flat in Beijing.

Since Chinese leaders turned on the credit taps in late 2008 to shield the country from the global recession, household borrowing has soared and pushed China's overall debt liabilities above 260 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) - compared with about 140 per cent before the crisis hit.

But slowing growth in the world's second-largest economy has raised concerns that years of risky lending could lead to a disaster worse than the United States sub-prime collapse.

  • >260% China's overall debt liabilities as a percentage of GDP. Household borrowing has soared and pushed it up from about 140 per cent before the 2008 global recession.

    19% Average expansion per year of China's household debt since 2011.

"While such debt levels are not uncommon in highly rated countries, they tend to be seen in countries which have much higher per capita incomes, deeper financial markets and stronger institutions than China's," Moody's said.

Household debt has become the major driver of China's credit growth, expanding by an average of 19 per cent a year since 2011, said Mr Chen Long, an economist at Gavekal Dragonomics.

If it continues to grow at this pace, household debt would reach roughly 66 trillion yuan by 2020 - more than double the current level - and potentially 70 per cent of GDP versus the 30 per cent back in 2013.

"Other countries have usually taken decades to complete such an increase," said Mr Chen.

"For bank lending to households to rise very rapidly usually means lending standards are loosened so credit is extended to both more and less creditworthy consumers."

Mortgages make up the bulk of household debt.

The Chinese have long favoured putting their savings into bricks and mortar because of the low bank deposit rates on offer, volatility in the stock market and strict rules that make it difficult to invest money abroad.

"It's a safe choice," said home owner Charlie Liu, 26, who also rents out her flat on Airbnb to help cover the repayments on her 1.4 million yuan mortgage.

But as apartment prices have soared - often doubling within a few years, particularly in major cities - fears of a real-estate bubble have mounted.

The government has responded by periodically tightening restrictions on property purchases and hiking minimum down payments - up to 80 per cent for a second home in Beijing, according to state media - to stabilise the market. But prices continue to rise, forcing young home buyers deeper into debt.

Facing dire warnings, Chinese policymakers are taking action to tighten balance sheets, halt risky lending and dispose of bad loans.

But there are doubts about Beijing's willingness to clean house, given its heavy reliance on freewheeling credit to drive economic growth.

"We will see how it can extricate itself from the same 'grow now, ask questions later' trap that all other command economies have slipped into in the past," said Mr Michael Every, senior Asia-Pacific strategist for Rabobank.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 29, 2017, with the headline 'Easy credit drives young Chinese into the red'. Subscribe