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China’s Debt Bomb: No One Really Knows the Payload [Chart]

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China's Debt Bomb [Chart]

China’s Debt Bomb [Chart]

No One Knows if its a Hand Grenade or a Nuclear Explosion

The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.

The ramp up in Chinese debt accumulation has been a leading concern of investors for years. The average total debt of emerging market economies is 175% of GDP, and skyrocketing corporate non-financial debt has launched China far beyond that number.

The real question is: by how far?

The answer is disconcerting, because nobody really knows.

If the Chinese debt bomb is detonated, the impact on markets is anybody’s guess. Kyle Bass says the losses would be 5x that of the subprime mortgage crisis, while Moody’s says the bomb will be safely disarmed by authorities far before it goes off.

In today’s chart, we look at various estimates to the size of China’s debt bomb, its payload, and what might spark the fuse.

China’s Debt Bomb: The Payload

Mckinsey came out with a widely-publicized estimate of China’s debt at the beginning of 2015. Using figures up to Q2 2014, they estimated that total Chinese debt was 282% of GDP, an increase from 158% in 2007.

Since then, various trusted organizations have come up with follow-up estimates.

On the low end, Goldman Sachs came out with an estimate in January 2016 of 216% total debt-to-GDP for 2015. (A few months later, they put out a separate report saying that total debt-to-GDP was estimated to be closer to 270% for 2016.)

On the high end, Macquarie analyst Viktor Shvets said that China’s debt was $35 trillion, or “nearly 350%” of GDP.

The truth is that it’s anybody’s guess. China’s official estimates are fairly useless, and the country has a massive and quickly evolving shadow banking sector that complicates these projections significantly.

Explosive Materials

Total debt is made up of various components, including government, corporate, banking, and household debts.

In the case of China, it is corporate debt that is particularly explosive. According to Mckinsey, the country’s corporate sector already has a higher debt-to-GDP than the United States, Canada, South Korea, or Germany, even while still being considered an “emerging market”.

S&P Global Ratings now figures that Chinese corporate debt is in the 160% range, up from 98% in 2008. The current number in the United States is a less ominous 70%.

China’s central bank is just as concerned as anyone else. Here’s what the Governor of the People’s Bank of China, Zhou Xiaochuan, had to say about a month ago:

Lending as a share of GDP, especially corporate lending as a share of GDP, is too high.

Xiaochuan also noted that a high leverage ratio is more prone to macroeconomic risk.

Defusing the Bomb

If there’s something that can ignite the fuse of China’s debt bomb, it’s non-performing loans (NPLs).

An NPL is a sum of money borrowed upon which the debtor has not made scheduled payments. They are essentially loans that are either close to defaulting, or already in default territory.

China has an official estimate for this number, and it is a benign 1.7% of debt. Unfortunately, independent researchers peg it much higher.

Bullish analysts have the number pegged in the high single-digits, while bearish analysts put the range anywhere between 15% and 21%. Even the IMF says that loans “potentially at risk” would be equal to 15.5% of total commercial lending.

If there’s a place to start defusing the bomb, this is it.

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Mapped: The 10 U.S. States With the Lowest Real GDP Growth

In this graphic, we show where real GDP lagged the most across America in 2023 as high interest rates weighed on state economies.

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The Top 10 U.S. States, by Lowest Real GDP Growth

This was originally posted on our Voronoi app. Download the app for free on iOS or Android and discover incredible data-driven charts from a variety of trusted sources.

While the U.S. economy defied expectations in 2023, posting 2.5% in real GDP growth, several states lagged behind.

Last year, oil-producing states led the pack in terms of real GDP growth across America, while the lowest growth was seen in states that were more sensitive to the impact of high interest rates, particularly due to slowdowns in the manufacturing and finance sectors.

This graphic shows the 10 states with the least robust real GDP growth in 2023, based on data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Weakest State Economies in 2023

Below, we show the states with the slowest economic activity in inflation-adjusted terms, using chained 2017 dollars:

RankStateReal GDP Growth 2023 YoYReal GDP 2023
1Delaware-1.2%$74B
2Wisconsin+0.2%$337B
3New York+0.7%$1.8T
4Missississippi+0.7%$115B
5Georgia+0.8%$661B
6Minnesota+1.2%$384B
7New Hampshire+1.2%$91B
8Ohio+1.2%$698B
9Iowa+1.3%$200B
10Illinois+1.3%$876B
U.S.+2.5%$22.4T

Delaware witnessed the slowest growth in the country, with real GDP growth of -1.2% over the year as a sluggish finance and insurance sector dampened the state’s economy.

Like Delaware, the Midwestern state of Wisconsin also experienced declines across the finance and insurance sector, in addition to steep drops in the agriculture and manufacturing industries.

America’s third-biggest economy, New York, grew just 0.7% in 2023, falling far below the U.S. average. High interest rates took a toll on key sectors, with notable slowdowns in the construction and manufacturing sectors. In addition, falling home prices and a weaker job market contributed to slower economic growth.

Meanwhile, Georgia experienced the fifth-lowest real GDP growth rate. In March 2024, Rivian paused plans to build a $5 billion EV factory in Georgia, which was set to be one of the biggest economic development initiatives in the state in history.

These delays are likely to exacerbate setbacks for the state, however, both Kia and Hyundai have made significant investments in the EV industry, which could help boost Georgia’s manufacturing sector looking ahead.

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