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.
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.
The 7 Major Flaws of the Global Financial System
Since the invention of banking, the global financial system has increasingly become more centralized. Here are the big flaws it has, as a result.
The 7 Major Flaws of the Global Financial System
Since the invention of banking, the global financial system has become increasingly centralized.
In the modern system, central banks now control everything from interest rates to the issuance of currency, while government regulators, corporations, and intergovernmental organizations wield unparalleled influence at the top of this crucial food chain.
There is no doubt that this centralization has led to the creation of massive amounts of wealth, especially to those properly connected to the financial system. However, the same centralization has also arguably contributed to many global challenges and risks we face today.
Flaws of the Global Financial System
Today’s infographic comes to us from investment app Abra, and it highlights the seven major flaws of the global financial system, ranging from the lack of basic access to financial services to growing inequality.
1. Billions of people globally remain unbanked
To participate in the global financial sector, whether it is to make a digital payment or manage one’s wealth, one must have access to a bank account. However, 1.7 billion adults worldwide remain unbanked, having zero access to an account with a financial institution or a mobile money provider.
2. Global financial literacy remains low
For people to successfully use financial services and markets, they must have some degree of financial literacy. According to a recent global survey, just 1-in-3 people show an understanding of basic financial concepts, with most of these people living in high income economies.
Without an understanding of key concepts in finance, it makes it difficult for the majority of the population to make the right decisions – and to build wealth.
3. High intermediary costs and slow transactions
Once a person has access to financial services, sending and storing money should be inexpensive and fast.
However, just the opposite is true. Around the globe, the average cost of a remittance is 7.01% in fees per transaction – and when using banks, that rises to 10.53%. Even worse, these transactions can take days at a time, which seems quite unnecessary in today’s digital era.
4. Low trust in financial institutions and governments
The financial sector is the least trusted business sector globally, with only a 57% level of trust according to Edelman. Meanwhile, trust in governments is even lower, with only 40% trusting the U.S. government, and the global country average sitting at 47%.
5. Rising global inequality
In a centralized system, financial markets tend to be dominated by those who are best connected to them.
These are people who have:
- Access to many financial opportunities and asset classes
- Capital to deploy
- Informational advantages
- Access to financial expertise
In fact, according to recent data on global wealth concentration, the top 1% own 47% of all household wealth, while the top 10% hold roughly 85%.
On the other end of the spectrum, the vast majority of people have little to no financial assets to even start building wealth. Not only are many people living paycheck to paycheck – but they also don’t have access to assets that can create wealth, like stocks, bonds, mutual funds, or ETFs.
6. Currency manipulation and censorship
In a centralized system, countries have the power to manipulate and devalue fiat currencies, and this can have a devastating effect on markets and the lives of citizens.
In Venezuela, for example, the government has continually devalued its currency, creating runaway hyperinflation as a result. The last major currency manipulation in 2018 increased the price of a cup of coffee by over 772,400% in six months.
Further, centralized power also gives governments and financial institutions the ability to financially censor citizens, by taking actions such as freezing accounts, denying access to payment systems, removing funds from accounts, and denying the retrieval of funds during bank runs.
7. The build-up of systemic risk
Finally, centralization creates one final and important drawback.
With financial power concentrated with just a select few institutions, such as central banks and “too big too fail” companies, it means that one abject failure can decimate an entire system.
This happened in 2008 as U.S. subprime mortgages turned out to be an Achilles Heel for bank balance sheets, creating a ripple effect throughout the globe. Centralization means all eggs in one basket – and if that basket breaks it can possibly lead to the destruction of wealth on a large scale.
The Future of the Global Financial System?
The risks and drawbacks of centralization to the global financial system are well known, however there has never been much of a real alternative – until now.
With the proliferation of mobile phones and internet access, as well as the development of decentralization technologies like the blockchain, it may be possible to build an entirely new financial system.
But is the world ready?
The World’s Most Valuable Bank Brands
These charts visualize the most valuable bank brands around the world, while also showing the rise of China’s financial services sector over time.
Visualizing The World’s Most Valuable Bank Brands
When most people think about brands, they often picture iconic consumer marks like Coca-Cola or Apple.
But in the realm of financial services, the importance of having a strong consumer brand is also rapidly growing. After all, with hundreds of new fintech entrants positioning themselves to be the “banks” of the future, it seems that brand awareness may be one of the major competitive advantages that incumbent banks can use to protect themselves.
Which financial institutions have the strongest brands, and which brands are the most valuable?
Valuable Bank Brands in 2019
Today’s chart looks at the world’s most valuable bank brands, according to a recent report from Brand Finance.
It should be noted that brand value in this context is a measure of the “value of the trade mark and associated marketing IP within the branded business”. In other words, it’s measuring the value of intangible marketing assets, and not the overall worth of a business itself.
Here are the top bank brands by value in 2019:
For the third year in a row, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) takes the top spot, with a brand value of $79.8 billion.
Wells Fargo is the top U.S. bank by brand value, coming in 5th place – however, the bank actually fell two spots from last year’s ranking while simultaneously losing 9% of its brand value. This is not surprising in light of the recent publicity challenges faced by the bank.
The Ascent of Chinese Banks
It’s also interesting to note that Chinese banks have taken all four of the top spots on the list, with ICBC, China Construction Bank, Agricultural Bank of China, and Bank of China having a combined brand value of over $250 billion.
Here’s a look at the ascent of Chinese banks over time:
In contrast, in the entire span of 2009-2014, there were zero Chinese banks that cracked the top five.
The Strongest Bank Brands
Finally, here is a look at the strongest bank brands.
It’s worth noting that in contrast to value, these are banks that have executed on their branding, marketing, and sales strategies to have brands that ultimately create a competitive advantage for their business.
Brand Finance measures brand strength by looking at a balanced scorecard of metrics evaluating marketing investment, stakeholder equity, and business performance.
For more insights, don’t forget to check out Brand Finance’s report.
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