The data are far from perfect because borrowing by low-level government entities and lending by small banks are difficult to track. Nonetheless, my evidence suggests that the scale of the problem is much larger than previous government estimates. At $1.6 trillion, the size of local debt is roughly one-third of China’s 2009 GDP and 70% of its foreign-exchange reserves.
So basically, in addition to the 20% of official debt-to-GDP ratio, one has to add an additional 30%. We also have to add other debt that the central government guarantees, such as the nearly 1 trillion RMB in Ministry of Railway bonds and bonds issued by the asset management companies. All of this gives China a high debt to GDP ratio.
Local government, who rely mostly on land sales for their revenue, cannot afford to reduce the real estate bubble, if there is one. Victor Shih does also see opportunities to get out of this mess, he writes:
A sudden contraction of lending to local investment vehicles will generate a wave of nonperforming loans, but a greater reliance on market mechanisms can easily solve this problem over the next few years. First, banks will fully recover the debt of the healthiest local entities, which may account for half of total local debt. For the remainder, the government needs to allow banks to directly sell subprime or distressed loans to both foreign and domestic investors. Beijing need not fear that China’s listed banks will sell their nonperforming loans at below-market prices, as these banks report to shareholders. Banks, in conjunction with investment banks and distressed-asset investors, should also explore ways to securitize local debt for sale to both domestic and international investors. The latter in particular would have a healthy appetite for yuan-denominated security, anticipating a currency revaluation soon.