WASHINGTON — Just as the global economy has all but recovered from debt-fueled crises in the United States and Europe, economists have a new worry: China. They see a lending bubble there that threatens global growth unless Beijing defuses it.
That’s the view that emerges from an Associated Press survey this month of 30 economists. Still, the economists remain optimistic that Beijing’s high-stakes drive to reform its economy — the world’s second-largest — will bolster Chinese banks, ease the lending bubble and benefit U.S. exporters in the long run.
“They’ve really got to change the way they do business,” said William Cheney, chief economist at John Hancock Asset Management. “But they have a good track record of doing just that. I’m an optimist about their ability to make this transition.”
The source of concern is a surge in lending by Chinese banks. The lending was initially encouraged by the government during the 2008 global financial crisis to fuel growth. Big state-owned banks financed construction of homes, railroads and office towers. But much of the lending was directed by local officials for pet projects rather than to meet business needs.
On Monday, the International Monetary Fund issued a warning about China’s private debt. It released a report citing “rising vulnerabilities” in China’s financial system, including lending outside traditional banks. Lending by that “shadow” banking system now equals one-quarter of China’s economy, the report said.
The IMF also pointed to recent defaults in credit card and other debt sold to investors by banks and heavy debts owed by local governments.
If it continues, “this could spark adverse financial market reaction both in China and globally,” the IMF said.
The bubble has caused land prices in China to double in five years, according to an estimate by Nomura, a Japanese bank. Outstanding credit surged from 130 percent of the economy in 2008 to 200 percent in 2013, according to Capital Economics, a forecasting firm.