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A Covid-19 debt shock in Asia?

The two largest Asian economies, China and Japan, have some of the highest levels of debt in the world, at the end of 2017 Japan’s total debt stood at 395 per cent of GDP and China’s at 254 per cent. But there are some significant differences in their debt composition.

East Asia Forum

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Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, the level of global debt was high by historic standards. According to the Institute of International Finance, by late 2019 global debt (including private and public debt) was more than US$250 trillion.

Public debt, in particular, has increased everywhere since the global financial crisis of 2008.

IMF calculations show that public debt ratios in almost 90 per cent of advanced economies are higher than before 2008. Emerging markets on average have seen such ratios increase to levels similar to those seen during the crises of the 1980s and 1990s. Public debt has also built up in low-income countries with two-fifths at high risk of debt distress.

How much global debt has been added on the back of the COVID-19 health emergency? Focusing only on low-income and emerging economies, IMF Managing Director Kristalina Georgieva reckoned that US$2.5 trillion was a ‘very conservative, low-end estimate’ of their financing needs.

Where does Asia stand in all this?

The two largest Asian economies, China and Japan, have some of the highest levels of debt in the world — at the end of 2017 Japan’s total debt stood at 395 per cent of GDP and China’s at 254 per cent. But there are some significant differences in their debt composition.

In Japan debt is mainly public — approximately 237 per cent of GDP in 2019 — and is mostly held domestically.

Around 70 per cent of this debt is held by the Bank of Japan. Under normal conditions the combination of domestic–public debt holdings and very low interest rates considerably reduces the risk of default.

But will things change now? Japan’s emergency stimulus package announced in April 2020 — a mix of cash handouts to households and firms, concessional loans and deferrals on tax and social security premiums — will widen the budget deficit to approximately 7.1 per cent of GDP from 2.8 per cent in 2019.

This will bring the debt to around 252 per cent of GDP. Japan’s already limited fiscal space has significantly narrowed as a result of the pandemic, pointing to some fiscal tightening and debt stabilisation when the economy gets onto a firm recovery path. This is especially necessary given Japan’s ageing population.

China’s corporate debt and shadow banking sectors

In China, on the other hand, debt is mainly corporate with ramifications in the banking and shadow banking sectors.

The rate at which it has grown in recent years is a cause for concern domestically as well as internationally. Capital controls, that were tightened in 2017 on the back of the renminbi’s weakening, are ensuring that individual and family savings remain in the country and continue to feed into the banking and the shadow banking sector, keeping China’s debt sustainable.

The COVID-19 crisis and its impact on China’s economic activity — real GDP is expected to grow by 1–1.2 per cent this year — created significant bottlenecks and increased the risk of financial instability. There are a number of areas of potential stress.

Small- and medium-sized banks are exposed to the potential insolvency of small private firms and private borrowers. Larger banks face credit and liquidity risks due to their exposure to the heavily indebted real estate sector.

The shadow banking sector, where there are significant liquidity and maturity mismatches, is vulnerable to outflows that could be driven by savers withdrawing their money — either because they need their savings to face the economic crisis or because they panic amid falling equities prices and rising bond defaults.

China has responded to the crisis with an increase in welfare spending — such as unemployment insurance payment to support households — and temporary tax relief and deferral of tax payments for businesses in affected sectors and regions. Having significant fiscal space, China can extend its safety net to effectively mitigate the risk of personal and corporate bankruptcies, creating a buffer between banks and insolvent debtors.

Asia’s emerging economies show remarkable differences in levels of total debt. Some have entered the COVID-19 crisis with significant overall debt.

Among the most indebted countries are Vietnam, India and Cambodia — with 189, 126 and 116 per cent of GDP respectively — followed by the Philippines (99 per cent), Pakistan (89 per cent), Bangladesh (75 per cent), Malaysia (73 per cent) and Indonesia (69 per cent).

The sharp decline in economic activity coupled with the risk of capital outflows — and a sudden increase in borrowing costs — could be particularly unsettling for countries with limited scope for fiscal policy measures, such as, for example, India where state-owned banks are saddled with a significant stock of bad loans.

Other countries, like Indonesia and Thailand, have resorted to foreign currency interventions to mitigate the impact of capital outflows on their currencies.

Asian economies are due to recover earlier and faster

During the few weeks until the end of April, portfolio outflows from emerging markets amounted to approximately US$100 billion. Both Indonesia and Malaysia also implemented exceptional fiscal measures amounting to 1.8 and 2.8 per cent of GDP respectively.

Despite being at the epicentre of the COVID-19 outbreak, Asia (and East Asia in particular) has been more successful than Europe and the United States in containing the health emergency. Asian economies are due to recover earlier and faster — there has already been a rebound in Chinese exports (8.2 per cent up in April after a negative first quarter) due to stronger demand in Southeast Asia.

The international financial safety net has been extended in response to COVID-19, offering enough support for small- and medium-sized economies to avoid them falling into liquidity or, worse, a solvency crisis on the back of the currency emergency.

The IMF’s lending capacity has been stretched to US$1 trillion through the New Arrangements to Borrow and the Bilateral Borrowing Arrangements. This is four times the amount that was deployed during the global financial crisis.

Concessional lending has tripled while the G20 agreed to suspend government loan repayments for developing countries. This makes the IMF the most significant provider of emergency funding in Asia while regional arrangements, such as the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization (CMIM), can provide further contributions. Of course, any IMF intervention needs to be set against the bigger global debt problem, while this is not the case for the CMIM. But the CMIM remains too small and untested.

Strong growth should eventually help Asia reduce its debt — at least the portion added as a result of the current crisis. Strengthening the CMIM and other regional financial arrangements, however, remains the best way to underpin financial stability.

Author: Paola Subacchi, Queen Mary University of London and University of Bologna

Paola Subacchi is Adjunct Professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, The University of Bologna, and Chair of the Global Policy Institute, Queen Mary University of London.

This article is part of an EAF special feature series on the novel coronavirus crisis and its impact.

East Asia Forum provides a platform for the best in East Asian analysis, research and policy comment on the Asia Pacific region and world affairs.

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