The recent assessment of China’s financial stability by the International Monetary Fund highlights increasing vulnerabilities stemming from the government’s role in the lending process, and an inflexible interest rate policy. Those who regard weaknesses in the banking sector as a likely trigger for a financial collapse have railed against China’s negative real interest rates and the speculative activity this has spawned. They see the heavy reliance on credit expansion to stimulate the economy during the global financial crises as eventually leading to a surge in non-performing loans. All this is viewed as part of a strategy of financial repression that postpones the day when China’s big four state banks can operate as real commercial banks.
But focusing on emerging financial risks is a case of treating the symptoms of the problem, rather than understanding and dealing with its origins. When Deng Xiaoping launched his efforts decades ago to boost economic growth, he needed to secure the resources to ramp up investments along the coast. But the Communist party leader faced the reality that government revenues had fallen to only 11 per cent of gross domestic product by the mid-1990s and the only alternative was to tap household savings in the banking system. Although revenues have been increasing steadily, China’s national budget still amounts to only 25 per cent of GDP, compared with an average of 35 per cent for other middle income countries and over 40 per cent for OECD economies.
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