Saturday, July 2, 2011

It's China's turn to wrestle with a pile of bad debt: Massive infrastructure spending has created a mountain of bad loans

The U.S. banking system was the first to get hit by the financial Panic of 2008. For the past year, European bankers have been scrambling to head off exploding debt bombs in Greece and other countries with high debt loads.

Now, it looks like it's China’s turn to face up to a giant pile of bad debt. This being China, though, the story isn’t playing out like an ordinary Western financial crisis.

The source of China's current problem dates back to the collapse of the global economy in 2008 when, like its Western counterparts, the Chinese government unleashed a flood of cash to stimulate its economy. Much of that money was loans from state-owned banks to local governments, which were supposed to spend all those yuan on new roads, railways, power plants and other projects to help China maintain its torrid pace of economic growth.

Many of those yuan didn't get where they were supposed to go. It's still not clear exactly where they all went. But this week the Chinese government announced the results of a nationwide audit of 31 provinces and hundreds of municipalities which found that those local governments are now carrying some $1.6 trillion worth of loans. And a large portion — as much as 20 percent — may have to be written off as bad debt. (Reader contributed - read more)