Surging homeowner loans in China raise alarms over debt

Loose credit and changing habits have rapidly transformed the country's famously loan-averse consumers into enthusiastic borrowers

By: AFP | Beijing | Published:November 27, 2016 1:58 pm
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Chinese household debt has risen at an “alarming” pace as property values have soared, analysts say, raising the risk that a real estate downturn could send shockwaves through the world’s second largest economy. Loose credit and changing habits have rapidly transformed the country’s famously loan-averse consumers into enthusiastic borrowers.

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Skyrocketing real estate prices in major Chinese cities in recent years have seen families’ wealth surge. But at the same time they have fuelled a historic boom in mortgage lending, as buyers race to get on the property ladder, or invest to profit from the phenomenon.

Now the debt owed by households in the world’s second largest economy has surged from 28 percent of GDP to more than 40 percent in the past five years.

“The notion that Chinese people do not like to borrow is clearly outdated,” said Chen Long of Gavekal Dragonomics. The share of household loans to overall lending hit 67.5 percent in the third quarter of 2016, more than twice the share of the year before.

But this surge has raised fears that a sharp drop in property prices would cause many new loans to go bad, causing a domino effect on interest rates, exchange rates and commodity prices that “could turn out to be a global macro event”, ANZ analysts said in a recent note.

While China’s household debt ratio is still lower than advanced countries such as the US (nearly 80 percent of GDP) and Japan (more than 60 percent), it has already exceeded that of emerging markets Brazil and India, and if it keeps growing at its current pace will hit 70 percent of GDP in a few years.

The ruling Communist party has set a target of 6.5 to 7 percent economic growth for 2017, and the country is on track to hit it thanks to a property frenzy in major cities and a flood of easy credit.

But keeping loans flowing at such a pace creates such “substantial risks” that it could be a “self-defeating strategy”, Chen said.