Sarah Hsu, at the Diplomat, examines whether China can absorb further bad debt from its financial sector, and suggests that the party is over:
... but if the trust debt increases and bailouts do rise, local governments will suffer, as they have little capacity to withstand a further accumulation of debt.
The central government can bear a small increase in bad debt, but as long as the deficit is kept in check, bailouts will replace policies that spur much-needed growth, trading future prosperity for past profligacy. The recent 3-year non-performing loan amount of just less than 1.5 trillion RMB (about 500 billion per year and growing) seems like a tidy sum compared to fiscal expenditures of 7 trillion RMB (in 2013). With mounting non-performing loans and declining revenue in the short run, the gap between these numbers will only narrow. Although the government can pay down the debt later, postponing the bailout, many new nonperforming loans would present a challenge to officials as to how to classify, recover, and ultimately relieve the financial system of this burden.
These numbers tell us that it does not appear that China can bear a very large increase in debt, and that the idea that the government can simply “bail out the financial sector” is erroneous, or at least, a stretch. China does not have the luxury of the United States, which can spend excessively because foreign countries continue to buy U.S. government debt (as the dollar is the world reserve currency). If the leadership attempts to spend down its large cache of dollar reserves, it will lose control of its currency, as a larger supply of U.S. dollars relative to the Chinese RMB would depreciate the currency unless sterilized. The only remaining option is the least savory: the Chinese government must control its debt, and this includes reducing overindulgence within the real economy. It seems that the punch bowl is empty already and the party is winding down. Now the question is, who will clean up the mess?