For the past few years, China has been pursuing a new and ambitious state-owned enterprise (SOE) reform program. SEOs are huge in terms of size, yet they only provide 16% of jobs, less than a third of national economic output, and a return on assets of only 2.9%. Hugely inefficient, debt-ridden and responsible for most of China’s ballooning corporate debt, SOEs are a drag on an economy that Beijing wants to transition—unlike past efforts which is about privatization, but just the opposite—from investment and export-driven to services and consumption-driven.
China’s corporate debt is rising fast, and is estimated to be between 145% and 170% of GDP, which is “very high by any measure,” according to the IMF. In most countries this would herald a wave of bankruptcies and be considered a lead indicator for an imminent correction. But in China, analysts are not so sure because the government has a high level of control and a low tolerance for slow growth. People also believe there will not be an imminent financial crisis because the government is the ultimate underwriter.