A few years ago I wrote a post talking about “depression babies.” In it, I cited a research paper that looked at the impact of macroeconomic shocks on people’s willingness to take on financial risk in the future. The term “depression babies” stems from the Great Depression and how it is believed to have impacted risk taking, savings rates, and probably many other things.
I was reminded of this when I read this recent article in the WSJ talking about how the Chinese have started spending — and taking on the debt — like Americans, particularly among Chinese under 30. It is the inverse of the depression baby phenomenon. In this case, it is arguably years of economic expansion leading to greater comfort around financial risk.
Here are a couple of figures from the article:
JPMorgan estimates China’s ratio of household debt to gross domestic product will climb to 61% by 2020. That’s up from 26% in 2010 and higher than current levels in Italy and Greece.
The level in the U.S. is about 76%, after falling from 98% in 2006, according to the International Monetary Fund.
By another measure—the ratio of household debt to disposable income—China appears to have already surpassed the U.S. Its ratio reached 117.2% in 2018, up from 42.7% in 2008, according to calculations by Lei Ning, a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Research at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. The U.S. peaked at 135% in 2007 and dropped to 101% in 2018.
Not surprisingly, the article goes on to talk about how this dramatic increase in household debt might be something to worry about. Maybe. I’m not an economist. But I do think this is designed to boost the Chinese growth machine and I do think it makes them less reliant on other countries — such as, maybe, the United States.