(Bloomberg) -- China’s credit engine, which once powered industries and markets all over the world, is stuck in low gear – and set to stay there.

Data for May due this week is forecast to show a resumption of loan growth after a shock contraction in April, the first for almost two decades. But nobody expects a return to the days when Beijing would engineer borrowing booms to speed up the world’s second-biggest economy. 

Especially since the 2008 crash, China has pumped out credit to build homes and infrastructure, which kept the economy humming. Now it’s stuck in a housing slump and already has plenty of roads and high-speed rail. Policymakers are seeking new ways to sustain growth — like high-tech manufacturing — that won’t rely so much on expanding debt.

The People’s Bank of China has repeatedly signaled it has no intention of revving up the lending engine again. Even if it wanted to, there’s little demand for credit. Government bond sales picked up last month, but the real estate crisis has left Chinese households and businesses reluctant to finance spending or investment by taking on new debts.

“Household savings that used to go into property are now going into the financial system, but there aren’t enough borrowers on the other side,” said Adam Wolfe, an emerging-market economist at Absolute Strategy Research. The PBOC is “trying to create a new normal for credit growth,” he said.

If that effort succeeds, Chinese debt may lose its status as a strong leading indicator for the country’s business cycle — and hence for global commodity markets.

To see how that’s worked over the past 15 years or so, one useful guide is the credit impulse, which measures the ratio of new debt to gross domestic product. It shows four distinct spurts of stimulus since 2009.

As recently as early 2021, China was building its way out of the pandemic in a credit-fueled construction boom that sucked in raw materials from across the planet and helped drive a broad commodity rally. 

Around that time, Federal Reserve researchers concluded that China’s credit policies explained more than one-fifth of all commodity-price movements since the global financial crisis. In a separate study, they estimated that when China’s credit impulse rose by 1% of GDP, it delivered a matching boost to global trade – and a 2.2% increase in commodity prices – as well as lifting the Chinese economy. 

But since 2022 the credit impulse has essentially flatlined.

“The credit growth data is still a reference to gauge Chinese industrial activities, but it’s a less-strong indicator now,” said Li Xuezhi, head of Chaos Ternary Research Institute, a commodity analysis firm. The economy used to be led by property and infrastructure investments, but the “new quality productive forces” that Beijing is now backing involve other forms of financing like venture capital, Li said.

The lending slowdown is spurring debate over various alarming scenarios for China’s economy. One is a “liquidity trap,” where lower borrowing costs are unable to stimulate growth. Another is a “balance sheet recession,” where households and companies are focused on clearing debts rather than spending.

As China seeks a growth model based on improving productivity instead of expanding debt, the PBOC’s priority is to make sure existing funds are used more efficiently, according to Wolfe. To the extent it succeeds, “the relationship between aggregate credit and the industrial cycle should break down,” and there are signs that it already is, he said.

Authorities took steps in recent years to rein in over-indebted real estate developers and clean up so-called hidden debt owed by local governments, which doesn’t appear on their balance sheets. Property and local government financing vehicles accounted for about 70% of new credit generated over the past decade, according to an estimate by Zhang Bin, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The PBOC is also trying to make sure credit is reaching the real economy, instead of idling within the financial system. Authorities have cracked down on loopholes that allowed companies to make fake loans, arbitraging between higher deposit rates and cheaper borrowing. 

An era when loan growth was seen as a key benchmark, by investors and policymakers alike, has left banks with incentives to plump up their numbers. 

A case in point is the short-term interbank loans known as bankers’ acceptances. Their cost fell to the lowest level this year in May, according to data from Zhongtai Securities Co. That’s usually a sign that lenders are swapping bills with each other to boost loans because they’re struggling to find companies that want to borrow.

Even if such techniques help to boost the loan figures coming this week, investors won’t be impressed and will look deeper, said Mary Xia, research director at Beijing Jifeng Asset Management Co.

“The market understands that the weak credit growth is due to problems on the demand side,” she said.

--With assistance from Winnie Zhu.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.