A decade ago, defaults almost never happened, but that wasn’t because companies in China were always healthy. It was a reflection of the tightly controlled financial system, where companies were often linked to the government and bonds were largely bought by state-owned lenders. Authorities have often stepped in to ensure that financially troubled enterprises didn’t crash into default, out of concern over social unrest in the event of job losses or missed payroll payments.
This system imposed little discipline on borrowers. Now global investors are coming into China’s bond market. Though many companies are still state-backed, policymakers are getting more comfortable with defaults. Without them, bond buyers would have little incentive to make a careful assessment of a company’s creditworthiness.