Zombie Firms and Debt Accumulation: A Theoretical Framework and Chinese Experience
23 Pages Posted: 7 May 2020
Date Written: November–December 2019
In recent years, as China has grappled with rising debt and broad economic restructure, the prevalence of zombie firms has become a critical problem. This paper provides a theoretical framework illustrating the rationale behind the occurrence of zombie firms from the perspective of banks. We develop differential equations to model a bank's expectation and the ex ante estimate that underlies its decision to refinance an insolvent borrower. An optimistic expectation is essential in zombie lending and is intrinsic to the countercyclical pattern of zombie firms. Our model also predicts that debt can build up to an unsustainable level if recovery of profitability is sluggish or the initial debt burden is too high. Examining the Chinese experience of zombie firms over 2007–2017, this paper highlights two findings. First, the share of zombie firms among Shanghai and Shenzhen A‐share listed companies demonstrates a countercyclical pattern. Second, the positive correlation between zombie share and debt accumulation across manufacturing sectors sheds light on the link between zombie firms and the rising corporate debt in China. To deal with the “zombie” problem, the government should carefully weigh its policies to avoid further distortions because the occurrence of zombie firms may be inevitable and impossible to eliminate.
Keywords: bank credit, China's debt risk, debt accumulation, over‐capacity, zombie firm
JEL Classification: D24, E22, G21, G32, O16, O53
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