Sunday, 21 June 2020

HAN CHINESE RAT FINANCIAL TSUNAMI COMING!

The weak link in China's recovery plan

Beijing is leaning heavily on the country's regional banks to support small businesses hit hard by the pandemic. But many question whether they'll be up to the task.
Karen MaleyColumnist
The trial of Cai Guohua hasn't generated a lot of international interest. But it does provide an interesting insight into the huge challenge Beijing faces as it tries to get the country's bankers to help reduce the pain small businesses are suffering as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The former boss of Hengfeng Bank, a local bank in the Chinese coastal province of Shandong, has been charged with embezzling money from the bank, and diverting funds to his personal business.
In addition, Cai was accused of accepting bribes from companies and individuals in exchange for low interest loans.
China's central bank has cut benchmark lending rates in order to reduce borrowing costs for struggling companies, which is putting a squeeze on interest margins.  Bloomberg
The sums involved are eye-watering, totalling some 10.3 billion yuan, or $2.1 billion.
Cai, arrested in November 2018, appeared in a Shandong court this month and is facing the possibility of life imprisonment, or possibly even the death penalty.
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His predecessor, Jiang Xiyun, who ran Hengfeng bank between 2008 and 2013, was handed a suspended death sentence in December for taking bribes and for illegal accounting practices.
But Hengfeng is not the only regional lender in financial strife. The move by Chinese banking authorities to seize control of Baoshang Bank, a small, troubled bank in Inner Mongolia in May last year, sparked a funding crisis for other small banks. Beijing was forced to flood its financial system with cash to prevent contagion.
The trouble is that as Beijing grapples with the coronavirus pandemic - which caused the Chinese economy to shrink by 6.8 per cent in the first three months of the year - the financial fragility of small, local lenders such as Baoshang and Hengfeng is coming increasingly into focus.
There are serious questions as to whether China's 4500 small lenders - which together account for roughly one-quarter of the 300 trillion yuan in assets sitting on the books of Chinese banks - are actually up to the important job that Beijing is asking of them: that of supporting the country's small businesses that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
Unlike 2008, when China's recovery was driven by large, debt-funded infrastructure projects, Beijing's response to the country's sharpest contraction in four decades is more measured.
Certainly, Beijing is investing heavily in "new style infrastructure" , such as 5G. But authorities have also ordered the country's banks to play their part in minimising the economic destruction caused by the pandemic.
They have asked banks to show forbearance to their small business customers, including by postponing repayments of both principal and interest until March next year.
Beijing is also pushing banks to boost lending to small businesses, many of which have had their cash flow shrivel during lockdown.
But such forbearance comes at a considerable cost to the banks.
Many analysts are tipping that small Chinese lenders will come under intense pressure in the next year as loan repayment holidays they grant to troubled private businesses cause their net interest margins to shrink, at the same time as they face a steep rise in problem loans.
Already, China's largest banks - which are major lenders to the country's huge state-owned enterprises which carry an implied government guarantee - have already warned they are likely to face a hit to profitability and asset quality as they extend low-cost loans to troubled companies.
China's central bank, the People's Bank of China, has cut benchmark lending rates in order to reduce borrowing costs for struggling companies, which is putting a squeeze on interest margins.
The problem is that while the country's big state-owned lenders boast hefty capital buffers, the smaller, regional banks aren't nearly as solid.
And while the large national banks can easily attract deposits, smaller regional banks are heavily dependent on the interbank market to borrow the funds they lend to businesses and local governments.
This means the problems that have flared up at regional lenders such Hengfeng and Baoshang are likely to become more widespread.
China's banking regulator has acknowledged the rising risks. "Asset quality at smaller banks will also be under pressure this year, and credit risks in some institutions will continue to be accumulated," the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission said last month.
According to figures released by China's banking regulator, the country's banks agreed to allow small businesses to defer payments on 880 billion yuan of loans, and to roll over 576.8 billion in loans in the first three months of this year.
But despite the leniency the banks showed towards these borrowers, which owe them some 1.5 trillion yuan, the industry's non-performing loans still inched higher to stand at 2.04 per cent at the end of March.
Even then, most analysts believe the real level of bad debt on banks' books is much higher than reported.
They argue that years of profligate lending have left the country’s banking system saddled with debts totalling trillions of dollars, much of which is concealed off the books.
Many banks were able to take advantage of rapid economic growth to hide their shoddy lending practices.
The worry is that, with its economy battered by the coronavirus, Beijing faces the massive task in cleaning up the problems lurking in its enormous and highly fractured banking system.
It will be, some warn, the biggest challenge for Chinese authorities since 1999, when Beijing oversaw the recapitalisation of the banks.
As an increasing number of China’s smaller banks come under pressure, Beijing will be forced to weigh up whether it is more important to keep credit flowing to small businesses by bailing out the small regional lenders, or whether to punish those responsible for reckless lending by forcing creditors to shoulder some of the losses.
That was the approach that China's central bank intended to pursue when it seized control of Baoshang last year. It decided to guarantee all retail deposits, but that it would send a warning to markets by forcing large lenders to the bank to take a hit, and would sell some of the bank's assets.
A year later, and the plan has gone awry amid disputes between regulators. And plans for asset sales have been shelved, as large state-owned banks have been reluctant to get involved in the Baoshang rescue because of concerns over asset quality.
As a result, the Chinese central bank has extended its control of Baoshang for a further six months.

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