Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday, 13 August 2020



Borrowing to Buy Stocks Pushes Up China’s Record Household Debt

Bloomberg News
  • Consumer loans flowing into stocks caught regulatory attention
  • Household debt climbs to new high while default risk surges

After receiving dozens of phone calls and text messages from banks touting cheap, unsecured and easy-to-get consumer loans, Eric Zhang visited one of China’s largest lenders in June and borrowed 400,000 yuan ($57,600) at an interest rate of 4%.

But there was a catch -- he had to sign a letter promising the money wouldn’t be invested in property or stocks. That didn’t stop Zhang. A few days later, he’d found a merchant who helped him make a fake purchase and move the cash to his brokerage account.

“I don’t think the bank can track the money and identify its real use,” said Zhang, who works at a Shanghai-based private equity firm. “It’s a great trade for me,” he said, after seeing his fresh stock investments surge 6% in one month.

Zhang’s story is playing out across China as retail investors embrace the euphoria of the biggest bull run since 2015. Banks and financing platforms are being swept along as punters look for quick cash to bet on the world’s most volatile equity market. It’s a dangerous strategy both for already overextended households as well as lenders, one that’s drawing closer scrutiny from regulators.


Authorities are also partly to blame. With the economy reeling from the pandemic, policy makers have pumped out liquidity and eased curbs on shadow banking to backstop small businesses and struggling families. The easy money has fueled arbitrage with retail investors and corporates tapping the cheaper rates to invest in everything from high-yielding structured deposits to wealth management products and stocks.

Leverage has climbed even as millions of Chinese lost their jobs during the pandemic. Household debt rose to a record 59.7% of gross domestic product in the second quarter, doubling from 2012, thanks to a housing boom and the rise of online lenders such as Ant Group, which has made it easier for consumers to borrow via its ubiquitous Alipay app.

Indebted Household

Chinese's debt is on the run thanks to property boom and online lenders

Source: National Institution for Finance & Development

The build up of risk has unnerved regulators. In a notice to banks last month, the People’s Bank of China asked lenders to report data on consumer credit extended jointly with internet platforms to give it a clearer picture of about $6.6 trillion in outstanding consumer loans. Credit extended by fintech startups, peer-to-peer lenders and many other channels remain unregulated.

“Unlike credit card debt, the use of consumer loans is harder for banks and regulators to monitor,” said Chen Hao, a Shanghai-based analyst with CIB Research. “Once money goes into the stock market, it will bring sizable risks to banks given the current volatility.”

Wild Swings

China stocks are among the most volatile in major equity markets

Source: Bloomberg

Trading has surged, with daily turnover exceeding 1 trillion yuan for 17 consecutive days. Outstanding margin debt on exchanges has risen at the fastest pace since 2015, to more than 1.4 trillion yuan. Unlike in most major markets, China’s individual investors account for the lion’s share of local stock trading and have been prone to extreme swings in sentiment that can have ripple effects on the economy.

State media fueled the bull run in a bid to show the world that China was emerging from the virus outbreak. Beijing has since tried to cool the fervor by clamping down on illicit margin lending platforms, but the fear of missing out is extreme.

Josh Xu, a property agent in Shanghai, is an active day trader using money borrowed on his credit card and from online lenders such as Ant’s Jiebei loan service. Xu, who earns less than 10,000 yuan a month, has made a few thousands on his 30,000 yuan investment, he said.

According to loan agreements, Ant prohibits users from borrowing for investments. Jiebei’s clients need to provide a purpose for the loan while applying on an app, and violators could see their cash withdrawn. The loan terms last anywhere from three months to two years.

Still, in a market where unsecured consumer lending has expanded about 20% a year since 2008 and competition is intense, borrowers like Xu are able to sidestep such checks.

Ant Group declined to comment in an email.

The China Banking Regulatory Commission last month reminded the public to exercise caution when using credit cards and not to borrow short for long-term use. Chairman Guo Shuqing cautioned this week that easy access to funding could spark a re-emergence of financial irregularities.

Still, such warnings are not enough to deter people like Xu or Zhang.

“I know once caught, I will be asked for an immediate repayment and my credit score will take a hit,” Zhang said. “But it’s worth the risk. There are many people taking advantage of the loopholes.”

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