Worrying about the banking system

While Monday’s stock market, led by the banks, continued Friday’s big bounce back, rising 7.8% to add to Friday’s 9.5% surge, leaving us at a 2-week high (largely on buyback talk, I think), worries about the banking sector actually seemed to be deepening.  Today, perhaps in response, the stock market was a lot more confused, with the SSE Composite gaining or losing 50 points five times, before closing down 35 points at 2202, for a loss over the day of 1.6%.  Most other indices – many of which track market value much better than the widely followed SSE Composite – fell by a lot more.  The CSI 300 index was actually down 3.8%.

What’s going on with the banks?  A lot of recent attention has been focused on Chinese banks’ exposure to Lehman and other collapsing US credits.  The nominal numbers being reported are relatively small compared to the bank’s capital base and earnings expectations, but there are persistent rumors that the reported exposure understates the extent of the problem.  That would not be a surprise to many of us.  A Peking University professor who I was talking to yesterday said emphatically: “Do not trust any number the banks submit.”

I am not sure if I am as negative as he is, but coincidently today I had lunch with one of my graduate students who spent the summer working in the treasury department of a large city bank whose name, for obvious reasons, I cannot mention.  He told me that one of the discoveries that surprised him during his time there was the sheer amount of fake bond trades engineered to raise trading volume numbers.  A bank will sell a large volume of bonds today to another bank at some market-related price, with the agreement that the buyer will sell them right back tomorrow at the same price.

Although there has been little economic change as far as the transaction goes – the bonds were merely temporarily “parked” – both banks get to report higher trading volume, which is necessary for them to retain their dealer licenses with the PBoC.  How much of the total trading volume is fake, I asked him – 10%, 20%….50%?  I think much more, he said.

I don’t know how widespread this is – he said the dealers in his bank claim it is very common – but it does suggest that the government bond and money markets are a lot less liquid than we might think.  This might not matter much for now, but it does suggest that, in a bad market, prices may be a lot more volatile than we would hope and liquidity tighter.

At any rate I have absolutely no idea if the rumors of understated exposure to bad US credits are true, but today Market News International, which tends to have very accurate inside sources in Beijing, had an article titled “Government Concerned Banks More Exposed to Wall St. than Disclosed”.  The article cited statements by unnamed sources who claim that the Ministry of Finance “has already held at least one meeting to discuss a proposal that would involve the sale of treasury bonds to raise funds for a cash injection.”

Although the article claims that nothing has yet been presented to the State Council, who would probably have to approve any such proposal before it could be enacted, it is interesting that in spite of all the soothing noises about healthy banks and limited exposure the government is so worried.  Perhaps they are only taking precautionary steps, with little expectation that they will ever need them.  If that is the case, needless to say, it certainly is a good thing.  Well-thought-out precautionary plans seem to have been in very short supply among both US and Chinese officials in recent years.

The most interesting news today, from my point of view, was the release of a report by Fitch ratings on the Chinese banking system.  The report, prepared by Fitch’s Charlene Chu, argues that Chinese banks are starting to show the first signs off stress and makes the point – obvious to most of the smart folk who read my blog – that what looks good during great credit conditions can easily look a lot less healthy in a less welcoming environment.

The steadily declining NPL ratio of recent years, for example, has been caused largely by surging loans, but a surging loan market can hide serious credit problems that only emerge during a slowdown, and Fitch claims to see increasing evidence of borrower stress among smaller companies (although they are quick to point out that they are only seeing the beginnings of stress).  They also point out that overdue loans, after declining steadily for many years, reversed course this year to show a 31% jump, from December 2007 to June 2008.  Every single bank of the twelve they monitor except one (Huaxia) showed large increases.

Granted, overdue loans of RMB 187 billion may not be much compared to the overall loan portfolio, and is only 2% higher than the December 2006 figure, but in China we need to be far more focused on the trends indicated by the proxies than by the proxies themselves.  The point is that in the first half of the year, when the economic stress was much lower than it is today and probably even lower than it is likely to be next year, one measure of credit deterioration rose sharply.

Fitch also mentions one of the things I discussed in a blog entry three weeks ago – the repackaging of loans into wealth management products.  Fitch says it is difficult to track these transactions, but they believe that about RMB 50-100 billion was done in 2007, mostly in the second half, whereas as much as RMB 315 billion was done in the first half of this year.  This isn’t large in absolute terms – I am guessing equal to just over 2% of new loans extended – but it confirms my suspicions that off-balance sheet lending (by which I include lending in the informal banking sector) has surged in recent quarters.  They also refer to something I had heard of but knew little about – what they call “entrusted lending on behalf of third parties” – which has also grown substantially.  Aside from the fact that Fitch – like me – worries whether these are truly off-balance sheet when things turn ugly, it shows that there is an awful lot more leverage on both sides of corporate and household balance sheets than we think.

There is a lot more in the Fitch report, and it is certainly worth reading, partly because it is one of the first in what I expect will be a series of increasingly nervous reports by other firms on the banking system.  The report concludes with:

After years of stable, strong economic growth and a benign credit environment, Chinese banks appear to be approaching their first real test of resilience since starting to operate more fully on commercial terms.  How trying this test will prove to be, and how banks ultimately will fare, remains to be seen. While China’s largest banks have achieved a remarkable amount of progress in recent years, deeper, more difficult reforms of banks’ credit culture, risk management, and governance remain in the early stages.

As a result, Fitch continues to be quite cautious with regard to Chinese banks’ ratings, knowing that history has shown that even bad entities can look good during strong economic times. These reservations are underscored by concerns that potential future credit losses may be being under-estimated due to weaknesses in the data underlying banks’ expected loss models.

One piece of possibly good news for the banks as far as liquidity goes, but not good news for NPLs or the performance of the economy, was a PBoC household survey released today.  Chinese households, according to the result of the survey of 20,000 households in fifty cities, have lower inflation expectations than before, but they are also more nervous about the economy and plan to save more (i.e. consume less).  They also plan to invest less in real estate and stocks – only 13% of the respondents said they would like to buy a house in the next quarter, which struck me actually as a high number but is apparently the lowest quarterly number recorded since the series began in 1999.  I assume this increased savings means a faster growth in bank deposits.

Meanwhile a similar survey on corporations also by the PBoC was also released today, with evidence that corporations are increasingly worried about future growth.  According to an article in today’s China Daily:

Chinese entrepreneurs and bankers are concerned about a domestic economic slowdown more than before, according to a quarterly survey by the central bank in the third quarter…A survey of about 5,000 businesspeople show they have higher expectation of an economic slowdown, the People’s Bank of China said in a statement on its website.

The macroeconomic expectation index, which gauges entrepreneurs’ confidence in future economic growth, dropped sharply to 1.3 percent in the third quarter from 10.3 percent in the second quarter and 16.8 percent in the third quarter of last year. It was the lowest point since last year.

If corporations and households are both worrying about upcoming economic conditions, we may see both fixed asset investment and consumer demand slow.  Coming on the back of what seems to be declining global demand for exports, there is a real risk that slowing growth exceeds even the more pessimistic expectations.

On a final note, I had been meaning to discuss this last week, but the indefatigable Logan Wright of Stone & McCarthy had a very interesting piece out on September 19, “Monetary Policy Signals in the Chinese Interbank market”.  Early in his report he says:

The Chinese interbank market is turning upside down. Previously, banks avoided purchases of central bank paper if they had a better alternative for the funds, including lending out the money. Now, sterilization paper is in demand, and banks appear increasingly cautious about lending out funds, particularly to smaller companies. This suggests that the central bank’s recent cut in smaller banks’ reserve requirements is not likely to boost lending growth significantly, but issuance of sterilization paper is likely to surge due to rising demand.

I have never been convinced that the PBoC actions on credit – raising minimum reserves, for example, or imposing lending caps or changing interest rates – have had nearly as much impact on the overall credit market as many suppose, largely because of the tremendous leakage in the system, including some of the things that the Fitch report mentions.  The main impact of these PBoC credit measures, it seems to me, has been to cause equivalent but opposite shifts elsewhere in the financial system that partly or wholly negate the economic impact of the original measure.

So, for example, constraining loan growth at a time when corporates demanded more loans simply pushed loan formation outside the formal banking system – and it is pretty clear that this has happened quite a lot.  Even raising interest rates for commercial bank deposits and loans altered the balance of loan and deposit demand outside the banking system in ways that limited the net impact – higher bank deposit rates encouraged depositors in the riskier informal system to shift deposits from the higher-paying informal banks to the lower paying but safer commercial banks, so that at least part of the impact of higher rates on deposits and loans was dissipated.

That is why I am not nearly as convinced as most other analysts are that one way the policy-makers can respond to a monetary contraction is to reduce minimum reserves or relax lending constraints.  I don’t think these measures have been effective on the way up, and won’t be on the way down.

Originally published at China Financial Markets and reproduced here with the author’s permission.

One Response to "Worrying about the banking system"

  1. Guest   September 23, 2008 at 12:07 pm

    The banks should fail and The Federal Reserve should be abolished.