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© leungchopan, Fotolia

© leungchopan, Fotolia

CFA Society Chicago recently worked with the Chinese Finance Association and The Paulson Institute to explore the risks and rewards of the Chinese shadow banking system. On behalf of CFA Chicago’s Education Advisory Committee, Peter Cook, CFA, welcomed the audience to The Conference Center in UBS Tower for this exceptional opportunity to hear straight talk from three leading experts on China’s economy—while asking if Chinese shadow banking is “a valuable new source of funding, a replay of US subprime lending or somewhere in between?”

The discussion was moderated by Evan Feigenbaum, Vice Chairman, The Paulson Institute, who holds a PhD in Chinese politics from Stanford University and has served at the US State Department as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia and as an adviser on China to Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick. Feigenbaum orchestrated the dialogue between Patrick Chovanec, Managing Director and Chief Strategist, Silvercrest Asset Management which manages $16.6 billion on behalf of wealth families and selected institutions and Andy Rothman, Investment Strategist, Matthews International Capital Management, LLC which has $27.9 billion in assets under management with a focus on investments in Asia.

Before joining Silvercrest, Chovanec was an Associate Professor of Practice at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management in Beijing, where he also served as Chairman of the Public Policy Development Committee for the American Chamber of Commerce in China, and advised numerous governments, investment funds, and Fortune 500 corporations on the Chinese economy. Rothman spent 14 years as CLSA’s China macroeconomic strategist where he conducted analysis into China and delivered his insights to their clients and spent 17 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, with a diplomatic career focused on China, including as head of the macroeconomics and domestic policy office of the U.S. embassy in Beijing. You can also follow “Sinology by Andy Rothman” at Matthews Asia.

What is shadow banking?

Shadow banking sounds menacing and even experts disagree on a common definition. Yet, shadow banking is generally understood to include a wide set of “non-bank financial intermediaries.” These alternative financiers include asset managers, money market funds, real estate investment trusts, and leasing companies that provide non-bank lending to a variety of customers. Jamie Dimon, CEO JPMorgan Chase, described shadow banking in his 2013 Letter to Shareholders as follows:

We really should not call them “shadow” banks – they do not operate in shadows. They are non-bank financial competitors, and there is a wide set of them. They range from money market funds and asset managers, mortgage real estate investment trusts and mortgage servicers, and middle market lending funds to PayPal and clearinghouses. Many of these institutions are smart and sophisticated and will benefit as banks move out of certain products and services. Non-bank financial competitors will look at every product we price, and if they can do it cheaper with their set of capital providers, they will. There is nothing inherently wrong with this – it is a natural state of affairs and, in some cases, may benefit the clients who get the better price (p. 18).

As a primer on shadow banking, I’d recommend the 14-page special report on international banking entitled “The lure of shadow banking” in the May 10th-16th edition of The Economist which provides a thorough discussion of the key terms, players, instruments and macroeconomic issues. The report explains that “shadow banking” was originally coined by PIMCO’s Paul McCulley in 2007 to describe the legal structures used by Western banks to keep complicated securitized loans off their balance sheets. As we painfully learned during the financial crisis, many of these securitized loans went bad and had to be bailed out by the banks—and then the banks needed to be bailed out by taxpayers. Today, many regulators view shadow banking as a positive way to shift risk away from banks to other entities that are willing to assume that risk.

Some of the major “private-debt” market players cited in The Economist report include Apollo Global Management, BlackRock, the world’s biggest asset manager with $4 trillion under management, Blackstone, The Carlyle Group, Cordiant, KKR,M&G -Prudential plc and Oaktree Capital. See also Private Debt Investor Magazine. Furthermore, bond markets continue to grow as the largest source of non-bank financing. Peer-to-peer (P2P) lenders like The Lending Club are finding their own niche. And Alibaba, the Chinese e-commerce giant, launched a new money-market fund last June which raised 500 billon yuan ($81 billion) in its first nine months.

Chinese Shadow Banking Instruments

Turning to China, Chovanec explained that four years ago Chinese shadow banking was referred to as “informal lending.” And he pointed out that shadow banking isn’t necessarily from an entity that’s separate from the formal banking system in China. As Rothman noted, “every bank in China is a ‘fake’ bank because they are all controlled by the communist party.” To the extent that the Chinese government bails out its shadow banking system then risk is not properly priced and moral hazard continues to exist. With that in mind, instruments of concern within the Chinese shadow banking system include trusts, entrusted loans and trust beneficiary rights products (TBRs). (See “Shadow banking in China: Battling the darkness” The Economist, 10 May 2014 “Every time regulators curb one form of non-bank lending, another begins to grow” Web. 10 May 2014.)

Trusts: Risky investments promising returns of 10% – 13% with no guarantee of a return on investment or even the return of principal. Often sold through banks, like the China Construction Bank, with an air of respectability, however, investors may generally still believe that the government will step in and protect them in the event of a default. Trusts have fueled the expansion of credit and swelled from 3 trillion yuan at the end of 2010 to almost 11 trillion yuan at the end of 2013. Over $400 billion of trust products are due to mature this year which are primarily secured by property. See the discussion of Jilin Trust, a Chinese shadow bank, which sold securities to Chinese investors backed only by loans to Liansheng Group which owns the struggling Zhuang Shang coal mine in Liulin and is now restructuring 30 billion yuan of debt in “China: A question of trust. Or not, as the case may be.” The Economist, 10 May 2014 p. 13.

Entrusted Loans: Cash rich companies, often state-owned enterprises (SOEs) lend directly to less well-connected firms. These loans often use banks as intermediaries to get around regulations forbidding such lending.

Trust Beneficiary Rights Products (TBRs): Chinese banks set up firms to buy loans from a trust and then sell rights to the income stream from the loans to a bank. Riskier corporate loans look like safer lending between banks and provide a way around the restrictions between banks and trusts. TBRs may be sold to other banks.

The Unstoppable China Growth Story: Evan Feigenbaum

Feigenbaum set the stage by emphasizing, “for all of its successes the unstoppable China story must be more balanced.” He observed that China’s own leaders have recognized imbalances, distortions and structural weaknesses in the economy. Feigenbaum says, “the popular story of China moving from growth to growth to more growth must be moderated.” Chovenec agreed and noted, “lots of legitimate economists question the GDP numbers in China.” There are a lot of truths in the China growth narrative but Feigenbaum points out, “it’s being driven by a state capitalist juggernot.” To that end, Feigenbaum warned, “in China, the politics of reform is an execution challenge of monumental proportions.” He then directed the conversation to Andy Rothman who provided the more optimistic view of China’s economy and shadow banking system followed by Patrick Chovanec who shared a more cautious view.

I would add, as shown below, that China is the second largest economy in the world and its GDP has grown from about $2.5 trillion dollars per year in 2005 to $9.2 trillion in 2013 at a compound annual growth rate of nearly 17.7% over the eight-year period.

Andy Rothman: “The Bull”

Rothman quickly pointed out that China has become a very competitive entrepreneurial economy over a very short period of time. In fact, the rise of private sector employment vis-à-vis state-controlled employment is China’s most important trend and now represents 80% of urban employment. Although China’s GDP growth must inevitably slow, Rothman says remember the “base effect” which means that slower growth on a larger economic base is still a very good thing. And China is already the world’s best consumption story with 9.1% YoY real annual consumption growth between 2009 and 2013. However, consumption was a small portion of GDP due to investment growing even faster than consumption. And Andy noted that investment growth has been slowing, from an average of about 25% for the nine years through 2011 to about 16% this year. He points out that China has more than 150 cities with a population of 1 million or more and the United States has only 9 cities of that size.

Property Market

In regards to the widely publicized stories about Chinese “ghost cities” (See Leslie Stahl’s CBS 60 Minutes report on China’s Real Estate Bubble) where properties are built but lack occupancy, Rothman says it’s greatly exaggerated; there are some failed projects, but the number is not large enough to signal a systemic problem. He also pointed out there is a different business model in China; properties are pre-sold one to two years before completion and then occupancy lags 3 to 5 years as additional infrastructure is completed. And he observes that 90% of new home buyers are owner-occupiers rather than speculators as shown below:

Shadow Banking Scale and Scope

Rothman explained that trust lending was essentially shut down by regulators during the first three quarters of 2014. Since The China Banking Regulatory Commission(CBRC) regulates both banks and trusts many feel the government has the necessary oversight to control trusts. Rothman clarified that there are only 69 trust companies operating in China and they are highly regulated, not allowed leverage and have loan-to-value ratios of 30% at most. Given the scope of the sector, he does not predict a major financial crisis in the trust sector. Some trust products will continue to fail, but given their relatively small size, as well as the absence of leverage and secondary securitization, a systemic crisis similar to that in the US is very unlikely. As shown below, shadow banking in China is just below 20% of broad money liabilities and most “shadow” institutions are Party-controlled, whereas it represents about 60% in the Eurozone and about 100% in the US.

Finally, Rothman notes that the toxic collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and collateralized loan obligations (CLOs), asset-backed securities (ABS) and mortgage-backed securities (MBS), at the heart of the 2008 financial crisis don’t exist in China so he doesn’t predict another “Lehman Moment.”

Patrick Chovanec: “The Bear”

Patrick Chovanec spent more than a decade living and working in private equity in China. He has been a “China bull” but now reports that most of his hedge fund friends are very bearish on China. Chovanec’s concern is that, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, China did not adapt but rather continued to engineer a credit and investment boom.

Chovanec asserts that China’s export-led growth model isn’t really about net exports driving growth as much as it is about “turbocharging” investments. The model works like this: poorer countries use their poverty and low wages to tap into gross exports and, given the low domestic consumer buying power, they can then justify more investment in the economy. Significant Chinese imports of machinery and raw materials are then used to meet external demand. It’s the same model used in Japan, Southeast Asia and Taiwan. However, Chovanec points out that if you produce more than you consume someone else must consume more than they produce. So the model can reach its limits as we’ve seen with China’s recent decline in GDP growth as US and European demand has declined. Chovanec feels it’s very problematic for China to continue fueling investment with credit when it can’t tap external demand.

Market Reform, or not?

At first, Chovanec believed that Chinese shadow banking was a positive story that would address issues the formal banking system could not. In theory, since private investors could lose money, there would be more accountability. Therefore, risk should be priced properly and the cost of capital would appropriately reflect those risks.

Yet, Chovanec says, “the PBOC thinks this is market reform and a backdoor method of creating a bond market to move away from bank-centric loans. However, it’s taking place in the context of moral hazard.” Chovanec goes on to say, “issuing lots of bonds does not a bond market make.” Chovanec explains that risk must be priced properly to make a bond market function well. And if the only question people ask is whether or not their investments will be bailed out then they are asking the wrong question. He says, “very few people care about the underlying asset. Instead, they are just investing and expecting those investments to be guaranteed by the state balance sheet—and that creates moral hazard.”

Chovanec is also concerned about the issuance of the corporate bonds, which are held to maturity by the banks, as local government financing vehicles. He points out that they are just like a bank loan without the capital requirements and deposit support behind them. Since interest rates are too low to attract deposits to make loans the trust sector originates the loans, and collects a fee, but is no longer responsible for credit. Chovanec’s concern is that these losses are not allowed to flow through the system and that people need to lose money for the system to function properly.

Property Markets

In the property market, Chovanec questions Rothman’s data that 90% of new home buyers are owner-occupiers. Chovanec believes the figures are too high and says, “selling agents report the data.” He believes real estate is widely used as a speculative investment because the Chinese don’t have alternative investment options. Ultimately, Chovanec says there are “hot zones and dead zones” in the real estate market and many people are speculating on the next “central business district” (CBD). He believes the market-clearing price to move into many of these properties is well below what a lot of people have paid in and they are not profitable for developers.

A Correction Without a Correction

Chovanec thinks the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) knows the right thing to do but says, “they want a correction without a correction.” Chovanec notes, “the CBRC said they were going to crack down on pooling but pooling has never ended.” Pooling is the practice of paying out on existing investments using money coming in from new investments—essentially a Ponzi scheme. Chovanec maintains that China’s banks have to pool or else default so the CBRC continues to allow pooling. On the bright side, he feels China’s recent Third Plenum, which called for 60 market reforms, is directionally correct.

Fundamentally, Rothman and Chovanec disagree about the level of bad debt in the Chinese economy. Chovanec says there is mounting bad debt that is repackaged, reissued and recycled—causing dead weight. And he feels Rothman underestimates the extent to which the banks are playing with their balance sheets. He points out that cash obligations are not properly reflected on balance sheets and we can only guess at them. In fact, there has not been enough liquidity to meet those needs. And Chovanec points to June and December of 2013 when the interbanking system nearly broke down. He observes leakage to off-balance sheet “stuff” such as interbank loans that are renamed as something else – then brushed under the rug. Chovanec feels all of the banks need to be recapitalized and that the losses can be socialized.

Chovanec doesn’t think there will be a “Lehman moment” in China because “they are all backed by a state-owned bank.” Instead, Chovanec thinks the steady stream of defaults will lead to the creation of a “zombie bank” like The Long-term Credit Bank of Japan (LTCB). Chovanec explained that LTCB sat on bad debt and was an immense drag on Japan’s economic growth. And he quipped, “a loan isn’t bad if you don’t insist on repayment.”

Chovanec maintains that the qualitative story on Chinese shadow banking is even more important than the quantitative story. He reminds us that many people thought the size of the US subprime sector was not too bad but they missed all of the interconnections to other parts of the financial system that were so important. Chovanec explains that nearly all Chinese lending was from banks four years ago and now even businesses and wealthy individuals are making loans and extending credit.

In conclusion, Chovanec believes, “a significant and disruptive adjustment needs to take place to put them [China] on the right path.” He feels an economic adjustment would be a positive thing for China and that it can afford to consume more than it produces. Chovanec wishes that this adjustment had begun in 2010 but instead believes the explosion of financial instruments we’ve seen in China will be problematic.