It remains to be seen if 2014 really will be the year in which the Chinese authorities grapple with the country`s freewheeling financial system. The government`s current policy of kicking the can down the road means ever-larger piles of credit, slowing growth and the rising risk of financial crisis.
Some market participants thought the potential default at the end of January of a CNY 3 billion product sold by China Credit Trust would be the epiphany, in which investors learned the painful lesson of the risks involved in blindly ploughing funds into the shadow banking system. There were those who thought the collapse of a major institution might trigger a systemic reaction, forcing the government to take drastic action.
It turned out to be neither. The trust company, the bank which marketed the product, the local government and investors reached agreement where the principal and at least some of the product`s final-year interest payments were paid out. Moral hazard continues to rule the financial system.
This isn`t the first bullet the authorities have dodged. The actors in China`s financial system – the local government officials, regulators, issuers and lenders – are complicit in avoiding failure, even as lending has boomed. Chinese bank assets have more than doubled since the end of 2009 to CNY148 trillion (US$24.3 trillion), nearly three times last year's GDP. By comparison, U.S. commercial bank assets are just over $14 trillion, even though its economy is more than a third larger than China`s.
Bears see a crisis approaching.
For the growing number of China bears, the dramatic expansion of the financial system, coupled with its suspiciously low failure rate, is prime evidence of a brewing financial crisis. Government advisors acknowledge that the longer debt is allowed to grow, the greater the risk of a crisis and the greater that crisis could be.
For a central bank staring down the barrels of a financial crisis, however, the People`s Bank of China doesn`t sound overly concerned. Large chunks of its latest monetary policy report are devoted to explaining the rise of shadow banking, including the kinds of activities pursued by China Trust, and warn of more market volatility to come. Market participants will "need to tolerate reasonable money rate volatility," the PBOC said in the report released last weekend.
The pressure to make profits in the face of regulatory curbs on traditional lending has pushed overstretched banks to borrow short and lend long, making them more sensitive to changes in liquidity availability, the PBOC explained. Meanwhile, the growth of bank assets and "off-balance sheet innovations" are eating up increasing amounts of liquidity, and this explains periodic bouts of tight liquidity despite expanding M2. "The more active the financing activity, the more banking system liquidity is digested, leading to rising liquidity demand," the report said.
Money market rates were driven to record levels last June after the PBOC moved suddenly to cut off the flow of liquidity into the interbank system. Officials said that the goal was to force deleveraging, but the central bank`s sudden, poorly-communicated move sent panic through the system and forced the authorities to back off and make direct liquidity injections. The PBOC may have lost that battle, but the war is ongoing.
Market rates have risen, increasing financing costs and opening up fissures in the interbank market which are expected to lead to more and more investment products getting in trouble. The seven-day repo rate – which is a candidate for a market benchmark rate under the government`s financial reform plans – averaged 3.78% during the first half of last year and 4.38% in the second half. The 10-year Ministry of Finance yield has also risen sharply, reflecting a shift into riskier paper amid tighter liquidity conditions.
’Moral hazard continues to rule the financial system.‘
Despite its anodyne wording, the PBOC report does indicate once again that the authorities are aware that a badly mismatched system stands an ever-greater risk of getting into trouble. Market participants are braced for a fresh wave of regulatory curbs, particularly in the wake of a State Council notice at the end of last year suggesting that management of the policing of the shadow banking system has now been elevated to the executive body.
The PBOC itself provided few clues about its plans, saying only that it will step up monitoring of financial system risk and "explore market mechanisms to solve local government debt problems.” That will help tackle the existing stock of debt, but doesn`t explain how Beijing is going to deal with the dramatic rise in Chinese financing while delivering the growth needed to create jobs and maintain social stability.
The Communist Party is pledged to a sweeping economic and financial system overhaul, but the PBOC report suggests that it sees little change for now. "The Chinese economy's reliance on debt and investment, the high investment model and the overconcentration of resources in real estate and other sectors mean it is easy for debt levels to increase,” it said, before drawing the underwhelming conclusion that: "The massive local financing-construction model has strengthened in recent years, increasing the potential for risks to the economy's performance."
Despite signs of a credit splurge in January, market participants are already betting on whether the PBOC will actually ease policy in the first quarter to offset signs of sharp disinflation and slowing economic growth. That doesn`t bode well for attempts to grapple with the risks posed by shadow banking.
China avoided potential calamity by effectively bailing out China Credit Trust. Supporters of the government`s refusal to allow for defaults would call this approach pragmatic, that the known unknowns of failure warrants caution. Besides, in allowing Lehman to fail, the U.S. Treasury arguably worsened the global financial crisis, they argue.
But not everyone agrees with this approach. In China default has its supporters. A source familiar with discussions at the level of the State Council said he had been hoping that a China Credit Trust default would teach the market a "profound lesson."
But he is in the center, and provincial governments tend to have greater influence because they`re closer to the action. "Local governments don't want their financing costs to get too high because of a default and they're worried about accounting to the central government," he said. China has been kicking cans and dodging bullets for years, to the extent that its banking system is nearly the size of the U.S. and Japan`s combined ($30.68 trillion). The government has made the right noises about cleaning up the financial system, but the China Credit Trust agreement suggests that it is not yet ready for action.