A CANARY IN the coal mine: a high-yield investment trust that funded a Shanxi coal mine, Zhenfu Energy, that has gone bust is at risk of default. The three-year $500 million loan was marketed to wealthy individuals, who were promised a 10% yield by issuer China Credit Trust. The trust loan was sold in 2010 through the private banking arm of Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), one of China’s Big Four banks. ICBC has said it won’t stand behind the loan, prompting a seemingly angry response from investors.
The trust represents a slither of the $1.2 trillion trust market. Yet how the potential default is resolved — whether by allowing a quick and orderly default, or by shoving it under the carpet via a provincial government bailout — will be an indication of how well the ticking time bomb of local government debt tied to the shadow banking system will be defused.
So far no trust loans have defaulted, despite trusts being bigger by assets than the insurance industry. That is partly because they have become a significant alternative to bank lending for funding local government infrastructure projects so have had friends in the right places to maintain the veneer of wholeness so far. Investors also have had a blind faith that trusts’ issuers offer an implicit ironclad guarantee that investors will get their money back.
There is $16.5 billion of trust loans to mining companies falling due this year. Beyond the case of Zhenfu Energy, at least two other trust loans to coal mines are reportedly in similar straits. A trust loan that funded a Chengdu housing development is also said to be in trouble.
The government, long concerned by the potential instability and credit risk lurking in the shadow banking system, is looking at ways to bring it into the mainstream. It was a regulatory priority agreed at the Party’s Third Plenum last November. Draft regulations being circulated suggest the approach will be to bring the informal banking sector under greater monitoring and regulation rather than curb the lending function that it is fulfilling for capital-hungry small and medium-size businesses that the mainstream banks do not. The recently announced plan for a pilot scheme for five new privately owned banks is one step in this direction.