Category Archives: Banking

Anbang Nationalisation Underlines China’s Financial Stability Priority

Logo of Anbang Insurance Group. Photo credit: Mighty Travels. Licenced under Creative Commons.

WU XIAOHUI, THE politically well-connected chairman of the giant insurance group Anbang (his wife is Deng Xiaoping’s grand-daughter), has been in detention by authorities since last June. Now he is to stand trial for economic crimes, code for fraud and embezzlement, and the company run by personnel from the China Insurance Regulatory Commission for a year or two, an extraordinary move. The state assuming control of a private-sector business, and particularly one of this size and prominence, is unusual.

Anbang has been on an aggressive international acquisitions drive, buying such foreign trophy investments as the Waldorf Astoria in New York and a string of other luxury US hotels. Chinese firms, with official encouragement, have ‘gone global’ in recent years, rapidly expanding their international mergers and acquisitions activity.

In 2016, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest overseas investor. Non-financial outward direct investment that year exceeded $170 billion, a 44% increase from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Commerce. However, such activity entails tremendous financial risk from the leverage taken on, a risk exacerbated by Chinese firms’ lack of experience with the integration and management challenges that M&A brings, especial in deals that cross national and cultural borders.

Anbang appears to fall squarely in this camp. On some estimates (its finances are notoriously opaque), it has encumbered itself with debt to the point that it is fast approaching technical bankruptcy despite having more than $300 billion of assets.

That also makes it ‘too big to fail’. State administration will provide the funding to keep its core life and non-life insurance business operationally solvent. The insurance regulator says the company’s current operations remain stable but that its solvency is seriously endangered by its ‘illegal operations’ unspecified but which presumably include its investments in prestige prime US real estate.

Last August, authorities announced a list of sectors hat should be off-limits for Chinese firms as the foreign investment spree into things like European football clubs and Hollywood entertainment businesses was exacerbating debt concerns.

More broadly, in the drive for financial stability and to forestall any systemic financial shocks, President Xi Jinping has been asserting greater control over state enterprises and reining in sprawling private conglomerates, notably the ‘big four’ — Angbang plus Dalian Wanda, Fosun International and HNA Group — that have expanded rapidly via debt-fuelled foreign acquisitions.

That quartet that accounted for 20% of Chinese foreign acquisitions in 2016. Also, there has always been a nagging suspicion that, given the quartet’s political connections, some of this M&A acted as a conduit for senior officials to get their money out of the country.

All have been ‘urged’ to sell assets and pay down their debt while state banks were told to rein in their lending to them. In January, the chairman of the Banking Regulatory Commission, Guo Shuqing, warned that ‘massive, illegal financial groups’ posed a grave threat to financial reforms and the stability of the banking system and that China would address the issue ‘ in line with the law’.

Taking Anbang into state control may be the prelude to a series of moves against the layer of private conglomerates below the ‘big four’, a group of some 25-30 companies said to be in the regulators’ sights. Despite or perhaps because of his connections, Wu’s treatment, in particular, is intended to show that no tycoon is immune from being ‘deterred’ from risky borrowing and investment overseas, or from being reminded that private M&A strategies should be integrated with national investment priorities.

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Putting Financial Stability Ahead Of Growth

IN THE SIX years since the International Monetary Fund last published a Financial System Stability Assessment of China, credit has boomed, spreading shadow banking has added complexity to the system, and moral hazard has grown as belief in the implicit state guarantee to firms and investors has remained unshakeable.

In short, financial instability risks have grown rapidly.

Within the constraint of maintaining growth and employment, authorities have responded to mitigate the risk and to put the expanding financial system on the right footing to support the ‘rebalancing’ of the economy from being led by infrastructure investment and export manufacturing to being more consumption and service driven.

There is much more to do, however, as the Fund outlines in its latest assessment.

Some of that will be politically challenging, notably allowing firms to fail, markets to fall and investors to lose money, which will be the consequences of removing the implicit guarantee that the state stands behind financial loans and products. They will also require detailed technical work on bankruptcy procedures, financial education and even social security safety nets.

Political priorities will also need to be adjusted to put financial stability ahead of economic growth. That is already starting to happen as job losses, particularly in heavy industry and primary production, and slowing economic growth more generally shows. However, the tolerance for both is greater at the higher levels of government than at the local one, where the expectation among officials that promotion depends on creating good economic growth numbers is proving hard to break. The massive task of reforming local government finances is probably a multi-decade, not just multi-year endeavour.

China Financial System Growth

Improving the supervision of the financial sector is an easier piece to bite off, and authorities have been systematically expanding that for banks, insurance companies and securities firms in recent years. The Fund recommends setting up an umbrella regulator focusing solely on financial stability to coordinate the oversight of systemic risk across sectors.

This regulator, which would be an institutional version of the recently established Financial Stability and Development Committee, will need authority and independence over the sector supervisors and an improved flow of data given the scale and complexity of the country’s financial system, especially in some of the murkier areas of shadow banking. As was seen in the West with the 2008 financial crisis, failure to monitor risks outside the regulatory perimeter can be the most damaging failure of all.

The Fund also suggests that the well-advertised rapid growth of debt requires banks to hold a plumper cushion of capital, and particularly at the larger banks that are systemically important. Greater capital reserves would not only provide a buffer in the event of a sudden or severe economic downturn, but also against the particular risk with Chinese characteristics of the extensive off-balance-sheet borrowing, notably for wealth management products, that the banks implicitly guarantee.

In the same vein, banks and financial institutions should be nudged through lending rules to stop using short-term borrowing to finance their investments and instead both lend and fund longer-term. Should it come to it, and a financial institution goes under, regulators should have their powers expanded in line with international standards to let the firm to ‘fail safely’ rather than prop it up with public funds.

Another area that the Fund urges oversight is digital finance, or fintech, which as expanded significantly in China as elsewhere. Existing oversight frameworks are often ill-fitting for the innovation that comes with fintech, though the need for systemic safety and soundness is not diminished.

The Fund calls China ‘the global centre of fintech’, noting the growth of peer-to-peer lending and the emergence of payment systems run by internet retailers such as Alibaba that are competitors to the banks’. Smartphone app WeChat’s WeBank is already a competitor to banks’ lending.

The scale of this is still small compared to the overall size of the banking system and thus not a systemic risk — yet. Nonetheless, they will need to be brought into the regulatory and supervisory scheme of things. This is starting to happen following the State Council last year launching an overhaul of internet finance oversight.

 

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The Renminbi Ups Its Status

100 yuan notes

THE INTERNATIONAL MONETARY Fund added the renminbi to its basket of Special Drawing Rights (SDR) currencies at the start of this month, thus officially marking it as a member of the elite club of global reserve currencies. It is a membership of which China has long been desirous.

The IMF had decided last November that China could join at the next scheduled SDR review, and that it would constitute 11% of the basket. That gives it the third largest share, behind the dollar and the euro but ahead of the other member currencies, the yen and sterling.

Weightings are meant to reflect the use of a currency in trade and the financial system so China may have been treated generously in this regard. It share of global payments, for example, peaked at 2.8% last year and is below 2% now.

Joining the SDR basket is, at this point at least, as much symbolic as anything, an acknowledgement of the global weight of China’s economy, and encouragement to push ahead with the financial reforms that would make the renminbi the freely usable and widely adopted currency that IMF reserve currencies are meant to be.

That, in turn, would promote more foreign interest in yuan-denominated assets, particularly bonds. Central banks and sovereign wealth funds will, however, build up their renminbi-denominated holdings only gradually.

Looking back in a decades time, though, the change may look more momentous, both if China’s financial markets become deeper and more liquid or it turns out that the renminbi was just the first of several emerging market currencies (India’ rupee is another candidate) to find a place in the SDR basket.

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Fixing China’s Corporate Debt Problem

A SUCCINCT SUMMARY of China’s debt problem is offered by the IMF’s David Lipton. He zeroed in on corporate debt in a speech to the Chinese Economists Society in Shenzhen these few days past:

Overall, total debt is equal to about 225 percent of GDP. Of that, government debt represents about 40 percent of GDP. Meanwhile, households are about 40 percent. Both are not particularly high by international standards. Corporate debt is a different matter: about 145 percent of GDP, which is very high by any measure.

By IMF calculations, state-owned enterprises account for about 55 percent of corporate debt. That is far greater than their 22 percent share of economic output. These corporates are also far less profitable than private enterprises. In a setting of slower economic growth, the combination of declining earnings and rising indebtedness is undermining the ability of companies to pay suppliers or service their debts. Banks are holding more and more nonperforming loans, or NPLs. The past year’s credit boom is just extending the problem. Already many SOEs are essentially on life support.

The Fund’s most recent Global Financial Stability Report estimated that the potential losses for Chinese banks’ corporate loan portfolios could be equal to about 7 percent of GDP. This is a conservative estimate based on certain assumptions about bad-loan recoveries and excluding potential problem exposures in the “shadow banking” sector.

This is potentially a deep fault line running through ‘rebalancing’. Corporate debt problems if left unresolved can quickly become systemic debt problems. Authorities need to move with more despatch than they have done to deal with both zombie companies and the banks carrying their zombie loans — and they can’t deal with one without dealing with the other otherwise they will still be left with insolvent companies or undercapitalised banks.

This will not be easy given the political dimensions involved. The nearest example to draw from might be the experience of South Korea’s chaebol in the aftermath of the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis when those economically dominant and politically well-connected conglomerates had to be restructured. That, though, took both government-supported and court-supervised measures to break the power of the controlling shareholders. China’s legal system might find the latter part a challenge.

Lipton also stresses the importance of reforming the governance inadequacies that created the situation in the first place:

Governance certainly must be based on a robust legal framework: the laws and regulations that establish an effective system of insolvency and enforcement that help create payment discipline. But governance also means regulatory and supervisory policies that promote the proper assessment and pricing of risk at the individual loan level. It means robust accounting, loan classification, loan loss provisioning, and disclosure rules. It means a system that avoids moral hazard.

But there is also a socio-cultural dimension; an acceptance that the transition from a state-directed to a market economy requires the transcension of special interests and connections.

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Time For A Poacher Turned Gamekeeper At The Exchanges?

LIU SHIYU, who has replaced the ill-starred Xiao Gang as China’s top securities regulator, is a former chairman of the Agricultural Bank of China. Liu is the China Securities Regulatory Commission’s eighth head, a job he will combine, like Xiao, with being the Party chief in the Commission. Six of Liu’s seven predecessors also worked in state banks.

And therein lies a clue to the innate contradiction in China’s attempts to control the animal spirits of financial markets by old-school administrative measures, which, like Xiao’s ‘circuit breakers’ can end up embarrassingly making matters not better but worse.

State bankers whose careers have been spent within the confines of a highly protected banking system where administrative guidance has long made the need for risk management a redundant skill are unlikely to have that gut feel for how markets work and what reinforces or undermines investor sentiment. Even Liu’s spell at the People’s Bank of China was mostly concerned with the bailout of the state banks in the early 2000s.

While having someone from the securities industry regulating the markets would no doubt come with its own mixed bag of connections and conflicts, it might be time for Beijing to consider appointing a poacher turned gamekeeper to oversee the exchanges.

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China’s Corporate Disappearing Acts

WHEN TOP EXECUTIVES and financiers of any stripe go awol, it rarely ends well. When it is Fosun’s Guo Guangchang, one of China’s richest and highest-profile chief executives, that drops from sight, the conclusions quickly jumped to are inevitably nefarious ones.

Trading in the shares of Guo’s fast-expanding media-to-asset-management-to-Club Med conglomerate was suspended in Hong Kong ahead of a company announcement confirming that Guo was assisting authorities with their enquiries. Beyond that, the company did not say why police in Shanghai, where the group is based, had detained its chief executive. Guo was reportedly picked up at an airport. Local media reports suggest he has been held in connection with an investigation into Ai Baojun, director of the Shanghai free trade zone and a former deputy mayor of the city.

Earlier this year, Guo was found by a Shanghai court to have had ‘inappropriate connections’ with Wang Zongnan, a businessman who had once headed a number of state-owned enterprises, most notably the Shanghai Friendship department store chain. In August, the court sentenced Wang to 18 years in jail for misusing 195 million yuan ($30.2 million) in corporate funds. (Fosun has denied any impropriety in its relationship with the Friendship group.)

Guo is not the first senior company officer in recent months to disappear for a few days before being revealed to have been either under investigation or asked to assist authorities with their investigations.

Two investment bankers at Citic Securities, China’s largest securities brokerage and which overstated its over-the-counter derivatives business by 1 trillion yuan earlier this year causing its chairman to resign, went missing earlier this month. Something similar happened to Guotai Securities’ Yim Fung last month and in September, Li Yife, head of the China unit of Man Group, dropped out of sight for a few days, too.

It is clear that the anti-corruption operation — it has continued for too long to be labelled a campaign anymore — is now reaching deep into financial services.

This has been true since at least the beginning of the year, when Mao Xiaofeng, president of China Minsheng Bank, was detained to assist with the investigation into former President Hu Jintao’s aid, Ling Jihua.

That, at least, smacked of old-fashioned factional politics. But the anti-corruption operations have intensified in the wake of the summer’s stock-market crash, which reawakened concerns in some high levels of the Party about the lack of discipline that could be exerted on markets and their participants.

However, what makes the Guo case so unsettling for business and investment is not that there are unwritten political rules to doing business in China; those exist in many countries. It is that the rules have suddenly become more unpredictable.

Update: Guo has reemerged, chairing Fosun’s annual meeting in Shanghai on Monday, and without giving any explanation for his reported absence over the past few days. Trading in the company’s shares has resumed.

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