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.
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.