Wenzhou is a case study in the deep fault lines underlying China’s financial system. While big state-owned enterprises could get credit easily and cheaply, even in the face of the official squeeze on bank lending to cool inflation, small and medium sized company owners and entrepreneurs had to turn to the underground banking system where interest rates can top 60%. In Wenzhou, it is estimated that lending through the shadow banks, also known as black banks and which run from unregulated lending pools to loan sharks, amounts to $78 billion a year — accounting for a fifth of the lending in the city. Some 90% of its households supply the capital in an attempt to get a higher yield on their savings than is available from official banks.
Yet the city, which prides itself on its entrepreneurial flair, has also seen a rash of suicides and absconsions by heavily indebted borrowers unable to meet their crushing interest payments, especially as the economy slowed and speculative real estate and stock market investments, into which much of the borrowed money had been directed, fell in value. Around 100 business owners from the city disappeared or declared bankruptcy. Though only a few firms have collapsed, the interconnectedness of small businesses causes cash-flow reverberations up and down supplier and customer chains. One in five of Wenzhou’s 360,000 small and medium-sized enterprises reportedly stopped operating last year due to cash shortages.
So serious has the credit crunch and the risk of a bad-debt implosion become in Wenzhou that, a police crackdown on borrowers having failed to deter the lending, the State Council has now approved a pilot project to bring this shadow system into the light. Some lenders will be allowed to convert to rural banks or micro-finance companies, big state-owned banks will be directed to make more credit available in the city (as they already have been), and new savings and investment vehicles, including offshore ones, will be opened up to city residents and small and medium-sized enterprises. These vehicles will offer potentially better returns than bank savings accounts. (With the persistence of inflation over the past 18 months, real interest rates have been negative.)
The proposals are also intended as a test of expanded financing channels for small and medium-sized businesses, as well as an attempt to drain the property and stock markets of speculative capital that authorities would prefer used to keep growth and employment going in the real economy. What is not yet clear is whether these new institutions will experiment with market-set interest rates, as the original set of proposals put forward by the city government last November had called for. That may still be a reform too far.
Nationally, the underground banking system was officially said last year to have $470 billion in outstanding loans, though unofficial estimates are half as much again. Fitch, a U.S. ratings agency, has estimated that every other yuan now lent in China comes through a shadow bank. That is a scary share for an unregulated sector surrounded by still inflated asset bubbles. It is fault line that runs deep and far beyond Wenzhou.