THIS MIGHT HAVE been the day that China saw its first high-profile trust default, but a bailout of China Credit Trust averted that undesired outcome. Under a last-minute deal struck this week, the 700 private investors in the three-year high-yield 3-billion-yuan ($500 million) trust will get their capital back but forego the final year of interest payments that remain unpaid.
This Bystander noted previously that how the potential default was resolved — whether by allowing a quick and orderly default, or by shoving it under the carpet via a provincial government bailout — would be an indication of how well the ticking time bomb of local government debt tied to the shadow banking system and its wealth management products is likely to be defused. In the event, it seems that the corner of a carpet was lifted amidst the last-minute negotiations between provincial officials and the financial institutions involved. These included the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China through whose private banking arm the product was sold, but which had said it wouldn’t stand behind the troubled loan.
A mysterious third party has acquired both the investors’ trust rights and the shares in the now defunct mining company that the trust funded, Zhenfu Energy, that had been held as collateral. This is what has let the trust pay off its 700 investors. One local press report says the unnamed white knight was backed by the state investment fund Citic. Meanwhile, Zhenfu Energy has unexpectedly got its mining license back from the Shanxi provincial government and will restart operations.
Economists at the Japanese securities firm Nomura say they have counted 28 similar deflected defaults since 2012. The evil but necessary day when a troubled Chinese wealth management product is allowed to default to show investors the real risks of such investments remains in the future. But how far in the future?
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.
As President Hu Jintao was leaving the U.S. after his four-day state visit, Industrial & Commercial Bank of China announced plans to move in. ICBC, the world’s largest bank by assets, has agreed to take control of Bank of East Asia’s U.S. operations, which include 13 retail bank branches in New York and California. ICBC is to pay $140 million for an 80% stake, subject to approval from Chinese and American regulators, Hong Kong-based Bank of East Asia says. The two struck a similar deal last year with ICBC taking 70% of Bank of East Asia’s six Canadian branches.
Chinese investments in American financial services firms by taking minority stakes in the likes of Blackstone and Morgan Stanley have a hapless record, mostly because the last round came before the global financial crisis of 2008 which made a nonsense of the valuations. Buying a network of retail branches is a new tack, and echoes what Chinese banks having been doing elsewhere in the world, if not yet in the U.S.
Jiang Jianqing, ICBC’s chairman, says:
This unprecedented acquisition of a controlling stake in a U.S. commercial bank by a mainland bank is strategically significant. The successful completion of this transaction will not only establish a good foundation for the provision of holistic financial services by a mainland bank in the U.S., but also will mark a new era of open-market co-operation between China and the U.S., and have a positive impact on Sino-US trade relations.
A previous attempt to buy a bank in the U.S. was torpedoed by Washington’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (CFIUS), which reviews proposed foreign acquisitions of U.S. firms on national security grounds. The committee will be among the regulators weighing in on ICBC’s deal because ICBC is state-owned. The bank already has a securities business in the U.S., bought from BNP Paribas last year, but the purchase of retail banks comes under closer regulatory scrutiny. That is as much an examination of the acquiring bank’s home regulatory regime as it is of the bank itself.
ICBC can expect to wait a while. It took the bank two years to get a license for its existing commercial banking branch in New York. Whether the process is swifter in this case would be a good barometer of the state of Sino-American relations in the wake of Hu’s visit.