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Sunday, 20 July 2014

The reform legacy - Part I

One of the most significant debates of the moment is the extent to which China is engaging in reform away from the production-heavy, subsidised, export-orientated economy towards a more balanced, consumption-led, open and lower growth (but more sustainable) model.

This is the background amidst which debates such as regarding China's target rate of GDP growth and the internationalisation of the currency (the Renminbi) have occurred and there are plenty of opinions on offer.  A good example was seen at the conference organised by the Financial Times' offshoot FTAlphaville, where celebrity guests Michael Pettis and Carson Block offered differing visions - in a short interview Pettis noted that rebalancing was proceeding in a more or less predictable manner (with reforms proceeding as announced in the Third Plenum), while for Carson Block, an impending debt crisis would likely arrive sooner and cause enough trouble as to hinder any meaningful schedule of reform. 

As it happens Pettis has considered the issue of debt quite specifically and a recent post on his blog argues its importance in understanding China's growth prospects and in understanding rebalancing - a feature of one of his recent books.  A recording of Pettis speaking at the 2013 Wine Country Conference sets out the background in excellent detail and is a real eye opener - Pettis likens the Chinese economic model to that of Japan "on steroids".  There is an interesting contrast with Pettis' blog post - which concludes asking the question of where the great losses from the excessive debt will be recognised.  In the Wine Country presentation Pettis details how losses in Japan were absorbed by the government when it took on the debts of the banking system rather than overseeing writeoffs (in a manner similar to which European sovereigns today are taking on the risk of their bloated banking sectors).  It would seem likely that the same may occur in China, where corporate debt now has surpassed that of the US and is estimated to be 200% of GDP.

Leaning to the chaotic
As Pettis notes in his presentation and elsewhere rebalancing is inevitable from a macroeconomic point of view and amidst the choices available to economic decision-makers are a range of outcomes from orderly rebalancing to chaotic.  Recent news has suggested that (i) authorities in China are trying to delay rebalancing, through measures like the "mini-stimulus" (which will only worsen the outcome later on) and (ii) events on the ground may be starting to overwhelm the ability of the authorities to maintain control such that rebalancing will not be orderly.

The mini-stimulus was unveiled in April 2014 with announcements of new spending targeting SOEs and state-focussed industries, with results appearing to show increased production by mid June and into July.  So far as expected.  But in addition to wondering where the next round of growth is going to come from since the administration's mini-stimulus has delayed SOE reform and shifting of production to the private sector, several themes have emerged in the background which could undermine the whole process.  These are:

1.  The divergence between Government and Private Economics surveys
As this article on Zerohedge notes, essentially one of the teams producing the surveys is likely just making up the numbers since private surveys show economic stagnation while government produced statistics paint a rosy picture.

One set of statistics is likely to be false and if it is the government produced statistics then the state of the Chinese economy could be grave.

2.  The property market is imploding
Daily updates on the Investing in Chinese Stocks Blog are offering a disturbing picture of financial collapse across the country with nationwide price falls in properties for sale in cities across the country, developers launching all manner of tactics to clear sales targets and credit guarantee and other private financing firms seeing their directors flee owing creditors millions.  This is getting litte attention in the Western media although an article in Zerohedge (drawing from a Bloomberg article) provides a useful summary.

3.  The commodities finance trade has frozen up
Sophisticated China watchers will be aware of the holes in the great capital wall which have allowed capital to circulate through the Chinese economy and keep it functioning, including the remittance program which allowed wealthy Chinese to evade the limit on remittances and engage in massive capital flight by transferring funds out of China to buy real estate in developed markets like Canada, Australia and the US.  One method of effecting remittances was through a hidden program at certain banks which was the subject of an expose by CCTV, the State broadcaster.  Commentators noted that the expose may have been part of a factional battle taking place between factions aligned with CCTV and the PBOC (since the programs were approved), but of even more significance is the emergence of fraud in the commodities trade.

Also arising as part of a corruption investigation, charges of fraud at the large port of Qingdao by Decheng Mining, a metals trader which offered financing and rehypothecated metal stocks (using the same collateral for multiple loans, including using forged documents) is of note not only because of the size of fraud or that international banks have been involved, but that the whole commodity financing industry in China is under threat and that as such a significant amount of liquidity for the Chinese financial sector which the commodity financing provides could be at risk.  An interesting article refers to a recent failure of a letter of credit settlement - which does remind of failures of repo trades which presaged the Lehman collapse - which can only be understood as systemic.

The next blog will look at some interesting summer reading which traces the historic background that helped lead to the current situation, but until then here is a shot from a new Chinese water park which speaks to more than just the plight of the swimmers...






 

Monday, 5 May 2014

A belief in the supernatural

Following the last post it emerged that there are another class of investors already taking losses (and expect more of these to appear).  In perhaps what could be termed the ending of the Xiaochan put (a corollary of the Greenspan put, by which US markets had been supported by intervention by the Federal Reserve), so a report from Morgan Stanley detailed the vast sums wagered by speculators positioning for a continued rise in the Chinese currency (the Yuan/Renminbi) which came to an end as the Central Bank in China, the PBOC (led by Zhou Xiaochan) sought to stunt speculation in the currency:
The seemingly incessant strengthening trend of the Chinese Yuan (much as with the seemingly inexorable rise of US equities or home prices) has encouraged huge amounts of structured products to be created over the past few years enabling traders to position for more of the same in increasingly levered ways. That was all going great until the last few weeks which has seen China enter the currency wars (as we explained here). The problem, among many facing China, is that these structured products will face major losses and as Morgan Stanley warns "real pain will come if CNY stays above these levels," leading to further capital withdrawal, illiquidity, and a potential vicious circle as it appears the PBOC is trying to break the virtuous carry trade that has fueled so much of its bubble economy.
and losses were estimated to be in the billions of dollars, and worryingly (given the deterioration going on in the Chinese economy) many of the holders of the loss-making positions were Chinese corporates:
In their previous note, MS estimated that US$350 billion of TRF have been sold since the beginning of 2013. When we dig deeper, we think it is reasonable to assume that most of what was sold in 2013 has been knocked out (at the lower knock-outs), given the price action seen in 2013...."Given that, and given what business we’ve done in 2014 calendar year to date, we think a reasonable estimate is that US$150 billion of product remains."...
...The potential for US$4.8 billion in losses for every 0.1 above the average EKI could have significant implications for corporate China in its own right, as could the need to post collateral on positions even if the EKI level is not breached... 
On the latest check this trend seemed set to continue with weak economic statistics, regulatory concern and weakness in the currency all referenced in a Bloomberg report.  As mentioned in that report, the spectre of capital flight and further destabilisation of Chinese financial markets is a not shallow risk.
 
Hope and dreams
Notwithstanding some less than pleasing numbers and off-message disclosures of some key figures in China's dynamic property sector and prices of apartments starting to be discounted in a way described as "crumbling" (and here), the facade of the great China miracle continues for the time being, even with the recent announcement of a passing of the US on one economic measure (not without criticism, including from the Financial Times).
 
As an example of the continued hopefulness and ambition the recent report of an ultra-fast lift to be incorporated in a new development in Guangzhou is a reminder of the Middle Eastern style optimism which has driven the China urban development story.  Of course reality throws up questions such as the need for a giant financial centre development in somewhere like Guangzhou but the need to maintain a motivating ideology for the continued reckless and unsustainable growth seems still to be a concern of those in power and with commercial interests.
 
This was noted by my recent reading of modern Party mouthpiece China Daily whilst transiting at an airport, which dedicated an issue to President Xi's own notion of the "China Dream", a new guiding vision for youthful and emerging China (with the cover story "Dream Debate").  While well composed and quite glossy, the feature section was disappointing as it fell into predictable patterns, including:
 
  • a piece by American China apologist Robert Kuhn, who earlier said that the Bo Xilai scandal was only of interest to Westerners because it was "salacious";
  • an advocacy of the status quo by Zhou Feng that contained such wonderful statements as "drastic measures are not necessary" and
  • "by withstanding the global financial crisis in 2008-09, the Chinese economy has become more resilient in its ability to deal with slower growth. Its trade sector, for example, has become used to operating with wafer-thin profit margins."
    (that would be resilience by going bankrupt!) 
  • a wonderfully titled piece by Yu Yongding "No financial meltdown to worry about", which argues that China will be fine because it does not have US subprime mortgages (trust loan anyone?)
and so on.
 
Over at Zerohedge, hyperbole notwithstanding there was a far more grim picture being painted of the situation in China currently:
 
China is a case of bastardized socialism on credit steroids. At the turn of century it had $1 trillion of credit market debt outstanding—-a figure which has now soared to $25 trillion. The plain fact is that no economic system can remain stable and sustainable after undergoing a 25X debt expansion in a mere 14 years....
...The borrowing, building and speculating mania in China has obviously gotten so extreme that even the new regime in Beijing has been desperately trying to cool it down. But this will end up as a catastrophic failure—not the “soft landing” brayed about by Wall Street bulls who do not have the slightest comprehension of the difference between free market capitalism and the phony “red capitalism” that has been confected by the party-controlled apparatus of the massive, intrusive, bureaucratic and hierarchically-driven Chinese State..
At bottom the fatal error among China bulls is the failure to recognize that the colossal boom and bust cycle that China is undergoing is not symmetrical. The much admired alacrity by which the state guided the export boom after 1994 and the infrastructure boom after 2008 is not evidence of a superior model of governance; its only proof that when credit, favors,  subsidies, franchises and speculative windfall opportunities are being passed out freely and to everyone, when there are all winners and no losers ( e. g. China’s bankruptcy rate has been infinitesimal), a statist regime can appear to walk on water....
...In short, the Chinese population “can’t handle the truth” in Jack Nicholson’s memorable line. They by now believe they are entitled to a permanent feast and have every expectation that they party and state apparatus will continue to deliver it. As a result, Beijing has resorted to a strategy of tip-toeing around the tulips in a series of start and stop maneuvers to rein-in the credit and building mania....
To the fireflies
That last paragraph raised an interesting aspect (contrasting public expectations and management by the authorities).  Exactly how well will China's population handle the transition which is to arrive once credit markets turn?  On the basis of one unlikely tourist venture, possibly not well.  The below picture (and final image of the post) is from angry holidaymakers who invaded the office of a tour company after a display of firefly insects did not materialise at an organised event:

Visitors shout at organizers during an event to release fireflies in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, April 30, 2014. According to local media, about 10,000 people protested for a refund of their tickets, claiming they could not find fireflies to release at night. Picture taken April 30, 2014. REUTERS

 

Saturday, 15 February 2014

The biggest loser?

The start of 2014 has seen a flood of commentary regarding the Chinese non-bank (trust) financial sector - with the last minute bailout of the oddly named "Credit Equals Gold" trust fund (sold through ICBC branches) in late January and a number of predicted defaults of trust funds linked to the coal sector (or actual default in the case of Jilin Trust) in February. As Bloomberg notes, yields on debt securities are also rising making finance more expensive for businesses in China, but the borrowing binge is continuing, with the FT reporting the highest rates of lending in four years (and a flood of new entrants into the trust and wealth management sector).

As longtime financing expert Charlene Chu has noted, there is increasing currency risk in the system as more borrowers resort to offshore lending.  In the same article in the Telegraph, George Magnus of UBS notes the similarity with Japan before its crash in the 1980s.  Unhelpfully as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard notes in his Telegraph comment piece, this is occurring amidst a policy of monetary tightening and contraction as the administration in China tries to rein in the heady boom of the last decade.

Notwithstanding the current focus on losses within China it is interesting to note some consideration being given to just how much will be lost by foreign lenders.  As Sean Darby, an equity strategist at Jeffries has noted there is significant exposure not only in Hong Kong (China's primary offshore investment centre), but in the banks of Australia, Europe and elsewhere.  It doesn't help that in Australia's case, the large domestic banks which are stuffed high with local real estate loans, desperate for growth opportunities are now aggressively moving into the Chinese market (see also here).

The below chart from Bloomberg (full size image here) shows the rapid growth of foreign lenders' exposure to China and in particular it is interesting to note the high exposures of British, French and Australian banks.  This may be something they come to regret.



(c) Bloomberg
 

 

Saturday, 28 December 2013

A year to savour?

2013 saw a lot of changes to the mood in China, with the transition of Xi Jinping and introduction of a reform agenda, launched last month at the Third Party Plenum.  There was plenty of political intrigue with the trial of Bo Xilai, endless other officials and detention of Zhou Yongkang.  The first hints of the banking crisis emerged, with spikes in the interbank market in June and early December.  Property and asset markets remained turbulent and tensions in Western China remained.  And regional tensions escalated with the declaration of the Air Defence Identification Zone over the disputed areas of the South China Sea.
 
It seems fairly likely that recent interbank stress has involved non-disclosed defaults by Mainland institutions - China Everbright Bank's default during the first Shibor Spike was only revealed this month when a note in its IPO prospectus revealed two of its branches had defaulted in June, although quickly paid up (while at the time reports of branch closures and ATM shutdowns were dismissed as due to technical errors).  As in June the PBOC did belatedly intervene to calm the markets with liquidity injections (a Christmas offering if you like), but there is little likelihood this pattern of crisis and belated resolution won't be repeated.
 
As noted on the Investing in Chinese Stocks Blog and elsewhere, the shadow banking system is rampant and a massive risk to the banking system as all manner of schemes with high and unsustainable returns have spread amidst sluggish regulated below inflation rates available in the mainstream banking system.  Worse still, as has been noted before, although the entities providing such returns (trusts and other structures sold as "wealth management products") are outside the formal banking system, their products are sold to bank customers and banks either own or have exposure to the entities.  The bankruptcy of mining giant Liangsheng (a coal acquisition group overburdened by debt) is an example likely to be seen more frequently and already of a scale which could threaten China's banking system.  Most significantly losses track back immediately to the investors and a big state owned bank -  as the FT states:
Liansheng had little trouble finding willing lenders among China’s burgeoning shadow banks, which regulators have allowed to help plug the financing gap.
From late 2011 to early 2012, Jilin Trust, one of China’s vast array of non-bank financial institutions, sold to investors an investment product worth Rmb1bn backed entirely by loans to Liansheng.
Jilin Trust warned investors at the start of this month that the first tranche of the Liansheng loans was nearing maturity and that the mining company had yet to cover what is owed, according to China Business News, a local financial newspaper.
...Liansheng’s troubles are a reminder of the thin dividing line between China’s banks and its shadow lending industry. The Liansheng loan product sold by Jilin Trust was distributed in part via China Construction Bank, the country’s second-biggest lender by assets.
Banks tell customers they do not guarantee trust products, which offer returns far higher than traditional bank deposits, but buyers often ignore the warnings in the belief they carry the banks’ implicit backing. The Liansheng investment product targeted an annual return of 9.8 per cent.
And notwithstanding the proposed interest rate liberalisation, repression in the banking system creates opportunities for the shadow banking system to flourish while as the former chief economist and spokesman of the National Bureau of Statistics in China describes it, the banking system does not work in any efficient manner at all, but rather could be run by a canine:
 
“Banking in China has become like a highway toll system,” Yao Jingyuan said at a Saturday summit on China’s economy held at Nanjing University. “Banks charge every time money goes through them.
"With this kind of operational model, banks will continue making money even if all the bank presidents go home to sleep and you replaced them by putting a small dog in their seats.”
Yao added that there were no longer any real bankers in China, and that most bankers had become “freeloaders” who latched onto the wide profit margin they could enjoy by taking advantage of interest differences between deposits and loans.(here).
With this sort of oversight it will be a wonder if any Chinese banks don't get into trouble next year. 
In the meantime, this article will be rounded out with a couple of photographs which seem to capture the mood at the moment.
"President Li buys his own steamed buns"
 
The above is the actual headline from the report of an unusual purchase by a Chinese President.  Given the clear level of deference and hierarchy still in place in China, what hope is there of genuine financial reform? For example as with the PBOC, so the shipbuilding industry has also been bailed out.

The likely outcome for the Chinese financial sector in 2014?


Xie Shuizhun, a 46-year-old man from central China's Hubei province, earns his living by charging random strangers in Guangzhou's Baiyun district to beat him up, at a rate of 5 yuan (US$0.82) per punch. He insists the punches do not hurt him because he practices the ancient Chinese art of Qigong, which allows him to inflate his belly like a rubber ball.

Back in 2014!
 
 

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

The rising of three suns

Recently China watchers have added to their experience of weird weather phenomena by witnessing the rising of three suns in Chifeng city - due to the presence of ice crystals high in the atmosphere which reflect the sunlight downwards.  Perhaps symbolic the phenomena occurred prior to the convening of the third plenum Party conference (that is the significant third meeting of Xi Jinping's premiership), when the most important policies and overall direction of the administration is laid out.

Reports from the main session of the plenum proceedings were mixed, commitments to market opening and deepening were contrasted with an absence of concrete measures to tackle some of the more significant issues in China, including the rampant state owned entities which distort the Chinese economy and waste resources (summary also here).  Meanwhile foreign journalists faced difficulty getting into China to report and/or (allegedly) the prospect of self-censorship of certain significant news investigations.

On the modernisation drive Bloomberg did report on developments from the new free trade zone in Shanghai, including the opening of a massive gold vault which will store up to 2,000 metric tonnes of gold.  Gold bugs are speculating on possible future outcomes from the high volumes of Chinese gold buying, constituting a seminal moment when gold had moved from "west to east".  Adding to this, speculation of the adoption of international rather than Chinese law in the free trade zones (similar to Hong Kong) suggest that much is happening.

The reality may be different however.  China's (and the world's) largest bank ICBC, has been added to the list of globally systemically important banks by the global bank regulator, the Financial Stability Board (which is hosted by the Bank of International Settlements), meaning tougher capital requirements.  And there has been declining interest in lower tier banks coming to market - mid-sized Huishang Bank, which acts as an intermediary in the shadow sector (including transactions involving entrusted loans and other interbank off-balance sheet lending) saw lacklustre demand following its recent Hong Kong IPO, with analysts divided as to whether the IPO of one of the original four Chinese bad debt vehicles, Cinda (an asset management company) expected in December will be well received.  As even profligate local governments are staring to see more scrutiny (not only in calls for action from the central government but also from their constituents), the scale of Chinese indebtedness may be fully revealed.

More abstract perhaps but there are some analysts who doubt the short term impacts of the proposed reforms to China's financial system.  Pu Yonghao, UBS's head of Asia research, says China may experience a period of economic hardship over the next two to three years.

And in other news it was reported that disgraced solar panel company Suntech has filed for provisional liquidation in the Cayman Islands (following a buyout of some of its business and attempts to save it by the local government).  There could be more to come.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

The psychology of grand gestures

These days many people approach China through the lens of superlatives - massive buildings and infrastructure, dynamic fast paced growth and grand government visions.  Local press Caixin had a photo series of some of the more opulent government offices which had been built in recent years in some of the more deserted parts of China.  This correspondent can recall travelling to Shanghai in the late 1990s and being impressed by the opulence of the central square and museum and the comparative poverty of the shopping mall below - which no doubt has long since been renovated.  Perhaps, as suggested by the Independent newspaper it is easy to misinterpret what is going on in China simply by being an outsider.  Nevertheless there does seem to be some insight from reviewing what will be termed the "grand gestures" being made by the Chinese in administration (and their possible view of events through this perspective).

To start with the US however, many have argued that the Chinese administration places great weight in its actions by what is happening in the US and arguably much of China's recent policy is seen to have been calibrated with big shifts in US policy.  Hence many analysts point to the US-led financial crisis in 2008 as having caused a pivot in Chinese fiscal policy - when the administration not only decided to embark on the massive stimulus in 2009 and 2010 which saw more money lent out by the state-directed banking system than delivered by the US administration in the TARP (troubled asset relief program) which preceded the recapitalisation of the US banking system.  More particularly, those analysts note that in addition to the decision that was made at the time, it was also a time in which the top of China's government interpreted that the US economic model itself was defunct - that no serious government would let its banking system collapse and that China was wasting its time trying to emulate the US (as it had been doing for many years since its own banks had been cleaned up in the 2000s).

Of course, such an interpretation fundamentally misunderstands capitalism, and it has been noted that in seeking to construct a capitalist economy China still hasn't taken to heart the idea that businesses need to fail (such that, although pain in the solar industry, one of the worst performers is being delayed, at some point the domestic debt market will have its first default and certain poorly performing big enterprises will go bankrupt).  Nevertheless until a day of reckoning, the Chinese are doubling down on their existing policies and no doubt continuing the status quo (or trying to).  

Free China love zone
And hence the suggestion that China is drawing the same conclusions as to US decline.  As the US government went into lockdown with the impasse over the debt ceiling, reports of frustrated Chinese tourists in Washington corresponded with the response in China itself - decrying the "ugly side of partisan politics" (here). And, as per the headline, the Chinese presidential administration was responding with one grand gesture - Chinese president Xi Jinping undertaking a charm offensive to South East Asia (as Obama's trip was cancelled).  The linked article didn't touch on the delicate nature of China's relations with South East Asia following disputes in the South East China Sea, which no doubt complicate the picture.

Likewise on the economic front, China's opening of a free trade zone in Shanghai (immediately offering customs and warehousing facilities but with the suggestion of financial reform) was launched with uncertainty as regulations were still being drawn up, while many commentators, including the Economist concluded the measures were likely to disappoint (and a damp squib in fact).  For this author the significance of the recent zone opening is more in the gesture than the outcome - many other cities around China are seeking to open free trade zones which may do brisker trade than Shanghai (including Dongjiang which is seeking to become a major aviation leasing and offshore centre) and more significantly the step is being promoted as a new track of reform mirroring the opening of the Special Economic Zones in the 1980s.

The success of the zones will remain to be seen but it is unclear whether they constitute the reforms China needs.  As a gesture though, the announcement of the Shanghai zone has had an impact and that may be enough to keep positive news going for now.  On the other hand the gesture seemed to highlight current problems rather than hide them - property prices in Shanghai around the proposed zone have risen dramatically on the opening even as the included activities were not announced and there was no indication it will be successful.

If the real problems - property boom and collapse and strain in the banking sector do flare up then as a guide we must expect significant actions such as the credit squeeze of June 2013 - of which there will undoubtedly be more significant gestures to reassure confidence as real measures.  

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

A massive China sinkhole

Several major news outlets have reported on the problem of sinkholes in China.

Similar to the formations in the US and Central America, sinkholes often appear as a result of human activities - mining and construction or extraction of water for agriculture which alter the composition of below ground rock and soil which can then collapse.  As CNN reports these appearances can not only result in the occasional damage to pavements and roadways, but to vast swathes of often agricultural land in some areas which can end up sinking below the water level.  Relocations of infrastrucure and people can follow in what is a disturbing development for some localities such as Jining in Shandong Province.

Infrastructure revealed in China (c) AFP

Also disturbing and seemingly potentially catastrophic are emerging insights into the scale of capital shortfalls in China's banking system and economy. With the inner vaults of banks hollowed out by excessive lending, diversionary schemes and sources of risk concealed from regulators it is becoming a certainty that significant writedowns of bank assets will have to be made at some point.

It is with this in mind then that reports are emerging of steps being taken to put into operation the clean up of banking balance sheets by special "bad bank" vehicles - namely "asset management companies" (AMCs) which were set up in the late nineties to absorb bad loan portfolios from the largest Chinese "Big Four" banks - ICBC, BOC, Ag Bank and CCB (which became Cinda, Huarong, Orient and Great Wall, each taking on the bad loan portfolios of one bank).  

Fraser and Howie in their book Red Capitalism walk through the tainted origins of the AMC's which bought the bad loans at full face value and failed to achieve much running off of the portfolios (often recovering as little as 20 cents in the dollar, barely covering their costs and instead rolling over the bad loans).  Since then, apart from what the FT has investigated as seeming repayments from the central government and the AMCs taking on new debts and branching into active financing business, there has been nothing to quell serious doubts about whether the AMCs are fit for purpose (a historical perspective on the recovery process is here).   

While analysts debate the room for manoeuvre for AMCs, the scope of the task is substantial:
...In 1998, when these AMCs were formed, the first Rmb1.4tn batch of bad loans were bought at face value, or 100 cents on the dollar, which was great for the big four banks, but less good for the bad banks. They recovered only about 20 cents on the dollar. 
However, in the late 1990s, that Rmb1.4tn accounted for about 15 per cent of bank loans, according to CLSA. Ms Chu calculates that the Chinese banking system’s assets grew by $14tn between 2008 and 2013 – equivalent to adding the entire US banking system to its banks’ balance sheets. 
This illustrates why China needs more than merely a government bailout to tackle bad loans this time and that it will probably take a lot more than four privatised AMCs.
And with the application by Cinda to launch an IPO in Hong Kong, some are starting to question the viability of any such venture (given one as author contended, they have become "toxic waste dumps" of bad loan portfolios) :
...today China's four big asset management companies look on the surface like respectable universal financial services groups, with solid balance sheets and handsome earnings. In February, Cinda announced profits for last year of 14 billion yuan (HK$17.6 billion), while Huarong made 12 billion yuan. 
Sceptics claim these profits are illusory, produced by the companies trading assets among themselves at artificially inflated values....For potential investors, however, earnings quality should be only a minor concern compared with the enduring doubts that surround the strength of the asset management companies' balance sheets. 
Offsetting the liability of their bonds, their assets now consist largely of what amount to IOUs from the Ministry of Finance. These are not sovereign bonds, but merely a vague promise to pay at some point in the future....If these IOUs are comparable to similar IOUs held by state banks, then their eventual repayment is to be funded by recoveries from the bad assets injected into the "co-managed accounts". 
In short, it appears the recent restructuring of the asset management companies was nothing more than a cosmetic exercise, which still left them exposed to their original portfolios of worthless loans.  If so, their liabilities far outweigh the true value of their assets; they are insolvent. 
 And what could be the likely scale of losses in the banking sector? Goldman Sachs has come up with an estimate of $3 trillion (which presumably doesn't factor in any downward adjustment to rates of growth stemming from the fact that official Chinese GDP may be overstated by $1 trillion), which is about the size of China's coveted foreign reserves (which by the way may not be of any use in a domestic currency crisis, being held offshore and in another currency). And this may be the nail in the coffin - the backstop of every China watcher - the ability of the state to bail out any distressed entity may simply not be sufficient enough - as stated by Charlene Chu:

There is tremendous confidence in the ability and the willingness of the Chinese Communist party to bail everyone out....But as the system gets bigger and bigger, there are more questions about how feasible that is.”

Rather a large hole to fill.

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