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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) : 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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