Western Banks Find "In China, Nothing Is What It Appears To Be"

When Chinese property developer Agile Property Holdings Ltd. said this month that its chairman was taken into custody by authorities, the disclosure was a shock to Western banks that lent the company money, according to China Spectator as the fog of ever-rising asset values suddenly evaporates into the reality of an opaque real estate credit market slap them in the face. The simple fact is "it is very difficult to get a handle on the financials of a Chinese company," as a local investigative consulting firm warns "in China, nothing is what it appears to be."

Foreign lenders in China have been stung by a string of suspected fraud cases and problem loans in the country as Beijing investigates company executives and seizes assets in a crackdown on corruption. Most notable recently , as China Spectator reports, was Agile Property...

Agile Property has a large debt payment due in December and has been scrambling to raise funds. It is in discussions with bankers at HSBC Holdings PLC and its unit Hang Seng Bank Ltd. , and Standard Chartered PLC for an extension of the US$475 million loan.

 

The company cancelled plans at the start of the month to raise 2.75 billion Hong Kong dollars (US$355 million) through a rights issue. A few days later, the company said it would try again, this time with the fundraising backed by the controlling family, meaning they would have to buy any shares not bought by investors.

 

When news came that the chairman was taken into custody, it was a shock to banks such as BNP Paribas , HSBC and Standard Chartered that had agreed to underwrite the original offering, and who have also lent the company money.

 

“It was a surprise to all the banks. We didn’t know,” said one executive at a Western bank with direct knowledge of the matter.

 

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Half a dozen Western lenders are also locked in legal battles over exposures of around US$1 billion linked to a suspected fraud at Qingdao port.

 

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In another widely reported case, a group of banks including Nomura International lent US$60 million to Chinese shoe company Ultrasonic AG just months before company funds went missing and its then-chief executive disappeared. That prompted the company, which is based in Cologne, Germany, but has many of its assets in China, to talk with creditors to avert insolvency proceedings.

 

The executive later emerged, telling Chinese media that he had lost his cellphone while in the Philippines and that he hadn’t absconded with company funds. But the company’s chief financial officer has since resigned, citing a lack of progress in finding the missing money.

The spate of suspected fraud cases and growing fears that loans won’t be repaid has raised questions about the effectiveness of scrutiny applied by banks to borrowers.

“In China, nothing is what it appears to be,” said Violet Ho, senior managing director, Greater China at Kroll, the investigative consulting firm.

Western banks have been lending to Chinese borrowers in huge volumes, often via their Hong Kong based subsidiaries.

Cross-border lending claims in China grew 47 per cent in the 12 months through the end of June, according to the Switzerland-based Bank for International Settlements. China is by far the biggest emerging-market borrower in the world, based on the BIS data.

 

Much of the lending into China has been driven by banks chasing higher returns as global interest rates remain low. Chinese companies can borrow more cheaply in Hong Kong, where credit is more freely available, than on the mainland.

Typically, according to bankers, the due diligence applied by Western banks to Chinese borrowers includes site visits, meetings with personnel and an analysis of the company’s books. But even with this degree of scrutiny, problem loans are emerging.

“It is very difficult to get a handle on the financials of a Chinese company,” said Kroll’s Ms. Ho. “If a bank wants to have a very black and white due diligence questionnaire, they will be hugely surprised and disappointed.”

To be sure, banks are aware of the risks faced when lending in China.

“When we speak to the banks that we own, they are alive to the risk and are managing their exposure across industries and cities in China,” said David Smith, head of corporate governance, Asia, at fund manager Aberdeen Asset Management.

 

Still, bad loans are starting to spike for Chinese lenders and there are signs of an uptick for foreign banks, too.

 

“We’ve seen a softening economy in China and when the sea goes out, the rocks appear,” said Keith Pogson, financial-services managing partner for the Asia-Pacific region at Ernst & Young.

Information on nonperforming loans made by foreign banks in China is hard to come by, although most analysts agree that lenders are facing rising risks as China grapples with a sharp downturn in the property market, which accounts for nearly one-fourth of the country’s economy.

“Credit risks of the real-estate sector can potentially generate large spillover effects onto other sectors, suggesting it is closely linked with other sectors through financial channels,” researchers at the Hong Kong Monetary Authority said in a recent paper.

 

Hong Kong-based banks such as Bank of East Asia have already warned of a spike in bad loans to Chinese clients, albeit from low levels.

 

“There is definitely a deterioration of credit in the Chinese market,” Mr. Pogson said.

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Remember what Michael Pettis said...

If, instead, we have what everyone would hail as a soft landing, with growth remaining above 6-7% for another two years, it would just mean that credit was still growing too quickly. And once we reach debt capacity constraints, the so-called soft landing would be followed by a very brutal hard landing.