China's Banks Obscure Credit Risk, Face "Insolvency" In Property Downturn, Fitch Says

Data released on Friday by state regulators showed that China’s non-performing loans rose 141 billion yuan during Q1, marking the sharpest quarterly increase on record and bringing the total to 983 billion. 

NPLs have been on the rise in China for quite some time, and as we discussed at the end of March, the pace at which loans to the manufacturing sector have sourced has quickened in the face of the country’s slumping economy, leading the nation’s largest lenders to slash payout ratios. Anxiety over bad debt has only increased in recent weeks after a subsidiary of state-run China South Industries Group was allowed to default without government intervention suggesting that Beijing is willing to let small state-affiliated companies go if the risk to the system is deemed appropriately negligible. 

The trend is especially worrisome given the sheer size of China’s debt load (a topic we first discussed years ago) which, at $28 trillion, totals more than 280% of GDP. Here’s a look at the breakdown:

Among that debt is some $364 billion in property loans (i.e. debt backed by property collateral) and according to Fitch, that’s not necessarily a good thing given the country’s slumping real estate sector, which saw developer Kaisa default earlier this year. The worry is that the preponderance of property loans on banks’ books serves to spread real estate risk to the economy writ large. In fact, Fitch says a lengthy downturn for China’s property market could render some large lenders insolvent given their exposure.

Via Fitch:

Property exposure is the biggest threat to the viability of China's banks because of the banking system's reliance on real estate collateral and the strong linkages between property and other parts of the economy, Fitch Ratings says in a new special report.

 

The agency estimates that for Fitch-rated banks, loans secured by property - residential mortgages and corporate loans backed by property - have increased 400% since end-2008, compared with 260% for loans overall. Loans secured by property now make up 40% of total loans in these banks. Residential mortgages have more than tripled since end-2008, and corporate loans secured with property have increased almost five-fold in the same period. The use of property collateral is predominant not just among loans to property developers and local government financing vehicles, but also increasingly common among corporate and micro-and-small-enterprise borrowers.

 

Collateral is supposed to reduce bank risk; but the rise of property collateral in corporate loans may actually increase the chance of bank failure. This is because the widespread use of such collateral has lowered the perceived risks of lending, fuelling China's credit build-up and spreading real-estate risk to other sectors of the economy.

 

Banks generally place high confidence in their property collateral to provide reliable and timely protection in the event of default, and consider that low loan-to-value (LTV) ratios provide an adequate buffer against a property-market decline. Fitch believes, however, that a low LTV ratio may not necessarily shelter banks from large losses. Recent history of financial crises show that appraisal of property collateral can be highly misleading as the value of property fluctuates substantially, and corrections often happen abruptly. The value of such collateral in China could also be seriously compromised by hurdles to enforcement.

 

Fitch views a protracted downturn in property markets as a low probability, but high impact, scenario that could result in a credit crunch and force a chaotic deleveraging process for corporate borrowers. A steep fall in property prices would diminish the value of collateral, weaken banks' lending capacity and increase borrowers' default probabilities.

 

A protracted downturn in property markets could therefore threaten the solvency of Chinese banks, given their modest loss-absorption capacity.

One might be tempted, upon reading this, to point to "official" data on bad loans at Chinese banks on the way to concluding that "modest loss-aborption capacity" or not, sub-2% NPL ratios certainly do not seem to portend an imminent catastrophe. However, given the official figure is just 1.39%, and given what we know about the state of China's economy, one could be forgiven for wondering if NPLs at China's biggest lenders are grossly understated.

To let Fitch tell it, determining the true extent of China's NPL problem is complicated by a number of factors and the 'real' data might be just as hard to get at as an accurate reading on Chinese GDP. 

Via Fitch:

Chinese banks' shifting of loans into debt investments, receivables, and interbank exposures to bypass lending restrictions, as well as the growth of the shadow banking system make it harder to assess the underlying asset quality of the banks and overall stress in the financial system, Fitch Ratings says in a new special report published today.

 

China's asset management companies (AMCs) are playing an increasingly important role outside the banks in managing bad assets. It is common for AMCs to purchase assets directly from borrowers, so bad assets are often transferred to external parties without being recognised as non-performing loans (NPLs). Regulatory forbearance also delays the recognition of asset impairment. These features cloud the veracity of underlying non-performing loans (NPL) levels at banks and more broadly the transparency around the extent of debt problems in the financial system.

 

This renders NPL analysis less meaningful, especially as banks in China have remarkably similar NPL ratios. Banks' NPL ratios for local government and property loans are very low because riskier credit often lies off banks' balance sheets. Policy guidance on agricultural and micro lending may also lead to inappropriate pricing.

 

The underlying problem is one of debt sustainability. The rapid rise in leverage in China since 2008 is increasingly burdensome, with the interest cost of servicing China's debt now estimated to have reached 15% of GDP, exceeding nominal GDP growth of below 10%. The need to strike a balance between maintaining adequate growth to support employment and ensuring banking system stability means that banks remain exposed to the risks of this unsustainable trend continuing.

 

Until China allows for more corporate and state-owned-enterprise defaults, moral hazard will prolong and exacerbate threats to the banking system beyond what reported NPLs indicate. The longer weak entities are permitted to roll over their debt, the greater the build-up and cost of servicing that debt, and the greater the strain on the economy. 

In addition to the above, there have long been questions around "special mention" loans, a designation which simply refers to outstanding debt that hasn't yet soured, but very well might. According to The Economist, the percentage of outstanding loans that fall under this cateogry has risen steadily and now stands at around 3.5%.

*  *  *

So while we cannot know the true extent to which non-performing 'assets' present a systemic risk to the Chinese banking sector and to the broader economy, what we do know is that even the official figures (derived from the data that Beijing allows to be disseminated) show NPLs growing at the fastest rate in history. We also know that at China's big four banks, loans to manufacturers are going bad at twice the rate as loans to other borrowers and that would certainly seem to be a trend that is likely to accelerate given everything we know about anemic global demand. Finally, we've seen one high profile default (Kaisa) and one state-affiliated corporate default (Baoding Tianwei Group) so far this year and indeed, Friday looks to be the day of reckoning for coal importer Winsway Enterprises which missed a $13.5 million coupon payment last month and now faces the end of a 30-day grace period.

In closing, here's a visual which depicts the sharp increase in China's problem debt: