China banking

China’s Big Banks: learn how they overprice & misallocate loans while treating borrowers like conmen

Chinese banking loan approval process

Do you have the financial acumen to run the lending department of one of China’s giant state-owned banks? Let’s see if you qualify. Price the following loan to a private sector Chinese company.  Your bank is paying depositors 0.5% interest so that’s your cost of capital. The company has been a bank customer for six years and now needs a loan of Rmb 50mn (USD$8 mn).  The audit shows it’s earning Rmb 60mn a year in net profits, and has cash flow of Rmb 85mn.

You ask the company to provide you with a first lien on collateral appraised at Rmb 75mn and require them to keep 20% or more of the loan in an account at your bank as a compensating deposit. Next up, you ask the owner to pledge all his personal assets worth Rmb 25mn, and on top, you insist on a guarantee from a loan-assurance company your bank regularly does business. The guarantee covers any failure to repay principal or interest. What annual interest rate would you charge for this loan?

If you answered 5% or lower,  you are thinking like a foreigner. American, Japanese or German maybe. If you said 13% a year, then you are ready to start your new career pricing and allocating credit in China. At 10% and up, inflation-adjusted loan spreads to private sector borrowers in China are among the highest in the world, particularly when you factor in the over-collaterallization, that third-party guarantee and fact the loan is one-year term and can’t be rolled over. As a result, the company will actually only have use of the money for about nine months but will pay interest for twelve. Little wonder Chinese banks have some of the fattest operating margins in the industry.

Chinese private businessmen are paying too much to borrow. It’s a deadweight further slowing China’s economy. We are quite keen, by the way,  on private debt investing in China.

The high cost of borrowing negatively impacts corporate growth and so overall gdp growth. It is also among the more obvious manifestations of an even more significant, though often well-hidden, problem in China’s economy: the fact that nobody trusts anybody.  This lack of trust acts like an enormous tax on business and consumers in China, making everything, not just bank credit, far more expensive than it should be.

Online payment systems, business contracts, visits to the doctor, buying luxury products or electronics like mobile phones or computers: all are made more costly, inefficient and frustrating for all in China because one side of a transaction doesn’t trust the other. One example: Alibaba’s online shopping site, Taobao, will facilitate well over USD$200bn in transactions this year. Most are paid for through Alipay, an escrow system part-owned and administered by Alibaba. Chinese shoppers are loathe to buy anything directly from an online merchant. They generally take it as a given that the seller will cheat them.

Most of the world’s computers and mobile phones are made in China. But, Chinese walk a minefield when buying these products in their own country. It’s routine for sellers to swap out the original high-quality parts, including processors, and replace them with low-grade counterfeits, then sell products as new. Chinese, when possible, will travel outside China, particularly to Hong Kong, to buy these electronics, as well as luxury goods like Gucci shoes and Chanel perfume. This is the most certain way to guarantee you are getting the genuine article.

In the banking sector, loans need to have multiple, seemingly excessive layers of collateral, as well as guarantees. Banks simply do not believe the borrower, the auditors, their own in-house credit analysts, or the capacity of the guarantee firms to pay up in the event of a problem.

Disbelief gets priced in. This is the reason for the huge loan spreads in China. Banks regard their own loan documentation as a work of fiction. It stands to reason that if a company’s collateral were solid and the third-party guarantee enforceable, then the cost to borrow money should be at most a few points above the bank’s real cost of capital. Instead, Chinese companies get the worst of all worlds: they have to tie up all their collateral to secure overpriced loans, while also paying an additional 2%-3% a year of loan value to the third-party credit guarantee company for a guarantee the bank requires but treats as basically worthless.

In the event a loan does go sour, the bank will often choose to sell it to a third party at discount to face value, rather than go to court to seize the collateral or get the guarantee company to pay up. The buyer is usually one of the state-owned asset recovery companies formed to take bad debts off bank balance sheets. Why, you ask, does the bank require the guarantee then fail to enforce it? One reason is that Chinese private loan-assurance companies, which usually work hand-in-glove with the banks,  are usually too undercapitalized to actually pay up if the borrower defaults. Going after them will force them into bankruptcy. That would cause more systemic problems in China’s banking system.

Instead, the bank unloads the loan and the asset recovery companies seize and sell the only collateral they believe has any value, the borrower’s real estate. The business may be left to rot. The asset management companies usually come out ahead, as do the loan guarantee companies, which collect an annual fee equal to 2% to 3% of the loan value, but rarely, if ever, need to indemnify a lender.

Don’t feel too sorry for the bank that made the loan. Assuming the borrower stayed current for a while on the high interest payments, the bank should get its money back, or even turn a profit on the deal. Everyone wins, except private sector borrowers, of course. Good and bad like, they are stuck paying some of the highest risk-adjusted interest costs in the world.

When foreign analysts look at Chinese banks, they spend most of their time trying to divine the real, as opposed to reported, level of bad debts, devising ratios and totting up unrealized losses. They don’t seem to know how the credit game is really played in China.

Most of the so-called bad debts, it should be said, come from loans made to SOEs and other organs of the state. Trust is not much of an issue. SOEs and local governments generally don’t need to pledge as much collateral or get third-party guarantees to borrow. A call from a local Party bigwig is often enough. The government has shown it will find ways to keep banks from losing money on loans to SOEs. The system protects its own.

Chinese banks should be understood as engaged in two unrelated lines of business: one is as part of a revolving credit system that channels money to and through different, often cash-rich, arms of the state. The other is to take in deposits and make loans to private customers.  In one, trust is absolute. In the other, it is wholly absent.

Many Chinese private companies do still thrive despite a banking system that treats them like con artists, rather than legitimate businesses with a legitimate need for credit. The end result: the Chinese economy, though often the envy of the world,  grows slower and is more frail than it otherwise would be. Everyone here in China is paying a steep price for the lack of trust, and the mispricing of credit.

 

 

A Step in The Right Direction – But Capital Allocation Remains Highly Inefficient in China

Vrard Watch from China First Capital blog post

Capital is not a problem in China. Capital allocation is. 

Expansionary credit policies by the government has created a boom in bank lending. This rising tide of bank credit is also lifting Chinese SMEs. Through the first half of this year, loans to SME have increased by 24.1% , or 2.7 trillion yuan ($400bn).  All that new lending, though, has not substantially altered the fact that bank lending in China is still directed overwhelmingly  towards state-owned companies.  So, while lending to SME rose by nearly a quarter, that equates to only a tiny 1.5% increase in the share of all bank loans going to SME. 

State-owned banks and state-owned companies are locked in a mutual embrace. It’s not very good for either of them, or for the Chinese economy as a whole. Faster-growing, credit-worthy private companies find it much harder and more costly to borrow.  Over-collateralization is common. An SME owner must often put up all this company’s assets for collateral, then throw in his personal bank accounts and property, and finally make a cash deposit equal to 30% to 50% of the loan value. 

China isn’t the only country, of course, with inefficient credit policies. Japan’s banking system still puts too much cheap credit in the hands of favored borrowers.  But, the problem is more damaging in China that elsewhere, for two reasons: first, many of China’s best companies are small and private. They are starved of capital and so can’t grow to meet consumer demand. Second, the continuing deluge of credit for state-owned companies distorts the competitive landscape, keeping tired, often loss-making incumbents in business at the expense of better, nimbler and more efficient competitors. 

In other words, China’s credit allocation policies are actually stifling overall economic growth and inhibiting choice for Chinese consumers and businesses. 

State-owned banks everywhere, not just in China, have the same fatal flaw. They like an easy life, which means lending to companies favored by their controlling shareholder, not those that will earn the greatest return.  They can turn a deaf ear to profit signals because, ultimately, profit isn’t the only purpose of their labors. They allocate credit as part of some larger scheme, in China’s case, maintaining output and employment in the country’s less competitive,  clapped-out industries.  

There’s a regional dimension to this too. China’s richest, most developed areas are in South,  particularly the powerhouse provinces of Guangdong, Zhejiang and Fujian.  The economy here is driven by private, entrepreneurial companies, not the state-owned leviathans of the North. As a result, a credit policy that discriminate against private SME also ends up discriminating against the parts of China with the highest levels of private ownership and per capital wealth. 

That’s not sound banking, or sound policy. The good news is that the situation is changing. SME are gradually taking a larger share of all lending. The change is still too slow, too incremental, as the latest figures show. But, with each cautious step, the private sector, led by entrepreneurial SME, gains potency, gains scale and gains more of the resources it needs to provide the products and services Chinese most want to buy.  


Size Matters – Why It’s Important to Build Profits Before an IPO

Qing Dynasty plate -- in blog post of China First Capital

Market capitalization plays a very important part in the success and stability of a Chinese SME’s shares after IPO. In general, the higher the market capitalization, the less volatility, the more liquidity. All are important if the shares are to perform well for investors after IPO.

There is no simple rule for all companies. But, broadly speaking, especially for a successful IPO in the US or Hong Kong, market capitalization at IPO should be at least $250 million. That will require profits, in the previous year, of around $15mn or more, based on the sort of multiples that usually prevail at IPO.

Companies with smaller market capitalizations at IPO often have a number of problems. Many of the larger institutional investors (like banks, insurance companies, asset management companies) are prohibited to buy shares in companies with smaller market capitalizations. This means there are fewer buyers for the shares, and in any market, whether it’s stock market or the market for apples, the more potential buyers you have, the higher the price will likely climb.

Another problem: many stock markets have minimum market capitalizations in order to stay listed on the exchange. So, for example, if a company IPOs on AMEX market in the US with $5mn in last year’s profits, it will probably qualify for AMEX’s minimum market capitalization of $75 million. But, if the shares begin to fall after IPO, the market capitalization will go below the minimum and AMEX will “de-list” the company, and shares will stop trading, or end up on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets. Once this happens, it can be very hard for a company’s share price to ever recover.

In general, the stock markets that accept companies with lower profits and lower market capitalizations, are either stock markets that specialize in small-cap companies (like Hong Kong’s GEM market, or the new second market in Shenzhen), or stock markets with lower liquidity, like OTCBB or London AIM.

Occasionally, there are companies that IPO with relatively low market capitalization of around RMB300,000,000 and then after IPO grow fast enough to qualify to move to a larger stock market, like NASDAQ or NYSE. But, this doesn’t happen often. Most low market capitalization companies stay low market capitalization companies forever.

Another consideration in choosing where to IPO is “lock up” rules. These are the regulations that determine how long company “insiders”, including the SME ownerand his family, must wait before they can sell their shares after IPO. Often, the lock up can be one year or more.

This can lead to a particularly damaging situation. At the IPO, many investment advisors sell their shares on the first day, because they are often not controlled by a lock up and aren’t concerned with the long-term, post-IPO success of the SME client.  They head for the exit at the first opportunity.

These sales send a bad signal to other investors: “if the company’s own investment advisors don’t want to own the shares, why should we?” The closer it gets to this time when the lock up ends, the further the share price falls. This is because other investors anticipate the insiders will sell their shares as soon as it becomes possible to do so.

There are examples of SME bosses who on day of IPO owned shares in their company worth on paper over $50 million, at the IPO price. But, by the time the lock up ends, a year later, those same shares are worth less than $5mn. If it’s a company with a lot market capitalization, there is probably very little liquidity. So, even when the SME bosshas the chance to sell, there are no buyers except for small quantities.

The smaller the market capitalization at IPO, the more risky the lock-in is for the SME boss. It’s one more reason why it’s so important to IPO at the right time. The higher an SME’s profits, the higher the price it gets for its shares at IPO. The more money it raises from the IPO, the easier it is to increase profits after IPO and keep the share price above the IPO level.   This way, even when the lock up ends, the SME boss can personally benefit when he sells his shares.

Of all the reasons to IPO, this one is often overlooked: the SME boss should earn enough from the sale of his shares to diversify his wealth. Usually, an SME boss has all his wealth tied up in his company. That’s not healthy for either the boss or his shareholders. Done right, the SME boss can sell a moderate portion of his shares after lock in, without impacting the share price, and so often for the first time, put a  decent chunk of change in his own bank account.

We give this aspect lot of thought in planning the right time and place for an SME’s IPO. We want our clients’ owners and managers to do well, and have some liquid wealth. Too often up to now, the entrepreneurs who build successful Chinese SMEs do not benefit financially to anything like the extent of the cabal of advisors who push them towards IPO. 

 

 

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