China’s State-Owned Banks’ Missed Opportunity Opens the Way for Some Global Banks to Prosper

If ever there were a case of “a chart tells a thousand words”, it’s this one, courtesy of The Economist and Macquarie Research:

SME bank lending

At ground level here in China, it’s easy to see some of the more obvious signs of the financial distortion this chart portrays. In August last year, in the face of gathering worldwide economic slowdown, the Chinese government relaxed earlier controls on bank lending, basically instructing the state-owned banks to keep the economy and employment growing by expanding credit to businesses. Later in the year, the government lowered interest rates to further spur lending. 

My worry at the time was that most of this increase in bank lending would be channeled to the least deserving customers: the many clapped-out large state-owned enterprises, rather than the far more numerous thriving private sector companies short of cash. This would more or less defeat the purpose of the government pump-priming, since the lending would only allow some of the country’s least competitive most loss-making manufacturers to stay in business that much longer, at the expense of their better private-sector competitors. As a job-saving mechanism, it would likely be equally flawed, since most of the new lending would sustain for a little while longer bad jobs in bad businesses that should be allowed to wither. Failure is rewarded and success penalized. 

Well, the worries appear to have been very well-founded. The most deserving borrowers, China’s dynamic entrepreneurial Small & Medium Enterprises (SME), mainly came away empty-handed when all this new lending was being handed out. As the chart shows, overall bank lending to SMEs didn’t even crack 10% of total lending at four of the largest state-owned banks. With the exception of the more entrepreneur-friendly China Merchants Bank, which also happens to be the only bank on the list not owned by the central government, the large Chinese banks continued their past (bad) habits of stuffing bank loans into the tottering state-owned giants. 

The eventual outcome, of course, will be a lot more write-offs and non-performing loans inside these state-owned banks. For an abject lesson in bank lending policy, it’s hard to outdo this: the government-owned banks make loans to other government-owned bodies, which then default, causing losses at the government-owned banks that then need to be recapitalized by – you guessed it – more money from the government. 

There’s an even more malign effect: it’s actually getting harder – not easier – for China’s best-performing SMEs to obtain credit. These are the companies that are producing products consumers want, expanding employment, servicing their loans, making profits and paying taxes. The private sector now accounts for over two-thirds of China’s total economic output, and private SMEs represent the bulk of this. 

The Macquarie chart suggests the credit system of China state-owned banks is largely broken: borrowers least able to repay are those granted most of the lending. There are lots of losers in this, but no one is affected more adversely by this than the owners of China’s best SMEs. They are being locked out of the market for bank lending by Chinese banks. 

That leaves one possibility: SMEs finance their expansion through equity, rather than debt. This investment capital will come from outside the realm of China’s state-owned banks. Instead, it will largely be provided by the 100 or so private equity and venture capital firms now active in China. They have raised over $30 billion to invest in China, and the SMEs are a favorite target. 

Of course, not all SMEs will be able to raise equity. It’s generally an option only for the higher-performing SMEs with significant scale and significant presence in China’s domestic market. My company is an international investment bank working exclusively with Chinese SMEs, to help them raise equity finance from the best sources active in China, mainly the top private equity and venture capital firms.  The challenge for us, as for the private equity firms, is that too few of China’s best SME bosses know that they can access private equity investment and so escape from the perils of undercapitalization. 

For the SMEs that can raise money from international investors, this is not just the best option – but also often the only option – to finance growth. An injection of equity will deliver both the resources to grow more quickly and sizable competitive advantage against under-capitalized competitors. 

An additional advantage: by raising equity, an SME will strengthen its balance sheet and so be more likely to succeed in borrowing from one of the very good international banks with operations in China and a focused expertise on lending to Chinese SMEs: Citibank, Standard Chartered, ABN-AMRO foremost among these. I know the management in Shenzhen of all three banks. They are very well-run and very well-connected among SMEs across China. The three international banks bridge the huge gap created by Chinese state-owned banks failures to make adequate lending available to SME customers. 

For Citibank and ABN-AMRO, their current performance in China, founded on their strong presence in SME lending, is one of the only bright spots for two organizations that could do few things right elsewhere recently. Together, they lost over $30 billion last year, and Citibank is now a ward of the US government. 

Everything ABN-AMRO and Citibank did so spectacularly wrong in other countries, they do spectacularly right in China – they focus on the right clients, the right kind of products (loans to growth companies) and having steady bankers, not deal-makers, at the top.  If Citibank and ABN-AMRO are ever to recover their lost luster globally, they should learn from the example of their China operations. The banks represent two of the brightest hopes for the future financing of China’s SME entrepreneur class. 

In China today, there is no larger financial need – and no larger financial opportunity for investors – than to put additional finance into strong fast-growing private SMEs. This will allow them to grow most immediately into the leaders in China’s domestic market, and eventually, for some, into publicly-traded global businesses. 

China’s state-owned banks, meanwhile, will likely continue on their wayward path of lending to companies with more political clout than business ability. It’s a losing strategy for them. But, it’s one that creates ideal conditions for well-managed international banks in China, with the skills, market knowledge and focus to lend to SMEs (take another bow Citibank, Standard Chartered, and ABN-AMRO), to prosper alongside their SME clients.