The scale of it is almost unfathomable: over $70 trillion worldwide. The Financial Stability Board says it poses “systemic risks” to the global financial system. It’s growing at phenomenal rates in China and India and booming in Western banking capitals as well. The catchall phrase “shadow banking” encompasses risky investment products, private lending between individuals, pawnshop and loan-shark operations in emerging markets, as well as more respectable activities like derivatives, money-market funds, securities lending and repurchase agreements at financial institutions in Europe and the U.S. The common denominator is that these activities flourish outside the regular banking system and often beyond the control of regulators and monetary policy. Together they show how hard it is to restrict risky lending without causing harm.
Some risk-taking by banks has been reined in since the 2008 financial crisis; the global rise of shadow banking has not. The FSB said the sector grew to $71 trillion in 2012, an increase of $5 trillion in a year. The board earlier found increases in 70 percent of the economies it surveyed. The situation is most pressing in China. In June 2013, a government effort to curb wealth-management products resulted in the worst cash crunch in at least a decade. The value of these investments, which offer high short-term interest rates and are not guaranteed, had surged to 9.1 trillion yuan ($1.5 trillion) — almost the size of the Australian economy. Their growth caused the man who is now China’s top securities regulator to label the off-balance-sheet products a “Ponzi scheme,” because banks have to sell more each month to pay off those that are maturing. But China’s savers responded to the crackdown by scooping the products up in record numbers. Another threat to stability is China’s loosely-regulated $1.9 trillion trust industry, made up of 68 companies that sell high-yield investments to wealthy customers, frequently through banks, that are often based on risky loans to such industries as energy and property. In April, after one trust almost defaulted and at least 20 others were reported to have run into difficulty making repayments, the banking regulator ordered trusts to be prepared to make good on the investments in the event of losses, and announced a “strict” approval process for new products. About $853 billion worth of trust products are due to mature this year, 50% more than last year.
With so much money sloshing around outside the official system, shadow banking makes it harder for countries like China and India to control their economies by changing interest rates or jiggering the money supply. In India, the inflation rate stayed higher than 8 percent despite 13 interest rate hikes by the central bank in two years. Government officials simply don’t have enough control over the economy to make an impact. In China, savings deposit rates of 3 percent, lower than inflation, combined with the inability of 97 percent of small businesses to get bank loans (forcing them to turn to other sources of lending) have propelled the shadow-banking sector to an estimated $6 trillion, or 69 percent of the economy. Shadow banking raises the risk of public unrest because the government can’t provide a bailout, as it could if a bank collapses when a loan isn’t repaid. There’s no place to put the money. American and European regulators have warned of risks arising from banking activities by lightly regulated financial companies that lack access to deposit insurance and other protections.
Why don’t governments crack down? Seize control? Get a grip on all this money outside their purview? In Europe and the U.S., regulators’ concerns have been offset by fierce lobbying by the financial industry. In the developing world, the shadow-banking sector provides grease to keep economies functioning smoothly. Small businesses get the loans they need; savers get investments yielding more than inflation. And in economies with underdeveloped financial systems, like China’s and India’s, shadow banking fills a vacuum. Reining it in can be the right long-term policy, but can slow growth and raise risks in the short term. Government officials know that shadow banking presents a danger — and that they attack it at their peril.
The Reference Shelf
- Bloomberg News has a collection of articles on shadow banking.
- Financial Stability Board’s 2013 Global Shadow Banking Monitoring Report.
- A Chinese financier defends shadow banking and recounts his experiences in a book. Excerpts are at Bloomberg View.
- Bloomberg Editor-at-Large Sheridan Prasso and China Finance Reporter Jun Luo provided background on shadow banking in China in testimony submitted in March 2013 to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission of the U.S. Congress.
- A history of shadow banking in Australia.