Feel the Heat

China Banks' Stealth Meltdown

A crackdown on consumer lending would hurt mid-sized lenders the most.
Photographer: rzoze19/Getty Images

China's banks are in trouble again.

With global markets in turmoil, the sell-off on the mainland hasn't generated as many headlines. That shouldn't be the case. In just four days, banks on the CSI 300 Index tumbled on average almost 11 percent, erasing the benchmark's entire gain this year.

In part, it's because lenders were rallying too fast, as I warned last month.

But traders are also blaming local media reports that say the China Banking Regulatory Commission will make cutting consumer debt a top policy consideration this year.

That news alone can sink bank stocks. Since Guo Shuqing took over as chairman of the CBRC 12 months ago, he's made reining in the sale of wealth-management products -- a huge money-spinner for banks -- a priority. Financial institutions fell in line quickly, as evidenced by the decline in investment receivables. 1

In just six months, China CITIC Bank Corp. culled its investment receivables by almost half to 585 billion yuan ($92 billion) as of Sept. 30. That figure must be even smaller now after Beijing fired another warning shot in November. It's a similar picture at other mid-sized lenders such as China Everbright Bank Co. and China Minsheng Banking Corp.

Purchasing Power

China Citic's wealth-management products contracted sharply in 2017, while consumer loans rose

Source: Bloomberg

But banks have to make money somehow. Replacing wealth-management products has been an explosion in consumer loans, from mortgages to auto and cash advances. Financial institutions in China lent 6.2 trillion yuan to households last year, up 30 percent from 2016. Should the CBRC turn its blowtorch on that revenue stream as well, bank earnings will take a hit.

To be sure, the biggest will get by just fine. They can always rely on their strong deposit franchises for cheap funding and continue lending to low-risk state-owned enterprises. It's more difficult for mid-sized banks, which rely on the interbank market for funding. Three-month Shibor is at 4.8 percent versus 2.8 percent in September 2016.

Squeezed

China's smaller banks, which rely on the interbank market for funding, will see profit margins shrink as rates increase

Source: Bloomberg

One may argue that stock market fluctuations don't matter. But in this case they do, because China's smaller banks are eager to shore up capital as they brace for stricter cushioning rules. According to UBS Group AG analyst Jason Bedford, bringing the sector's core Tier 1 capital ratio to 10 percent would require more than 1 trillion yuan of capital raising, with smaller and policy banks bearing much of the burden.

In August, Bank of Jiangsu Co. reopened the A-share IPO market for lenders, one that had been dormant since Everbright's listing in 2010. Since then, more than 5 billion yuan of proceeds have been raised and there are about 20 more financial institutions in the queue. If stocks sink, banks will find tapping public markets difficult because of the unspoken rule that new bank shares can't be sold below book.

Open Sesame

China's A-share IPO market re-opened in late 2016 after a long drought. It can snap shut again if bank shares tumble

Source: Bloomberg

I understand Beijing's argument for deleveraging, but cracking down on consumer lending as well as wealth management seems too onerous, especially on the nation's smaller lenders. They're the ones providing credit to the real economy, while China's big four banks can afford to hibernate.

For everyone else, this will be a real wake-up call.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
  1. Which is where Chinese banks store on-balance-sheet wealth-management products.

To contact the author of this story:
Shuli Ren in Hong Kong at sren38@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katrina Nicholas at knicholas2@bloomberg.net

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