The $15 trillion shadow over Chinese banks

China analyst Charlene Chu explains why the nation is on the verge of crisis
Charlene Chu is adamant that a Chinese banking collapse of some description is a certainty Photo: Bloomberg
01 Feb 2014
Drawing attention to the problems at an individual bank is never likely to make you popular, but calling time on an entire financial system is another thing entirely.

For eight years, until her resignation last month, Fitch banks analyst Charlene Chu has done just that, warning of the impending collapse of China’s debt-fuelled bubble.
Born and raised in America and a graduate of Yale, she has claimed in painful detail that China has embarked on an unprecedented experiment in credit expansion that far exceeds anything seen before the financial crisis that rocked Western markets six years ago.
Working out of Beijing, Chu has developed a reputation that has seen her hailed by some of the world’s most important money managers as a “heroine” and treated as a pariah by some within China’s financial elite.
In a country where the banks, even the largest, are not known for openness, Chu has warned since 2009 about a rapid expansion in lending that has seen something close to $15 trillion (£9.1 trillion) of credit created, fuelling a property and infrastructure boom that has no equal in history.
To say her warnings have been unusual is to underestimate quite how important her contributions have been. Chu has explained the creation – from a standing start just five years ago – of a shadow banking industry in China that today is responsible for as many loans in terms of volume as the country’s entire mainstream financial system.
Speaking for the first time since her departure from Fitch last year, Chu, who has taken a new job at Autonomous, the respected independent research firm, says she remains adamant that a Chinese banking collapse of some description remains not just an outside chance, but a certainty.
“The banking sector has extended $14 trillion to $15 trillion in the span of five years. There’s no way that we are not going to have massive problems in China,” she says.
Behind these problems lie a baffling range of “trusts”, “wealth management products” and foreign-currency borrowings that have allowed indebtedness to expand even as the authorities have attempted to clamp down on mainstream lending by the big banks.
Chu’s warnings have carried particular weight in recent weeks as the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China backed away from a 3bn renminbi (£297m) trust it had sold to its customers. The move prompted fears this could become China’s “Bear Stearns moment”, a reference to the abandonment by the defunct US broker of several sub-prime funds in the early stages of the West’s 2007 credit crisis.
In the event, a default of the ICBC trust was averted, but Ms Chu remains clear that the linkage between the official banking system and its shadow twin remains a threat.
“Banks are often involved behind-the-scenes in a lot of this shadow product,” she said. “It’s one reason why I am always emphasising this idea that is often pushed by Chinese economists and academics that the shadow banking sector and the formal banking sector are separate and therefore, if the shadow banking sector falls apart, it does not matter.
“I just don’t agree with that because there is so much inter-linkage between the formal banking sector and the shadow banking sector and this product [the ICBC trust] is a good example.” Many take comfort that foreign currency reserves, estimated at close to $4 trillion, could be used to rescue the financial system in a crisis. Chu says such optimism is wishful thinking.
“The FX [foreign exchange] reserves cannot be used nearly to the extent that people think they can. There are some analysts that think they can’t be used at all, but I disagree with that.
“I believe they can’t be used in their entirety by any means because they are offset by the other side of the balance sheet of the PBOC [People’s Bank of China]. Because of that, you can’t just run down one side of the balance sheet, the asset side, and not deal with the liability side of the PBOC balance sheet.”
However, while Chu questions the ability of the authorities to throw money at the problem, she also says there are several reasons to think a Chinese crisis would not take the form of that seen in the West. “This is going to be different from other markets where market forces are allowed to play out. Here the authorities get involved and that means these kind of defaults can remain one-off and isolated for quite a while,” she says.
“The critical question is that, at some point are these one-off issues going to turn into a very big wave of defaults? That is going to be very difficult for the authorities to manage in the same way that they have been able to manage the one-offs.”
Taking such a pessimistic view of China’s banks has not made Chu popular either with the authorities or the lenders. Her previous employer, Fitch, last year became the first of the three main ratings agencies in 14 years to cut China’s credit rating, largely based on her analysis. READ MORE>
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