From The Economist print edition
THE bill for China’s bank-lending spree is coming due. An announcement on February 23rd by China’s fifth-largest lender, the Bank of Communications (BoCom), of a 42 billion yuan ($6.15 billion) rights offering, created a stir in Asian financial markets—not because it was unexpected, but because it represents the biggest fund-raising effort by a mainland company since the heady days of 2007.
The move follows similar announcements by two other Chinese financial institutions, the Bank of China and China Merchants Bank. Smaller institutions have also been busily raising money, either through initial public offerings or direct placements to state-owned industrial companies. All told, some 200 billion-250 billion yuan has been raised in the past six months, according to Bill Stacey, an analyst with Aviate Global, a Hong Kong brokerage firm.
At the very least the money is needed to offset a massive lending boom last year. To augment stimulus spending by the central government, China’s state-controlled banks expanded their balance-sheets by one-third, or almost 10 trillion yuan. An increase in loans inevitably requires an increase in capital in order to maintain prudent buffers. When expansion of credit occurs gradually, this can come from reinvested profits. When lending explodes as it did in China, fresh funds are a necessity.
By raising money, BoCom’s core Tier-1 capital ratio will jump from a barely adequate 8% to more than 10.4%. Believers in China’s banking system will say this not only fills the capital hole but creates room for yet more growth ahead. Sceptics will lean toward another conclusion, wondering whether the capital boost is an effort to get ahead of a massive surge in bad debts that will emerge from the remarkable surge in credit last year.
There is no hard evidence yet for this concern. Quite the opposite. Ratios tied to non-performing loans held by Chinese banks have been improving. But that is arguably a worry in itself: turbocharged credit creation rarely, if ever, comes without a cost. Anecdotal reports abound that regulators are requiring banks to put aside reserves for as much as 200% of non-performing loans, an egregious amount unless the underlying accounts are suspect.
Such opacity in book-keeping may have been common several years ago, say the system’s supporters, but is less feasible now because Chinese banks have been listed on exchanges, and so answer not only to the Chinese government but also to shareholders, who would not permit credit to be subject to political goals. Reports this week that Chinese banks have been told by their regulators to lend more to small businesses and less to the financing arms of local governments suggests that the truth is rather different.