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Will China’s “Shadow Banking” System Collapse?

Credit analysts are progressively more concerned that China is heading towards a grim financial reckoning, comparable to the US housing bust in 2007 and Japan’s real estate debacle in 1989.

George Magnus, senior economic advisor to Swiss bank UBS AG, said, “The similarities to the U.S. are wanton use of the credit system to substitute for better sources of economic growth with a background of rising income inequality. These are all telltale signs of a country at a relatively advanced stage of financial instability.”

China’s household and corporate debt have simultaneously skyrocketed, from a manageable 120% of gross domestic product to an unsettling 170%, not including debts still owed by financial companies. By way of comparison, the US experienced a massive credit boom that saw a leap from 143% in 2001 to 177% in 2008. Japan, too, underwent similar transformations leading up to its virtual collapse in 1989.

Mark Williams, chief Asia economist for Capital Economics, remarked, “I don’t know any country that’s seen such a large increase in debt and not gone to on to have some form of crisis.”

One discomfiting symptom of China’s metastasizing credit disease can be clearly detected in its apparel industry, particularly high-end fashion and cosmetics. According to J Capital Research (JCR), sales have dropped more than 20 percent from June to August. Anne Stevenson-Yang, JCR analyst, said, “Durable goods appear to be stacking up in warehouses all over the country, a phenomenon that illustrates some of the distorting effects of engorging an economy on credit.” In other words, since credit is so readily available at bargain basement prices, brand owners feel free to manufacture more product that can be expected to sell.

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One problem this inventory glut papers over is that there is a wide disparity between China’s reported retail sales figures and the health of its domestic consumerism. It’s instructive to note that its National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) counts products as they are shipped from the factory rather than when actually sold. So, despite mounting evidence of consumer inactivity, the NBS reported a vigorous July, up 13.2% from last year.

According to a spokesperson from China Lilang, a prominent retailer in Beijing, “Consumer sentiment showed no sign of significant recovery, affecting many businesses.” An even stronger indictment of the situation was delivered by a representative from Belle International Holdings, “The reality behind the numbers is gloomier.”

The more telling statistics reveal aggressive household savings bordering on national cash hoarding. The average Chinese household saved a eye-opening 38 percent of its disposable income last year, a massive jump from the norm of about 20 percent that held throughout much of the 1990’s. The spokesperson from Belle International weighed in, “As a defensive reaction, consumers are becoming more inclined to save and less willing to spend.” James Roy, analyst at Consultancy China Market Research Group, concurred, “Their sentiment and confidence is very negative from what we found and so that is going to hurt some of the mid-tier consumer retail brands.”

And this is the sort of problem that conceals itself beneath a patina of good news. The initial consequence of overproduction is that it creates the illusion of growth. Many analysts contend that the true impact of unsold inventory might take a year to take full effect.

The root cause of China’s looming credit problem seems to be the banking system. A variety of specialty financial products have permitted China’s banks to continue robust lending policies despite regulatory attempts to dampen their enthusiasm. And it’s not always clear the banks don’t actually operate with their implicit imprimatur. Jaspal Bindra, Asia chief for Standard Chartered, said, “The shadow banking thing has been both known and blessed for a long time. Then I think that people have taken to a point where it’s been abused.”

The Chinese government has recently resorted to some very public interventions in order to reign in rogue lending and calm investor fears. For example, the Chinese Development Bank shut down a generous lending program maintained with a Bangladesh telecom company, citing overextension.

It’s almost impossible to determine how much of China’s credit is generated by this “shadow banking” system given that so many loans are dispensed hidden from publicly accessible balance sheets. But the concern about these loans are no longer clandestine. Bindra noted, “They were very aware and very public. It wasn’t a whisper in my ear or a secret or something. They were probably telling everybody who visited them to make their point that they know what is happening.”

Many experts have drawn parallels between China’s impending crisis and Japan’s past collapse. Japan, too, was saddled with swelling real estate prices and mounting debt, all fueled by a banking sector that had grown far too promiscuous with its increasingly reckless borrowers. Once the debts soured and the Japanese government initially dithered, the banks were left sorely undercapitalized, unable to lend, stymieing real economic growth. Just as might be the case with China, “no systemic financial crisis occurred, but financial stress was hidden”, said Haibin Zhu, J.P. Morgan’s chief Asia economist.

And China’s case might even be worse. Haibin Zhu warned, “The consequences could be more severe for China. China is not as wealthy as Japan was and so would not be able to sustain as much stress.”

And the problem could be more widespread for China than for Japan since the state own the banks. Bindra said, “The difference I think is the over-leveraging, if at all in China, is all one pocket of the state.”

It’s almost impossible to tell precisely how deeply infected China’s banking system is with underlying sickness. Officially promulgated data supports a story of general growth sustained by strident consumer confidence. However, consumer data spins a different tale of instability, and a crumbling financial sector. Analysts, though, are in agreement that a Chinese financial shock of the kind Japan experienced in 1989 would have global, and potentially catastrophic, consequences.