Gordon G. Chang, Forbes.com
On Friday, Chinese state media reported that China Credit Trust Co. warned investors that they may not be repaid when one of its wealth management products matures on January 31, the first day of the Year of the Horse.
The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China sold the China Credit Trust product to its customers in inland Shanxi province. This bank, the world's largest by assets, on Thursday suggested it will not compensate investors, stating in a phone interview with Reuters that "a situation completely does not exist in which ICBC will assume the main responsibility."
There should be no mystery why this investment, known as "2010 China Credit-Credit Equals Gold #1 Collective Trust Product," is on the verge of default. China Credit Trust loaned the proceeds from sales of the 3.03 billion-yuan ($496.2 million) product to unlisted Shanxi Zhenfu Energy Group, a coal miner. The coal company probably is paying something like 12% for the money because Credit Equals Gold promised a 10% annual return to investors--more than three times current bank deposit rates--and China Credit Trust undoubtedly took a hefty cut of the interest.
Zhenfu was undoubtedly desperate for money. One of its vice chairmen was arrested in May 2012 for taking deposits without a banking license, undoubtedly trying to raise funds through unconventional channels. In any event, the company was permitted to borrow long after it should have been stopped--reports indicate that it had accumulated 5.9 billion yuan in obligations. Zhenfu, according to one Chinese newspaper account, has already been declared bankrupt with assets of less than 500 million yuan.
The Credit Equals Gold product is not the first troubled WMP, as these investments are known, to risk nonpayment, but Chinese officials have always managed to make investors whole. CITIC Trust did that in 2013 on a steel-loan product in Hubei province, and a mysterious third-party guarantee rescued a Hua Xia Bank WMP. An investment marketed by ICBC's Suzhou branch was similarly repaid.
There has never been a default--other than one of timing--of a WMP, so the Credit Equals Gold product could be the first. If it is, it will edge out the WMP that invested in loans to Liansheng Resources Group, another Shanxi coal miner. Jilin Trust packaged Liansheng's loans into a wealth management product sold by China Construction Bank , the country's second-largest lender by assets, to its customers. Liansheng is in bankruptcy, and it looks like the WMP holders will not be repaid in full.
A WMP default, whether relating to Liansheng or Zhenfu, could devastate the Chinese banking system and the larger economy as well. In short, China's growth since the end of 2008 has been dependent on ultra-loose credit first channeled through state banks, like ICBC and Construction Bank, and then through the WMPs, which permitted the state banks to avoid credit risk. Any disruption in the flow of cash from investors to dodgy borrowers through WMPs would rock China with sky-high interest rates or a precipitous plunge in credit, probably both. The result? The best outcome would be decades of misery, what we saw in Japan after its bubble burst in the early 1990s.
Most analysts don't worry about a WMP default. Their argument is that the People's Bank of China, the central bank, is encouraging a failure of the Zhenfu product to teach investors to appreciate risk and such lesson will improve the allocation of credit nationwide. Furthermore, they reason the central authorities would never allow a default to threaten the system.
Observers make the logical argument that "to have a market meltdown, you have to have a market" and China does not have one. Instead, Beijing technocrats dictate outcomes.
That's correct, but that is also why China is now heading to catastrophic failure. Because Chinese leaders have the power to prevent corrections, they do so. Because they do so, the underlying imbalances become larger. Because the underlying imbalances become larger, the inevitable corrections are severe. Downturns, which Beijing hates, are essential, allowing adjustments to be made while they are still relatively minor. The last year-on-year contraction in China's gross domestic product, according to the official National Bureau of Statistics, occurred in 1976, the year Mao Zedong died.
Why will China's next correction be historic in its severity? Because Chinese leaders will prevent adjustments until they no longer have the ability to do so. When they no longer have that ability, their system will simply fail. Then, there will be nothing they can do to prevent the freefall.
We are almost at that critical point, as events last June and December demonstrate. The PBOC did not try to tighten credit as analysts said in June and December; it simply did not add liquidity. The failure to add liquidity caused interbank rates to soar and banks to default on their interbank obligations. In the face of the resulting crises, the central bank backed down both times, injecting more money into state banks and the economy. So Chinese leaders showed us twice last year that they now have no ability--or no will--to deal with the most important issue they face, the out-of-control creation of debt.
There are rumors that local authorities in Shanxi will either find cash so that Liansheng can pay back its loans or force institutions to roll over the WMP marketed by Jilin Trust. Similarly, there are suggestions that ICBC, despite its we're-not-responsible statement, will produce dough for the Credit Equals Gold investors. Others say China Credit Trust, China's third-largest such group as measured by assets, will repay investors in part. Repayment will avoid an historic default and postpone a reckoning. In all probability, authorities will be able to get past Zhenfu if they try to do so.
Even if Beijing makes sure there is no default on January 31, we should not feel relief. Just as Zhenfu followed Liansheng, there will be another WMP borrower on the edge of disaster after Zhenfu. And there are many Lianshengs and Zhenfus out there. There may have been 11 trillion yuan in WMPs at the end of last year.
And at the same time China's money supply and credit are still expanding. Last year, the closely watched M2 increased by only 13.6%, down from 2012's 13.8% growth. Optimists say China is getting its credit addiction under control, but that's not correct. In fact, credit expanded by at least 20% last year as money poured into new channels not measured by traditional statistics. That appears to be in excess of credit expansion in 2012.
Even if credit expansion slowed last year, Silvercrest Asset Management's Patrick Chovanec tells us why we should be concerned. As he wrote today, "Looking purely at the decline in the year-on-year rate of credit expansion is kind of like arguing that if I chase my shot of vodka with a pint of beer, I'm actually exercising moderation because the alcohol proof level of my drinks is falling."
Gordon G. Chang is a contributor to Forbes.com. He writes primarily on China, Asia & nuclear proliferation. Refer to original article for related links and important documentation.
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