China’s small banks still struggling to obtain funds to lend three months after first bank failure in 20 years

Orange Wang

China’s numerous small banks are still struggling to raise the finances needed to be able to offer more loans to aid the slowing economy nearly three months after the country’s first bank failure in more than 20 years.

After the government takeover of Baoshang Bank at the end of May, larger banks and investors remain cautious about providing financing to smaller institutions, fearful that their balances sheets hide large numbers of bad loans amid a continued government clampdown on risky lending.

The slowing of the Chinese economy is putting increasing pressure on the loan portfolios of small banks, many of whose customers are the smaller, private sector business that are being hit hard by the effects of the trade war with the United States.

The government is continuing to try to boost lending to help stabilise economic growth, but the credit crunch for small lenders has held back progress.

The People’s Bank of China and the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission have taken over the management of Baoshang Bank for two years. Photo: Orange Wang

Net new national aggregate financing – a broad measure of credit and liquidity in the world’s second largest economy – slumped to 1.01 trillion yuan (US$144 billion) in July, less than half the 2.26 trillion yuan gain in June and much weaker than the expected 1.63 trillion yuan, according to the data released by the People’s Bank of China on Monday.

Much of the slowdown was due to inability of small and medium-sized banks to raise money in the interbank market, where banks lend to and borrow from each other.

This was underscored by the drop in short term securities, known as bankers’ acceptances, which decreased by 456.3 billion yuan (US$65 billion) last month, expanding on the loss of 131.2 billion yuan in June, the Chinese central bank data showed.

“That showed a rapid contraction of interbank business,” said New Times Securities chief economist Pan Xiangdong.

That showed a rapid contraction of interbank business

Pan Xiangdong

Liang Hong, chief economist at China International Capital Corporation, said that the government’s move to rein in the growth of interbank assets and unregulated shadow-banking activities was the main cause of the worse-than-expected slowdown in credit growth.

She also predicted that the deleveraging of small and medium-sized banks would continue to weigh on the overall credit expansion for the rest of the year.

Small Chinese banks, especially the group of local lenders known as city commercial banks, have found it difficult to obtain financing in the market since the government takeover of the Baoshang Bank in May, which was the first bank failure in China since 1998.

For the first time, Chinese regulators chose not to guarantee all of the deposits and investments of corporate and large interbank customers, which immediately reduced the willingness of large banks and institutional investors to lend to hundreds of smaller local banks.

Nearly three months later, small banks were still suffering from the crisis of confidence that Baoshang’s failure created, said Zhang Ping, deputy director general of the National Institution for Finance and Development.

“The [interbank] market now faces a grim situation,” said Zhang. “If [small banks] are unable to borrow a penny and can’t issue new bonds, the market will close up.”

The interest rate that regional banks have to pay to borrow money – the so-called risk premium – is now seen as so high that many smaller banks cannot afford it.

The shortage of funding, in turn, has eroded their ability to extend new loans to their corporate customers. These small banks account for more than half the lending to small and micro-sized private-sector firms, who in turn account for much of the economy’s growth and employment.

The funding struggles of small banks are reflected in the July lending data, which showed total new corporate loans plunged by two-thirds to 297.4 billion yuan (US$42.3 billion) in July, from 910.5 billion yuan (US$129.5 billion) in June.

Short-term loans declined by 219.5 billion yuan from a year ago, doubling the drop of 103.5 billion yuan recorded in the same month last year.

Guosheng Securities analyst Xiong Yuan said that the decline in short-term corporate lending showed banks’ weakening appetite to lend due to the growing list of small lenders that have fallen into trouble.

The [interbank] market now faces a grim situation. If [small banks] are unable to borrow a penny and can’t issue new bonds, the market will close up

Zhang Ping

In the latest example highlighting the problems facing small banks, HengFeng Bank, a regional lender based in the city of Yantai in Shandong province, was last month taken over by Central Huijian Investment, a Chinese government-owned investment fund, according to a report by the Shanghai Securities News earlier this month.

In April, trading in the shares of the Hong Kong-listed Bank of Jinzhou was suspended before the bank was bailed out with capital injections from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the country’s largest lender by assets, and two of China’s four largest state-controlled distressed debt managers, China Cinda Asset Management and China Great Wall Asset Management, last month.

All three banks – Baoshang, Jinzhou and HengFeng – were linked to fugitive financier Xiao Jianhua. The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC) said in a statement in early June that Xiao’s Tomorrow Group had sold its holdings in more than 10 financial institutions as part of a state-mandated process of divesting assets to reduce financial risks. The CBIRC also confirmed that the financial institutions in which Tomorrow Group still owned stakes were in a stable condition.

“Expect more bailouts, takeovers, and consolidations to come,” analysts at Trivium China said. “Baoshang was the start of a trend for China’s small banks – not a one-off.”

The remark was echoed by Zhang from the National Institution for Finance and Development, who said that the credit crunch for small and medium-sized lenders would last into the second half of the year.

Last month, trading in the shares of the Hong Kong-listed Bank of Jinzhou was suspended after the bank was bailed out with capital injections from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. Photo: Shutterstock

“The fears of [big] institutions [to lend to regional banks] are still there,” he said, even though, unlike the failure of Baoshang, the full amount of money held by depositors and investors in Jinzhou was guaranteed in the rescue.

In the second week of August there some signs of improvement in the interbank market, with city commercial banks able to sell 75 per cent of their funding securities, up from 61 per cent during the previous week and close to the level before the Baoshang failure.

However, lower-rated institutions were still having problems, with AA rated banks only able to sell 37 per cent of their securities.

“The total volume [of funding securities] looks to be no problem, but the funds are really not flowing to [institutions with] AA or lower ratings,” Zhang said.

HengFeng Bank, a regional lender based in the city of Yantai in Shandong province, was last month taken over by Central Huijian Investment, a Chinese government-owned investment fund. Photo: Weibo

The credit drought that regional lenders face will not be solved by the government simply pumping more money into the banking system, he added, suggesting more targeted solutions were needed.

Added to the woes of small bank, and given cause for the reluctance to lend to them, their non-performing loan (NPL) ratios has been rising since last year.

The average NPL ratio of city commercial banks jumped to 2.30 per cent by the end of June from 1.88 at the end of March. In contrast, the ratio of large commercial banks improved to 1.26 per cent at the end of June from 1.32 per cent at the end of the first quarter.

And, as of August 6, more than 20 city and rural commercial banks had postponed disclosure of their annual reports for 2018, suggesting significant problems with their balance sheets.

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