It is looking increasingly likely that the
Chinese government will provide another massive bailout for China's burdened state banks
Speculation is rife after China's
central bank governor, Zhou Xiaochuan, said to Xinhua in Mexico that "China has decided to reform its
financial system, including reducing non-performing assets and increasing
capital input to banks." The number of loans that are not being paid back
is notoriously hard to measure but estimates put the figure as high as 50 percent
GDP, or about RMB 5.5 trillion this year. The governor's statement was taken as
an indication that China
is preparing to rescue the 'big four' stateowned banks, which continue to
struggle with a non-performing loan (NPL) ratio of about 20 percent. The
eventual plan is to list the big four banks on domestic and international stock
markets but this is impossible unless the banks can bring their NPL ratio down
below the 10 percent mark. Of the four, the Agricultural Bank has been
described as a "cesspool" of bad debt and no one seriously expects it
to be listed any time soon. The ICBC is the biggest bank in China, the Bank of China has the greatest
international experience and has already listed its Hong
Kong subsidiary and the Construction Bank has the lowest
ostensible NPL ratio so these three are all candidates for listing as long as
they can get rid of some of their bad loans.
In 1998 China bailed out the big four banks by injecting RMB 270 billion of new
capital and carving out RMB 1.4 trillion of bad loans and transferring them to
four asset management companies (AMC) – Cinda, Huarong, Great Wall and Orient.
"That was supposed to be the last free lunch," according to Arthur
Kroeber, managing editor of research publication China Economic Quarterly. He
says that a fresh recapatilization is expected within the next six months but
analysts are unsure what form that will take.
The minimum effective bailout package to fully clean up the banks would need to
be about RMB 2.8 trillion according to UBS economist Jonathan Anderson, but he
estimates the actual bailout being contemplated at the moment is probably no
more than RMB 1 trillion.
According to Kroeber, the central bank and the China Banking Regulatory
Commission (CBRC) are both pushing for a cash injection while the Ministry of
Finance is reluctant to foot the bill because it would involve the government
taking on additional debt. China's
government deficit has quadrupled over the last four years.
There is research showing that the government could afford to take the NPLs off
the banks' books in their entirety but the most likely outcome will probably be
a compromise similar to that of 1998 and will include another transfer of bad
loans to the AMCs. These companies are still burdened with roughly RMB 600
billion of bad debts from the 1998 transfers but in a perverse way they may
actually welcome a fresh batch of bad assets to sell off.
Recovery rates on bad asset disposals have fallen, from about 30 percent
initially, to an average of 15 to 20 percent now as the better bad loans run
low. With a new delivery of problem loans will come a fresh injection of better
assets, which will allow the AMCs to maintain and improve their relatively high