Shadow banking fuels China's property bust

Building Brics: Developers in China hope local governments can turn ghost buildings into low-rent housing for freer movement of capital.

Ghostly skeletons of tower blocks under construction, piles of building materials at their feet, half-finished shopping malls, empty apartment buildings with no windows, serviced by dirt tracks full of potholes.

These images of half-built luxury developments have a resonance in parts of the Arabian Gulf, but they are relatively new in China. In the world's second-biggest economy, the property market has slowed significantly since the government introduced cooling measures to stop the boom turning into a bubble.

In places such as Ordos in Inner Mongolia, hundreds of projects have ground to a halt after over-investment fuelled a building boom gone bust, leaving tens of thousands of investors at risk of default.

Much of this is tied to the development of the shadow banking sector. Non-bank lending has started to grow rapidly after lending conditions were tightened following the 2009-10 credit boom.

In the search for investment options that offer more than the minimal return of a bank deposit book, investors in China have been piling into investment vehicles known as trusts, which promise high annual interest rates and a return of principal for people with more than 1 million yuan (Dh590,000) to invest.

Figures vary on the scale of shadow finance in China but not by much.

According to Wang Tao, the chief China analyst at UBS, trusts account for more than a quarter of the country's estimated US$3.35 trillion (Dh12.3tn) in non-bank lending, or about 45 per cent of China's GDP.

Trusts, the backbone of the shadow sector, had 6.3tn yuan of assets under management at the end of the third quarter, up 54 per cent from a year earlier and five times more than at the start of 2009, the Financial Times estimates.

The investment bank Sanford C Bernstein estimates shadow finance in China totals about 20tn yuan or one third of the current size of the bank lending market.

Shadow banking in China includes banks' off-balance-sheet vehicles such as commercial bills and entrusted loans, as well as underground lending by individuals. The reason it is booming in China is because the vast majority, more than 90 per cent of the nation's 42 million small and medium-sized enterprises find it difficult to get bank loans.

Two local developers from Erdos, who asked that their names be changed, are well aware of the problems.

Mr Li, in his 30s, started out as coal mine operator before moving into land speculation and property development in 2004, quickly becoming one of the biggest developers in the region.

"It was a market with great prospects back then and land prices were cheap. I built offices and residences and at the time it was easy to get money from the bank and prices rose rapidly," he says.

He accumulated plenty of capital early on. His latest project is a large multi-function entertainment centre. Construction has been completed but he has run out of liquidity to finish fitting out the interior and other aspects of the project have stopped completely.

"The problem is that national policy changed and it was practically forbidden to lend money for property development any more. Before it was easy to get money from the banks. Now it's not possible at all," says Mr Li.

Like many others in his position, he turned to the trust firms. There are 64 trust firms in China with sales offices in major cities, and they combine characteristics of commercial and investment banking, private equity and wealth management. They pool household savings to offer loans and invest in property, stocks, bonds, commodities, among other things. Apart from them, no financial firms operate across all these asset classes.

"Trusts make us nervous. Their demands are too high," says Mr Li .

If he is not able to pay back the investment in a year, the trust will take over big chunks of his property. Three years ago the trust invested 300m yuan and he paid it back in a year but the pressure was intense.

Developers are now waiting to see what happens following the 18th Communist Party congress late last year, which installed a new leadership.

"Local governments will be full of 18th party congress spirit. The central government will try to do more to improve people's livelihoods and it's possible that these ghost developments will be turned into low-rent housing, or as places to settle people who have been moved out of their homes," says Mr Li.

"Our only hope is to rely on the local government, to see if there are any new policies, to see what they can do for us. Otherwise we have no other way out."

Mr Zhao, a property developer, only started investing two years ago, spending 45m yuan on a plot of land to build a 60,000-square-metre residential development.

"The buildings are almost finished but I've had to stop building, since there is no money left any more and nobody is buying property as they have no money left. They used up their savings in the early boom years and they are not getting any return," says Mr Zhao.

He, too, is hoping the local government intervenes and buy up his ghost development to use as housing for low-income families.

One of the reasons for the rise of the shadow-banking sector has been the fact that it is difficult for Chinese investors to find place for their money. The domestic stock market is strictly limited and it is difficult for local investors to put their money overseas.

The ruling Communist Party has promised to promote freer movement of capital in and out of the country for investment purposes and to make the exchange rate more market-based.

The government has promised to keep an eye on shadow banking to make sure it does not get out of hand.

"China's non-banking financial institutions are under strict regulatory supervision, rather than free of regulation as in some countries," Zhou Xiaochuan, the central bank governor, said during the 18th Communist Party congress in November that chose Xi Jinping as China's next president.

Ms Tao, the UBS analyst, believes to address the issues raised by shadow banking and reduce risks, the government should be prioritising macro and prudential policy objectives and reform the current monetary policy management practice.

"For example, if the government is truly concerned about local government debt and the asset quality of banks, it should rely more on fiscal policy to support growth rather than encouraging credit expansion," she says.

If the government still wants to rely on credit expansion to support growth, then it should increase the outright credit quota instead of pushing banks to the less regulated channels.

"In the near future, since most shadow banking activities [such as trusts and bills] are still regulated by the same banking regulatory commission, and as the development has been recent and still modest, we do not see major systematic issues," says Ms Tao.

Xiao Gang, the management board chairman of Bank of China, warned in a recent column in the China Daily how the country's shadow banking was contributing to a growing liquidity risk in the financial markets.

"China's shadow banking system is complex, with a close yet opaque relationship to the regular banking system and the real economy. It must be tackled with care and sufficient flexibility but it must be tackled nonetheless," said Mr Xiao.

"Regular banking and shadow banking are not isolated from each other.

"Many activities in the two systems feed into each other, and could influence each other if things start to deteriorate," he wrote.