How Chinese Banks Lowering Foreign Debt & Facilitating Outflows

Brad Setser at the Council of Foreign Relations has a good piece on the Chinese FX position with an interesting point about the state of Chinese bank FX holdings. He makes the very interesting point that Chinese depository corporations foreign assets have continued rising pretty much on trend for quite some time, but after August 11, foreign liabilities of banks have plunged.  He posits that this is a good thing, indicative of financial strength via rapid increase in net FX holdings, and that the PBOC has higher level of implied FX reserves than is understood.

I think there is another much more likely explanation that is supported by the data that leads to a different conclusion.

Before we even dive into the data, think about the point that Chinese bank foreign assets have risen effectively on trend (an important point) but foreign liabilities have dropped significantly.  On the face of it, this should strike you as very odd.  The primary input for a bank is either deposits or liabilities that they then use to lend or purchase a fixed income asset.  If a bank has significant drop in its input, how does it maintain trend growth of its output?  Put another way, where are Chinese banks getting the foreign currency (deposits or liabilities) they use to increase foreign assets?

Let me reframe this away from banking.  What if Starbucks reported that coffee drink sales had doubled but they also reported a 50% fall in bulk coffee purchasing?  Would seem on its face a little odd.  Had prices changed significantly? Had they changed their formulas? What was happening to cause sales of coffee and purchases of coffee to go strongly in the opposite directions? That is effectively what is happening here.

So this leads us to dive into the data. How are Chinese banks funding foreign asset purchases while reducing foreign liabilities? Where is the foreign currency coming from?

The rapid drop in foreign liabilities is likely disguising capital outflows and hiding debt. I know of Chinese and major MNCs that are effectively being blocked from engaging in FX transactions but allowed to conduct a variation on this theme.  Here is how this happens.  A company wants to move money out of China but is refused the FX so is forced to keep RMB in China.  A bank, typically a major bank, offers to arrange the transaction for them like this.  The client deposits money at the bank offering the cash as collateral. The bank arranges for a swap with an offshore entity to then lend USD/EUR/JPY whatever the client wants in the jurisdiction, backed by the secured cash.  There is no explicit movement of capital between China and other jurisdictions and there is no foreign currency liability.

It must be noted that while we cannot say with perfect certainty this is what is happening, all evidence supports this hypothesis.  Besides the anecdotal evidence let me give you some supporting data.  Bank of China and ICBC (PDFs) in their 2016 annual reports give evidence of this behavior.  BoC’s and ICBC’s notional amount of FX swaps grew by $125 billion and $69 billion.  In other words, the amount of money that they have worked to provide swaps for, in these two banks alone, is up almost $200 billion in 2016.

Market data supports this move to supporting outflows via the swap market.  In January 2015, turnover in FX swaps was about a third of the spot market.  In between  August and October 2015, the FX swap and spot market equalized (notice the timing) and now the swap market is about one third larger than the spot market.  Since May 2015, FX spot market turnover is up a pedestrian 15%, but FX swap turnover in China is up 73%.

But wait, there’s more! FX spot market transactions between banks and their clients from May 2015 to 2017 is down 6% while interbank FX swap volume is up 82% during this same time.  Now the interbank FX swap market is 271% larger than the FX spot market for bank clients.  Then we see that Chinese banks are significant net buyers from customers of FX in the spot market.  Taken together this implies that Chinese banks are soaking up hard currency into China and arranging for outflows via FX swaps that do not actually facilitate currency flows from China to the rest of the world.

It is worthy to note that while many people believe the RMB has gone global, most central banks hold minimal if any RMB.  What they have are currency swap agreements that allow them to access RMB when needed and the PBOC to access foreign currency when needed.  Given that bankers inside and outside of China treat BoC as effectively a branch of the Chinese Ministry of Finance, it is likely BoC engaging in various types of swaps agreements to give it overseas hard currency funding sources that keep its primarily liabilities in RMB.

There are a few final points of note. First, if Chinese banks moved rapidly out of actual foreign currency liabilities and into swaps to fund overseas asset purchases, this would explain the trend growth in bank foreign assets but the drop in liabilities. Swaps are not accounted for based up the notional liability amount but on a “fair value basis”.  If the banks engage in currency swaps and then use the currency to fund foreign asset purchases, this serves to effectively undercount the liability by carrying it at fair value and double counting the asset at 1+fair carrying value.

Second, it is important to note that depending on exactly who is holding these swaps and how balanced the book is, this implies that the FX has not fallen at all if there is sudden movement in the RMB.  These are simply implied liabilities.  For instance, BoC is carrying FX swaps equal to a notional value of 5.36 trillion RMB or nearly $800 billion USD but they carry these on their books as liabilities equal to only 87 billion RMB or $13 billion USD.         The accounting value is equal to 1.6% of the notional value.  While on the face of it this appears relatively standard accounting value liabilities, it is important to note this underlying issue.

Third, if the PBOC needed to access Chinese bank assets, their net asset position is being overstated. The foreign currency can fund loans for foreign asset purchases that are recorded on group balance sheets as loans to customers but record only a fraction of the liability used to raise the foreign currency overstating the net asset position. It would also appear to overstate the liquidity of such assets if the PBOC ever needed to coordinate such actions.

I hope this is clear as these are some more technical issues. However, I think it is fair to say that this is much more likely scenario that does not lead to such a rosy outcome.

Here are two good primers on FX swaps from the Bank for International Settlements and Wikipedia.

Some Friday Thoughts

I haven’t had chance to complete a couple of analyses that I have planned but I wanted to bang out a couple of thoughts.  First, a couple of follow up thoughts to my Bloomberg View piece on MSCI including China. Second, some thoughts on the news Chinese regulators asked banks to review loans made to Anbang, HNA, Dalian, and others.

People frequently mistake my writings that I do not want China to join the international market place.  Nothing could be further from the truth. I think opening up Chinese financial markets in both directions is good for Chinese and foreign financial markets.  I think for many reasons the RMB becoming a major international currency is a good thing.  I think, and I will provide stronger evidence of this in upcoming writings, that opening Chinese capital markets specifically in equities and fixed income is a good thing.

What was so problematic about the MSCI piece is that pretty much all of the problems they cited last year still exist and some have even gotten worse.  Their entire announcement focuses on issues that they had never before prioritized and additionally programs that had been in existence before.  Near end they spend a paragraph basically restating all the problems they cited last year and saying they hope these things change in the future.  In other words, little has changed but MSCI decided to admit China anyway.

There are a couple of things, if history such as the IMF is any guide, that MSCI acceptance means.  First, this is the end of capital market reform. Maybe some more on the bond market because MSCI hasn’t included China is MSCI bond indexes but for various reasons which I won’t get into at the moment, that is may not be terribly important.  Whatever impetus for Chinese reform is effectively dead, not that there was much before.

Second, there is no rule(s) that won’t be bent by firms to appease Beijing.  I am a big believer in markets but there is no part of Chinese financial markets that is remotely market oriented.  This is setting up all kinds of problems that will need to be dealt with later.  If there is one thing that we have learned not just in the financial industry, ignoring these risks will frequently catch up with you at some point. However, smashing every rule of what constitutes a market is creating lots of risks.

I’m actually very sympathetic to the dilemmas faced by MSCI. I was talking a fund manager recently who said he was torn recently. As he said, they clearly have such enormous regulatory and structural issues that really haven’t been dealt with but they are also too big to ignore.  However, any real hope that MSCI may hold out for continued reform, if history is any guide, is now dead.

Probably the height of irony that just proves my point is that MSCI says it actually has to implement the inclusion due to continued market restrictions. The day it was announced, China reminded MSCI of market regulations that let us just say create problems.

Briefly on the matter of the Chinese regulators telling banks to review loans made to HNA, Anbang, Dalian, and others. I should note that parts here are speculative and anyone who tells you they really know really does not.

First, we should not be under any illusions that these firms are in anyway ethically or legally saints.  At best they have pushed the boundaries of what even in China was considered legal and would definitely be allowed any place else.

Second, it is important to note that these firms were widely encouraged not just in their overseas acquisitions but their domestic build up.  There is a mountain of evidence and other information that these firms were encouraged to do the behavior that is now being called into question.  I do not mean to say this to necessarily defend them but more to provide context on these events.

Third, this begets the questions, so what exactly is going on?  To me there are three basic possibilities (with many variations on these themes). A. Regulators are going through standard management and regulatory processes and these companies just happened to run afoul of the rules.  This is possible but I think less likely.  While these firms may have been the biggest, there are so many firms that could be hauled in for the exact same types of behavior that these firms engaged in.  So why these firms now?

  1. There are political motivations. I think this is more likely than the previous option but not the most likely option. This is what amounts to an election year in China, really only a few months away at this point, so this is not a good look for a regime emphasizing stability and progress.  It is possible they are trying to send a message to other firms but seems like the bigger message is not one they want to be sending right now.  In short, I think it is possible there are political motivations at play here but not the most likely.
  2. I think the most likely explanation is that there are very real financial stresses. I think there is a wealth of evidence of increasing financial stress in Chinese markets.  One thing that has become abundantly clear in Chinese markets is that problems arise unexpectedly and there is always a massive amount of information that should have been revealed before.  I have no secret information but I believe this is the most likely explanation though others are always possible.

Are Chinese Bank Recapitalizations Monetary Neutral?

So a couple of people that I know and some that I don’t know zeroed in, in my last post, on a couple of monetary issues.  They raised some important questions and so I think it is important answer them as best I can based upon what I think we observe in China.

The basic idea that is being objected to is that bank recapitalizations can be monetary neutral.  Before we even discuss the mechanics of bank recapitalizations, it is important that everyone knows what we mean by monetary neutral.  Assume country A has a fixed exchange rate and decides to recapitalize their banks. If they increase the base money supply by a non-trivial amount that could cause pressure and ultimately some form of a devaluation/depreciation.

Now it is very important to note that a bank recapitalization can be monetary neutral but can also violate the concept of monetary neutrality.  So in other words, it is entirely possible that they are right that a bank recapitalization could be monetary neutral, but it could also be false.

Let me give you two very simple examples to illustrate the difference.  Assume a bank needs to increase its capital base, for any number of reasons, and does a secondary rights offering selling shares to the market to meet capital adequacy ratios.  If they offer the shares to the market and the market buys the shares, there has been no increase in the money supply. Investors with existing capital chose between   different investment options. This simple example could be expanded to cover a pre-emptive, hypothetical, type of recapitalization where the Chinese Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) orders all banks in China to sell shares to the market to ensure high capital levels. In these instances, there has been no increase in the Chinese money supply. We have not violated the principle of monetary neutrality.

However, it is also very easy to violate the principle of monetary neutrality.  Assume now that a bank has made a bad loan but the government wants to ensure continued lending and investment growth.  The government does not want the market to buy the shares because that would divert capital used for other investment purposes and it would dilute the governments shareholding.  To solve this problem the central bank prints money to buy assets of some kind from the bank to give them capital continue lending. This results in a tangible and could be material increase to the money supply.

To make this example tangible, assume the bank has $1,000 in loans, $900 in deposits, and $100 in capital (I am being very very simple here). If the bank has a shock with NPL’s rising to 10%, assuming depositors lose nothing, the banks capital of $100 is wiped out.  However, the central bank prints money and offers to buy the bad loan at face value of $100. The bank gets $100, returns its NPL ratio to 0%, and can resume lending. The money supply has gone up but the objectives of continuing to lend with functioning banks has been achieved.

Let’s briefly consider similar but very importantly not identical situations.  Both the Bank of Japan and the Federal Reserve have engaged in quantitative easing whereby they print money to buy sovereign debt issued by their respective governments.  The European Central Bank has engaged in a similar strategy buying a variety of sovereign and high credit quality corporate debt.  Absolutely no one disputes these actions are not monetary neutral. They are in fact quantitative easing.  If the PBOC is printing money engaging in balance sheet expansion to fund monetary easing, even if it is purchasing assets from banks or engaging in quasi lending to banks, this will count as monetary easing violating monetary neutrality.

Forecasting into the future is always difficult and it is entirely possible that if there were some type of “event” where these mechanisms would be discussed, it is possible that China could choose a mechanism that did not violate monetary neutrality.  However, if we look at recent Chinese behavior, we have a very good example that clearly violates monetary neutrality.

In what I believe is one of the most overlooked events in recent Chinese history and will likely in time occupy a more central focus of analysis, Beijing conducted a full fledged bailout of local governments and the bad debts Chinese banks held.  The banks who held vast sums of debt, with even much of it now unlikely to be repaid, were ordered to convert short term high interest loans into 10 year low interest bonds.  As a simple example, a 1 year 7% loan became a 10 year 3% bond. If these debts blew up, this would have had an enormous negative impact on bank capital levels and restricted their ability to lend but also the bailout plan would have restricted their ability to lend.

Beijing came up with a solution when the bankers resisted. Local government bonds could be sold to the PBOC for money that would then be used to make new loans.  This solution effectively wiped out local government debts and “recapitalized” banks by relieving them of bad debts allowing them to speed up new lending.  It should come as absolutely no surprise that lending in China really surged roughly 6-9 months after this plan was first announced.

However, and very important to return to our earlier discussion, it completely violated the principle of monetary neutrality.  The PBOC was printing money to buy assets from the banks.  How do we know this? Chinese data tells us this is exactly what is happening.

In January 2015, prior to any discussion of a local government bailout, PBOC claims on other depository corporations stood at 2.6 trillion RMB but by April 2017 that stood at 8.45 trillion. That is an increase of 5.9 trillion RMB or $852 billion.  In other words, the PBOC has spent the last two years buying large amounts of assets from Chinese banks and importantly exactly as it said it would. This was announced and agreed to by Chinese banks to sell the PBOC bad debts. This is not a shock.

Let me put this number in a little perspective for you in a variety of ways. This 5.9 trillion RMB is equal to 21% of the growth in total loans during this time frame.  This is equal to 38% of net capital for the entire commercial banking industry in China.  This is equal to 1,098% of the growth in M0 over this time frame.  As a slight tangent here, I use M0 here rather than M2, or other potential measures, as the PBOC controls the printing presses to print RMB but they do not directly control for our purposes here broader money measures such as deposits which are also related to history and asset prices. These broader measures are outside the immediate and direct control of the PBOC.  In short, as we can see the purchases of the PBOC are significant by any related financial measure.

Probably the biggest impact of this shadow “recapitalization” is that the banks did not have to declare bad loans reducing their capital base and lending growth. By selling via some form of a repurchase agreement, the banks were able to maintain that loan on their books as a standard loan.  Just as other forms of asset purchases by central banks keep capital costs low and stimulate investment/public spending, so the PBOC purchases here are designed to do this using the banks as conduits.

Now I can already hear an understandable objection. This is not a recapitalization because the PBOC is just holding assets as a collateral they are not recapitalizing the banks.  Possible (which I will return to in a moment) but in the short term, irrelevant for what we are discussing here.  In the short run, the PBOC is clearly violating the principle of monetary neutrality.  Just think of how big the drop in lending would have been, not even assuming second order/dynamic effects, from just backing out the PBOC purchases.  Assuming a not insignificant numbers of these pledged assets are bad assets, think of what that does to bank capital.  Banks are making loans with money that did not previously exist printed by the PBOC to further stimulate lending. We have violated monetary neutrality.

The question I briefly circle back to is whether the PBOC is actually recapitalizing.  I would humbly submit a couple of points of importance here that violate the presumption of standard central bank lending that lead us to the conclusion this is a type of recapitalization.  For starters, we cannot consider 228% growth in just over two years as standard and normal growth.  This is clearly far outside the bounds of normal financial growth even by Chinese standards.  Then, and though we cannot say for certain, given that the most likely scenario is that the PBOC is buying distressed, bad, or low quality loans, this absolutely has to count as non-normal lending practice.

However, probably the most important question is what is the nature of the capital here? By that I mean, does the PBOC seem likely to pull credit and the what happens when the underlying loan is either repaid or is defaulted on? On the first part, I believe it is extremely unlikely that the PBOC will pull the credit facility because this was the whole point of the local government bailout.  Banks would only go along if they had a place to effectively dump these low yield junk/NPL bonds. More importantly is whether this is a “recapitalization” or just standard asset lending by central banks. Given that the PBOC is accepting, most likely, very low quality debt, this is not standard central bank lending.

The question then focuses on the capital supplied by the PBOC.  If the underlying debt is repaid, then the PBOC is repaid and no “recapitalization” has taken place.  So then what about the scenario if the underlying debtor defaults?  In most every system I am aware of and I would assume the same for China, though I cannot say for sure, during a repo, which is likely the type of transaction taking place or a similar transaction when a lender pledges a fixed income security as collateral to borrow if the debtor of the fixed income security defaults while the security is used as collateral for borrowing, the original lender can be held liable for the bad debt. Put another way, if ICBC holds a bond of province X, ICBC takes that bond to the PBOC and sells that bond agreeing to repurchase it in say 5 years, if the province defaults during those 5 years, the PBOC can pursue ICBC to make good the bad debt portion.  Here is what I think is important: assume province X defaults on the bond ICBC sold to the PBOC, I think the probability PBOC would pursue ICBC for damages to recoup losses as above zero but very very low.  In this scenario, the PBOC has effectively recapitalized a bank absorbing the loss they should have suffered.

Circling back to our original questions, while I think it is possible that recapitalizations can be monetary neutral, in China this is clearly not the historical case and would I believe be unlikely in the future. Furthermore, while not all of the new money supply will be “recapital” into banks as some of the securities held by the PBOC sold to them by banks will be repaid, I would deem it highly unlikely that the PBOC would pursue bad debt claims against Chinese banks in the event of default. Banks would in this case receive a backdoor recapitalization by not suffering losses they should have suffered.  It is quite likely, the PBOC is the new Superbad asset management company for China.