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China’s banks – a drag on rebalancing

China's banks are a drag on China's economic restructuring:

1) More than ten years of joining WTO, China's banking sector is still largely closed off to foreign competition;

2) Most banks are state-owned, in favor of allocating capital to export sector and state-owned enterprises (or SOEs), whose bad loans are implicitly guaranteed by the government (reminiscent of Fannie and Freddie in the US).  Small-and-medium businesses find access to bank loans very difficult;

3) Interest rates are still set by Chinese government, not determined by the market. The fixed loan-to-deposit margin provides no incentives for banks to improve their risk analysis skills.

With these problems, Joseph Sternberg argues, "Don't bank on China's rebalancing". not very soon.

To see how and why this is, look at banks, which affect so much of the rest of the economy.

To start, China lacks the infrastructure of modern consumer finance, and is years—possibly decades—away from building it to the standards of the developed world. Outstanding consumer credit stands at about 13% of GDP, according to a 2009 study from McKinsey & Company, compared to 48% in Malaysia and 70% in South Korea.

Banks face significant structural and regulatory barriers to offering more consumer-finance products. One is the lack of national consumer credit ratings that would give banks greater confidence in their ability to measure credit risks. Another is that loan officers and managers still work from a mindset focused heavily on business lending.

Meanwhile, Beijing has lost a decade or more during which it could have allowed foreign banks to start developing a consumer-finance market. Thus Chinese banks have faced few competitive pressures to serve lower-income consumer borrowers themselves, so they haven't. Only in November did regulators allow a foreign company into this brand-new field. Dutch PPF Group will offer in-store financing for durable-goods purchases—the kind of installment plan that made its appearance in America 160 years ago.

More interesting is the supply side of the consumption equation. Rebalancing is not a matter of Chinese export factories losing a foreign customer and gaining a domestic one, Patrick Chovanec of Tsinghua University observes. Export factories are part of global supply chains in which someone else does the product development, logistics, marketing and retailing. Chinese export factories aren't equipped to do those things on their own. Rebalancing would cause them to lose foreign customers and go out of business, allowing entrepreneurs who are oriented toward domestic consumption to buy the assets.

China needs to reallocate capital and labor on a massive scale to orient itself toward producing goods and services that Chinese consumers want to consume. This will require major banking changes, especially improving access to credit for the small and medium-sized enterprises that make a modern consumption-driven economy tick. Both regulation and habit will get in the way.

The regulation involves interest rates: Government manages both deposit and lending rates in a way that guarantees banks a wide spread. This was intended to help banks earn themselves out of an earlier generation of nonperforming loans at the expense of households, which earn lower rates on savings deposits. And the policy could prove especially necessary if 2009's credit binge results in huge piles of bad debts.

But the policy hurts consumption by depressing household earnings on savings. It also depresses bank lending to small enterprises by discouraging bank risk-taking. Instead of taking a chance that some of their guaranteed profit margin might be eaten up by a nonperforming loan to a small start-up, banks can reap the entire spread by lending to larger state-owned enterprises whose debts the government implicitly or explicitly guarantees.

A related banking habit is insistence on physical collateral, often real estate, a stricture that favors asset-heavy state-owned companies and exporting manufacturers. Any other kind of business lending is more challenging, as it involves training each loan officer and his manager to evaluate a small firm's business plan and projections to reach a judgment on creditworthiness. And without clear laws in place for when uncollateralized loans go bad, banks will continue to prefer the comfort of having assets to seize if worse comes to worst.


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