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How the China bubble could puncture U.S. banks

How the China bubble could puncture U.S. banks

Stephen Gandel

JUNE 13, 2014, 4:46 PM EDT

China is doing the global carry trade, and that could pose major risks for U.S. banks.

The conventional wisdom is that China doesn’t hold much direct risk for U.S. banks. Sure, if China were to have a financial crisis, and if it were to fall into recession — a long way to go, considering its recent annual growth of 7% — that would do serious damage to the global economy. American banks and the U.S. economy would feel that. But in terms of direct exposure to China, U.S. banks don’t stand to lose a lot.

According to a report last week from debt rating agency Fitch, U.S. banks have a collective $83 billion in direct loan exposure to China. That isn’t very much in the scope of the U.S. banking sector. JPMorgan Chase  JPM 0.00% , alone, for instance, has over $700 billion in total loans. The entire U.S. banking sector has nearly $15 trillion in assets. For U.S. banks, China is still not that big of deal.

That appears to be changing, though. Fearing a credit bubble, a year ago, Chinese authorities sharply raised domestic interest rates to slow lending made by local banks. That opened up a huge gap between U.S. interest rates, which are around 0.50% for short-term interbank loans, and Chinese interest rates, which are 5% for short-term banks loans.

And so it appears there is easy money to be made borrowing money from the U.S. and Europe, and lending it in China. The trade’s been growing for a while, but it has attracted attention lately. And it’s a bit dicey, at least for the U.S. banks.

In the last week or so, a number of large banks have been trying to figure out if they were taken in a loan fraud scheme in which a Chinese commodities trading firm in the port of Qingdao pledged the same collateral to a number of lenders. The scheme has shed light on the fact that a large portion of the overseas lending that Chinese companies are doing to capture the interest rate spread has been with loans collateralized with commodities.

Goldman Sachs estimates that commodities-based lending has resulted in an inflow of $110 billion of foreign currency into the Chinese economy in the past four years, or about a third of all new short-term debt in China in that time.

Citigroup  C -1.41%  appears to be the only large U.S. bank that has fallen victim to the Qingdao fraud. But most large U.S. banks make commodities-based loans, and the practice has been growing recently. Last year, banks around the world lent $687 billion to commodities-based businesses, according to Bloomberg, though much of those loans were made directly to the companies and secured by raw materials. JPMorgan was the top U.S. lender worldwide, at $57 billion, followed by Wells Fargo  WFC 0.37% , which gave out $47 billion.

Many of these loans might not be factored in the estimates that Fitch and others have put together to calculate U.S. banks’ exposure to China. For instance, sometimes commodities loans are structured as derivatives or swaps. Fitch says its China loan estimates do not factor in derivatives or guarantees.

What’s more, when it comes to commodities, some banks might not even realize they are taking on China risk. The Citi loan that ended up sending money to China by way of the Qingdao port was made to Swiss commodities trading firm Mercuria. The commodities that Mercuria used to finance the loan were stored in Qingdao, on loan from a Chinese commodities company named Decheng Mining.

And unlike other types of lending, banks typically don’t break out just how much money they have lent out based on accounting. “I have never seen any bank balance sheet that has that information,” says Haoziang Zhu, an economics professor at MIT who has studied commodity-based lending. “It’s hard to track.”

And while the China-to-U.S. carry trade may seem like easy money, there are ways it can go bad. A drop in the yuan, which is down 3% in the past year, would cut into profits because a debtor company would need more of those to pay back the dollars they owe in the U.S. loan at the end of the transaction. Also, if you are financing a transaction with commodities, and commodities prices rise, that could erase some of your gains.

That said, as long as interest rates between the U.S. and China remain this wide, the China carry trade will carry on.

 

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About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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