June 21, 2018, 2:21 am
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1 Philippine Peso = 1 Philippine Peso
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1 Philippine Peso = 429.12676 Vietnam Dong
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China’s small-fry banks to merge in 2018

By Pete Sweeney

HONG KONG- There will be fewer banks in China at the end of 2018 than at the start of the year. Squeezed by tighter money, cooling property prices and anxious regulators, the country’s 4,399 lenders will begin to consolidate. Some mergers will boost efficiency and transparency; others will foist crummy assets onto healthier institutions. Foreign banks now free to take bigger stakes in Chinese financial institutions will need to be mindful while shopping.

The squeeze on smaller Chinese lenders has been gestating for years. The country’s “Big Four” state-owned banks - Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China, and China Construction Bank - hold over half of the country’s deposits, and dominate business with the best state-owned enterprises.

This has forced other institutions to do business with riskier clients, some quite dodgy: Bank of Dandong, for example, stands accused of lending to North Korea, and has been banned by the US government. Others extended credit to private borrowers with dubious collateral and no state backing. Tiny rural credit cooperatives are supposed to lend to farmers who don’t own the land they till.

Many of these lenders have indulged heavily in off-balance sheet finance, in particular peddling high-yield wealth management products (WMPs). These are short-term instruments backed by property, commodities and bonds as well as exotic instruments such as ham sales or concert revenues. Banks had around $4 trillion in WMPs outstanding at the end of the first half, official data shows. Fitch Ratings estimates WMPs and borrowing from other lenders made up 43 percent of the funding of mid-tier banks during that period, compared with 19 percent at the largest institutions.

Using WMPs to fund loans helped keep dodgy credit off the books. In reality, however, many banks are on the hook. This is about to be a problem. The central government is ending the practice of banks guaranteeing WMPs for their customers. Revenue from selling them will start drying up.

At the same time, regulators are making it harder to tap short-term funding. This will inevitably lead to more defaults. This trend is already hitting banks exposed to rickety state-owned firms in mining and heavy industry. They are being forced to accept debt-for-equity swaps that provide relief for the borrowers, but often on disadvantageous terms to the lender. Restrictions on the use of “negotiable certificates of deposit” effectively short-term loans from institutional investors - will make things even more painful.

A wider liquidity crunch could provoke a series of runs that history shows can turn ugly. In 2014, rumors that a small rural lender in Jiangsu province had run out of money sparked a three-day panic that was only calmed when the bank literally displayed stacked bricks of cash to reassure depositors.

One fix is for banks to raise more capital. An International Monetary Fund report, published in December, found that in an adverse scenario 33 lenders would suffer a capital shortfall equivalent to 2.5 percent of Chinese GDP. Regulators could allow those that are unable to tap new funding to go under. China has since 2015 had a deposit insurance system in place that would protect individual savers. In 2016 Zhao Tang, a deputy central bank governor, told a financial forum that “institutions that need to be restructured should be restructured, and those doomed to go bankrupt should do so.”

Yet while small banks may be individually insignificant in terms of assets, the complex interlocking nature of their risk means loss of confidence could quickly spread. So regulators are likely to prefer takeovers and mergers among China’s 134 city banks and its 2,279 rural lenders.

As the weaker institutions falter, the instinct will be to stuff their bad loans, staff and branches into healthier bigger brothers. Such consolidation can prove troublesome if the buyer is prevented from cutting costs, or writing off dud credits. However, nimbler operators may take advantage of the distress to snap up assets and even assemble national networks.

Foreign banks may also get in on the act now that the Chinese government has reduced ownership restrictions. Eiichi Yoshikawa of Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, Japan’s largest bank by assets, told Reuters in November his institution is looking for Chinese regional partners. The challenge will be working out which targets are sound, and which to avoid. – Reuters 
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