Debt guarantee tangle: China’s private firms hit by default contagion

This photo taken on January 28, 2019 shows a worker checking wheels at a factory in Lianyungang in China's eastern Jiangsu province. China's manufacturing activity contracted for a second consecutive month in January, official data showed on January 31, another sign of the country's economic slowdown. (AFP)
Updated 12 February 2019
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Debt guarantee tangle: China’s private firms hit by default contagion

  • As economy slows, banks wary of risky loans to private firms
  • Several well-run private firms file for bankruptcy

SINGAPORE: The collapse in China of a complex web of debt guarantees involving several private firms highlights risks in its financial system and opens up a potentially hazardous front for an economy in the grip of its slowest growth in nearly three decades.
It is the last thing Beijing needs as it tries to fight off intensifying pressure on growth from a months-long trade dispute with the United States. Yet, as the government steps up economic support measures and moves to loosen gummed-up funding, it might be inadvertently inflaming financial risks with its call on state banks to sharply boost lending to the private sector.
The warning bells are already sounding in the once-prosperous eastern city of Dongying, a hub for oil refining and heavy industry in Shandong province. Here, at least 28 private companies are seeking to restructure their debts and avoid bankruptcy, mainly due to souring loans that they guaranteed for other firms, court rulings seen by Reuters show.
Among the 28 firms are Shandong Dahai Group and Shandong Jinmao Textile Chemical Group, which were on the 2018 top 500 best-run private enterprises in China.
For a private firm to get bank loans in China, especially those in traditional, capital-intensive industries, it often needs substantial collateral or the guarantee of another company. The guarantor itself is very likely to have taken on loans guaranteed by other firms.
The private sector mess in Dongying highlights the inherent dangers in cross-guaranteeing of debt, with defaults quickly cascading across the system when one loan goes bad, threatening to disrupt local financial systems and new lending.
The concern is that Dongying is just the tip of the iceberg as cross-guaranteeing of loans is a common practice across China.
Private firms’ funding options are somewhat constrained because banks are reluctant to lend to the non-state sector, said Yang Zaiping, secretary-general of Beijing-based Asian Financial Cooperation Association, which comprises financial institutions from about 30 countries.
“There is a severe imbalance between private companies’ contribution to the Chinese economy and the financing that they get. They account for 50 percent of taxes, 60 percent of GDP, 80 percent of urban jobs and 90 percent of new hires, but only receive 25 percent of loans disbursed,” Yang, a former Chinese banking regulatory official, told Reuters.
“If private companies don’t have other sources of funds to repay their debts, or collateral, they have to find guarantees, which will add 2 to 3 percentage points to their financing costs,” he said.

Sting of cheap credit
As of end-June, Shandong Dahai had outstanding guarantees on 2.67 billion yuan ($394 million) of debt for 14 companies, according to a company filing in August. The total amount of guarantees was equivalent to 48 percent of its net assets.
Six of the firms have run into financial or legal trouble and two have been blacklisted by courts as “dishonest debtors” for their lack of creditworthiness.
Resource-rich Dongying, the site of China’s second-largest oilfield Shengli, used to be one of the country’s richest cities thanks to its vibrant private economy, boasting the highest income per capita in Shandong in 2017.
But excessive lending to local companies during boom times saw firms diversify into non-profitable, non-core businesses. So when credit conditions later tightened as Beijing embarked on a years-long deleveraging campaign, a series of loan and bond defaults in the region followed.
“Bad loans are often extended during good times,” said a Shandong-based official, who declined to be named.
The consequences are now clear. Two Dongying banks — Guangrao Rural Commercial Bank and Dongying Bank — have been hit by a sudden surge in non-performing loans.
Over 95 percent of Guangrao Rural’s bad loans were backed by guarantees, but the back-stop is mostly useless now because it was provided by firms that were heavily indebted and some had suspended production, according to a ratings report in May.
In Dongying, the local government has come to the rescue of the private companies by pushing through debt restructuring to avoid bankruptcy, said the Shandong-based official.
The Dongying government’s finance bureau did not respond to a request for comment. Officials at Shandong Dahai and Shandong Jinmao declined to comment.

To lend or not to lend?
China’s top banking regulator Guo Shuqing, one of the most powerful men in the financial sector, wants banks to double their funding allocation to private companies in three years — to 50 percent from 25 percent.
But faced with the rising default risks of private borrowers in cyclical sectors, and given their unsafe financing practices — from share-pledged loans to cross guarantees — banks are wary of lending to them.
Several bankers told Reuters they are keen to avoid repeating excessive and riskier lending that followed Beijing’s 4 trillion yuan stimulus package a decade ago.
Even though China has cut banks’ reserve requirement ratios five times since January last year, banks would rather use this freed up liquidity to buy “bonds at any cost” than give out loans, said a bank executive at the financial markets department of a joint-stock bank.
Private players are heavily concentrated in manufacturing and real estate whose bad loan ratios in these sectors have been much higher than the industry-average. Private companies were also the biggest defaulters last year, accounting for 126 of the total 165 bond defaults, according to Guotai Junan Securities.
And, as the economy brakes in the face of domestic and external pressures, with growth slowing to a 28-year low in 2018, the fear is that the cross guarantee practice exposes China’s financial system to a bad loan crisis.
“As growth slows and pressure increases on the economy, financial risks easily become contagious,” the Shandong official said.


Squabbles erupt as G7 leaders open summit in French resort

Updated 25 August 2019
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Squabbles erupt as G7 leaders open summit in French resort

  • Disputes on trade, climate may eclipse Macron’s agenda
  • EU’s Tusk warns of lack of global unity, spars with Johnson

BIARRITZ, France: Squabbles erupted among G7 nations on Saturday as their leaders gathered for an annual summit, exposing sharp differences on global trade tensions, Britain’s exit from the EU and how to respond to the fires raging in the Amazon rainforest.
French President Emmanuel Macron, the summit host, planned the three-day meeting in the Atlantic seaside resort of Biarritz as a chance to unite a group of wealthy countries that has struggled in recent years to speak with one voice.
Macron set an agenda for the group — France, Britain, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — that included the defense of democracy, gender equality, education and the environment. He invited Asian, African and Latin American leaders to join them for a global push on these issues.
However, in a bleak assessment of relations between once-close allies, European Council President Donald Tusk said it was getting “increasingly” hard to find common ground.
“This is another G7 summit which will be a difficult test of unity and solidarity of the free world and its leaders,” he told reporters ahead of the meeting. “This may be the last moment to restore our political community.”
US President Donald Trump had brought last year’s G7 summit to an acrimonious end, walking out early from the gathering in Canada and rejecting the final communique.
Trump arrived in France a day after responding to a new round of Chinese tariffs by announcing that Washington would impose an additional 5% duty on some $550 billion worth of Chinese imports, the latest escalation of the tit-for-tat trade war by the world’s two largest economies.
“So far so good,” Trump told reporters as he sat on a seafront terrace with Macron, saying the two leaders had a special relationship. “We’ll accomplish a lot this weekend.”
Macron listed foreign policy issues the two would address, including Libya, Syria and North Korea, and said they shared the objective of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Trump later wrote on Twitter that lunch with Macron was the best meeting the pair has yet had, and that a meeting with world leaders on Saturday evening also “went very well.”
However, the initial smiles could not disguise the opposing approaches of Trump and Macron to many problems, including the knotty questions of protectionism and tax.
Before his arrival, Trump repeated a threat to tax French wines in retaliation for a new French levy on digital services, which he says unfairly targets US companies.
Two US officials said the Trump delegation was also irked that Macron had skewed the focus of the G7 meeting to “niche issues” at the expense of the global economy, which many leaders worry is slowing sharply and at risk of slipping into recession.
French riot police used water cannons and tear gas on Saturday to disperse anti-capitalism protesters in Bayonne, near Biarritz. A police helicopter circled as protesters taunted lines of police.
The leaders themselves were gathering behind tight security in a waterfront conference venue, the surrounding streets barricaded by police.

Spat over ‘Mr. No Deal’ Brexit
Macron opened the summit with a dinner at the base of a clifftop lighthouse overlooking Biarritz, where a menu of piperade, a Basque vegetable specialty, tuna and French cheeses awaited the leaders.
Adding to the unpredictable dynamic between the G7 leaders are the new realities facing Brexit-bound Britain: dwindling influence in Europe and growing dependency on the United States.
New Prime Minister Boris Johnson will want to strike a balance between not alienating Britain’s European allies and not irritating Trump and possibly jeopardizing future trade ties. Johnson and Trump will hold bilateral talks on Sunday morning.
Johnson and Tusk sparred before the summit over who would be to blame if Britain leaves the EU on Oct. 31 without a withdrawal agreement.
Tusk told reporters he was open to ideas from Johnson on how to avoid a no-deal Brexit when the two men meet.
“I still hope that PM Johnson will not like to go down in history as Mr.No Deal,” said Tusk, who as council president leads the political direction of the 28-nation European Union.
Johnson, who has said since he took office last month that he will take Britain out of the bloc on Oct. 31 regardless of whether a deal can be reached, later retorted that it would be Tusk himself who would carry the mantle if Britain could not secure a new withdrawal agreement.
“I would say to our friends in the EU if they don’t want a no-deal Brexit then we’ve got to get rid of the backstop from the treaty,” Johnson told reporters, referring to the Irish border protocol that would keep the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland open after Brexit.
“If Donald Tusk doesn’t want to go down as Mr.No Deal then I hope that point will be borne in mind by him, too,” Johnson said on his flight to France.
Johnson is trying to persuade EU leaders to drop the backstop from a withdrawal agreement that was negotiated by his predecessor but rejected three times by the British Parliament as the United Kingdom struggles to fulfill a 2016 referendum vote to leave the bloc.

‘Not the way to proceed’
Despite the Brexit tensions, diplomats played down the likelihood of Trump and Johnson joining hands against the rest, citing Britain’s foreign policy alignment with Europe on issues from Iran and trade to climate change.
“There won’t be a G5+2,” one senior G7 diplomat said.
Indeed, Johnson said he would tell Trump to pull back from a trade war that is already destabilising economic growth around the world.
“This is not the way to proceed,” he said. “Apart from everything else, those who support the tariffs are at risk of incurring the blame for the downturn in the global economy, irrespective of whether or not that is true.”
Anti-summit protests have become common, and on Saturday thousands of anti-globalization activists, Basque separatists and “yellow vest” protesters marched peacefully across France’s border with Spain to demand action from the leaders.
“It’s more money for the rich and nothing for the poor,” said Alain Missana, an electrician wearing a yellow vest — symbol of anti-government protests that have rattled France for months.
EU leaders piled pressure on Friday on Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro over fires raging in the Amazon rainforest.
Even so, Britain and Germany were at odds with Macron’s decision to pressure Brazil by blocking a trade deal between the EU and the Mercosur group of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel said not concluding the trade deal was “not the appropriate answer to what is happening in Brazil now.”
The UK’s Johnson appeared to disagree with Macron on how to respond. “There are all sorts of people who will take any excuse at all to interfere with trade and to frustrate trade deals and I don’t want to see that,” he said.