China is ducking a bankruptcy test. Baoshang Bank, linked to missing billionaire Xiao Jianhua, has been brought under state control. Despite threats, Beijing remains wary of allowing even disgraced local lenders to fail.
Interest in Baoshang, based in Inner Mongolia, comes thanks to its colourful history. Its biggest stakeholder – and a major borrower – was Tomorrow Holdings, run by Xiao until he vanished in 2017 from a Hong Kong hotel. The insurance conglomerate’s assets are now being sold off piecemeal.
Rickety municipal lenders are common in China, even if Baoshang is more precarious than most: a 2018 analysis by Jason Bedford of UBS named Baoshang as one of a trio of lenders with Tier 1 capital adequacy ratios below 8 percent, the lowest in his national survey.
City banks held just 13% of total assets in the first quarter of 2019, and rural lenders another 7%, but they represent an outsize share of the country’s financial risk. As the state giants attract the best, government-guaranteed clients, small fry make do with the rest, which means more duff debt. Ruses to cover up the damage are not uncommon: in 2018, Shanghai’s Pudong Development Bank was fined for using 1,493 shell companies to hide non-performing loans. Other lenders, like Bank of Dalian, have been bailed out repeatedly.
The People’s Republic rolled out a deposit protection scheme in 2015. This theoretically allows poorly run banks to collapse without hurting ordinary depositors. But work is still in progress. The national insurance fund had only $12 billion at the end of September, and officials were still talking about creating an implementation agency in March. Tough talk about bankruptcy has softened. In February, a banking official said mergers and acquisitions were the preferred solution. China Construction Bank, the country’s best-capitalised lender, is helping to manage day-to-day business at Baoshang. It could ultimately be forced to take it over. Yet CCB and its peers would probably prefer to pick up nimble, fintech-savvy regional lenders in vigorous provinces, not charity cases from the interior. Regulators are also aware that forcing healthy institutions to port bad debt onto their books would inhibit them from supporting slowing economic growth.
A small, isolated lender collapse might rattle short-term investor sentiment. It would be worth the risk.