China's government is gearing up for a spike in nonperforming loans, endorsing a range of options to clean up banks and experimenting with ways for lenders to squeeze value from debts gone bad.
Write-offs and raising capital through IPOs have multiplied in recent months. Over-the-counter asset exchanges have sprung up as a way for banks to find buyers for collateral seized from defaulting borrowers and for bad loans they want to spin off. Provinces have started setting up their own 'bad banks,' state-owned institutions that can take over nonperforming loans that threaten banks' ability to continue lending.
And several banks have tapped markets for funds via initial public offerings in recent months. Harbin Bank, named for the northeastern Chinese city, is planning to apply for a $1 billion initial public offering in Hong Kong this month, paving the way for a listing as soon as the second quarter this year.
'In recent years, Chinese banks have been exploring new avenues to resolve their bad loans,' the Bank of Tianjin, based in northeastern China, said in a statement. The lender recently listed more than 150 loans for sale on a local exchange. 'We will continue to recover, write off, spin off and use other avenues in order to resolve bad loans,' it said.
At the end of September, China's banks reported 563.6 billion yuan ($93.1 billion) of nonperforming loans. The figure is up 38% from 407.8 billion yuan--the low point in recent years-- two years earlier, although that only represents about 1% of total loans in the banking system.
A range of major industries are plagued with overcapacity and local governments are struggling to repay money borrowed to fund a construction binge, so investors broadly believe the actual bad-loan figure is much higher.
The share prices of Chinese banks listed in Hong Kong have fallen, to trade below their book value.
'Chinese commercial banks' asset quality will continue to deteriorate for sure,' said Hu Bin, a senior analyst at Moody's Investors Service. Banks managed to keep the nonperforming-loan ratio low last year--the official figure was less than 1%--by writing off bad loans and transferring them off their balance sheets.
Analysts think it unlikely that Beijing would allow major banks to go bust. Still, investors suspect the cost of a cleanup could be a sizable economic burden and could become even greater if growth continues to slow.
The last time Beijing confronted bad-loan problems, in 1999 and 2000, the sums involved had crippled the banking system. Banks became far less able to make new loans, forcing the government to take action.
Some 1.3 trillion yuan of bad debts was spun off the books of the biggest state banks and swept into four purpose-built bad banks.
This time, to avoid a costly bailout in the future, the government is pushing the banks to clean up their mess early. It is giving them new tools to do so: the exchanges to sell bad assets, provincial-level bad banks and permission to raise fresh capital using hybrid securities, products that combine aspects of debt and equity.
China Citic Bank Corp. is taking the unusual step of asking shareholders for permission to write off nearly $900 million, citing a sharp increase in nonperforming loans. It said it wants to more than double the amount of loans it can write off in 2013 to 5.2 billion yuan. Analysts say other banks also increased their write-offs in 2013, but with less fanfare than Citic Bank.
Write-offs can be expensive, cutting into funds set aside to cover loan losses, or chipping away at lenders' capital bases. McKinsey & Co., the consulting firm, estimates that Chinese banks will require about $320 billion in additional capital, including from bonds, hybrid securities and equity issuance, over the next five years.
In the past three months, three Chinese banks have launched initial public offerings in Hong Kong, marking the first Chinese bank listings since 2010. Another three, Guangdong-based Guangfa Bank, Bank of Shanghai and Harbin Bank, are expected to follow suit in the coming months.
China Cinda Asset Management Co., one of the original four bad banks, raised capital via a Hong Kong listing late last year, a move that will enable it to buy up bad loans as the supply of such debt grows.
China Huarong Asset Management Co., one of its peers, is also preparing to list.
In February last year, the Ministry of Finance and the China Banking Regulatory Commission made way for a new safety net, allowing each province to set up one bad bank that would be allowed to buy large batches of loans from companies within the provincial borders. So far, Jiangsu is the only province to have set up its own bad bank, but Zhejiang province and Shanghai have said they plan to.
Asset exchanges are giving commercial banks another way to find buyers for souring loans.
'Banks have asked us this year to hold large events to promote bad assets they want to transfer,' said Ding Huamei, general manager of the Tianjin Financial Assets Exchange, which was set up in 2010 by China Great Wall Asset Management Corp., another of the four original bad banks, as a platform for selling bad loans and assets seized by banks. Buyers include companies, investors and some foreign firms, who bid at auction, typically by phone or electronically, he said.
According to Mr. Ding, about 20 exchanges around China list bad loans for sale. There is no data on the volume of nonperforming loans that have been sold over such platforms.
Since September, more than 20 billion yuan of Agricultural Bank of China loans have been put up for sale on the exchanges in Tianjin, Beijing, Chongqing, and Shandong province. Much of the debt went bad prior to the bank's listing in Shanghai and Hong Kong in 2010; the bank didn't reply to a request for comment.
In November, Bank of Tianjin listed more than 150 loans on the Tianjin Financial Assets Exchange. Including accrued interest and the face value of the debt, the total comes to 900.6 million yuan, an amount slightly larger than the value of nonperforming assets the bank held on its books at the end of 2012.
One potential constraint on the bad-debt cleanup is a lack of experience among buyers at pricing and dealing with distressed debt, which has never been a significant asset class in China. Finding buyers for a failed factory or commercial property seized as collateral can be difficult, particularly in cities with weaker economies.
'There's an immature market for collateral. So the banks' capacity to resolve loans is more determined by the market than their own abilities, ' said Simon Gleave, regional head of finance services at KPMG China.
穆迪投资者服务公司(Moody's Investors Service)的资深分析师胡斌表示，中资商业银行的资产质量肯定会继续恶化。通过冲销坏账及将坏账移到表外的办法，银行业去年得以将不良贷款率维持在低水平，官方的数据是不到1%。
中信银行股份有限公司(China Citic Bank Corp., 简称：中信银行)正在采取非常规措施，寻求股东批准核销约9亿美元的不良贷款，理由是不良贷款规模大幅增加。该行称，希望将2013年度不良资产核销额度提高逾两倍，至人民币52亿元。分析师称，其他银行也在2013年提高了不良资产核销额度，只不过动静没有中信银行这么大。
不良资产核销有时会带有很高的成本，能导致银行的贷款损失拨备减少，甚至侵蚀资本金。据咨询公司麦肯锡(McKinsey & Co.)估算，未来五年内中资银行需要补充约3,200亿美元的资本金，筹资方式包括发行债券、混合型证券和股票。
过去三个月，三家中资银行在香港进行了IPO，这也是2010年来首次有中资银行在香港上市。预计广发银行(Guangfa Bank)、上海银行(Bank of Shanghai)和哈尔滨银行也将在未来几个月进行香港IPO。
中国信达资产管理股份有限公司(China Cinda Asset Management Co.)是原来的四家坏账银行之一，去年末通过香港上市募集了资本金。随着待处理的不良贷款日益增多，此举将使该公司有能力消化更多这类资产。
中国信达的业内同行中国华融资产管理公司(China Huarong Asset Management Co.)也在准备上市。
天津金融资产交易所(Tianjin Financial Assets Exchange)总经理丁化美说，银行今年请我们举办大型活动，宣传它们希望转让的不良资产。天津金融资产交易所由中国长城资产管理公司(China Great Wall Asset Management Corp.)设立于2010年，作为出售不良资产及被银行没收的资产的一个平台。中国长城资产管理公司是原有的四大坏账银行之一。他说，买家包括公司、投资者和一些外国公司，它们在拍卖会上竞拍，通常是通过电话或电子平台。
自去年9月以来，农业银行(Agricultural Bank of China)有逾人民币200亿元的贷款在天津、北京、重庆和山东省的交易所挂牌出售。其中大部分债务是在2010年该行在上海和香港上市之前成为不良贷款的；该行没有回复记者的置评请求。
毕马威中国(KPMG China)金融服务地区负责人李世民(Simon Gleave)说，抵押品市场不成熟。所以银行消化不良贷款的能力更多的是由市场而非它们自身的能力决定。