Jilin Trust and Ping An Trust both operate in the shadows of the Chinese financial system, providing loans to borrowers deemed too risky by banks, but that is where the similarities end.
Jilin Trust warned investors in December that one of its products – securities backed by loans to an overleveraged coal miner in northern China – was at risk of failing. Jilin Trust had attracted investors by promising a 10 per cent annual return, but did not take any collateral from the miner, instead accepting a guarantee from another coal company that is now also struggling.
At the same time, analysts with Ping An Trust hunched over their desks in the financial hub of Shanghai, crunching numbers from hundreds of local governments throughout China.
They examined debt levels and fiscal revenues, and sized up possible collateral from road tolls to water tariffs. Ping An Trust has never suffered a default on any of its loans, and Tung Hoi, its chief executive, is determined to keep it that way. “It all boils down to your underwriting discipline,” he says.
The term “shadow banking” in China for many observers conjures up images of underground lenders handing out credit to sketchy borrowers at usurious rates. But that is a simplistic view of many of the financial institutions that have moved into gaps left behind by the country’s heavily regulated banks.
Some shadow banks have indeed courted trouble; others, though, are well-managed companies with strong track records.
“Trusts in effect have taken on quite an important role in the financial system,” says Stephan Binder, head of McKinsey’s asset management practice in Asia. “They provide businesses that have high risks and would otherwise be completely cut off from finance with a way to finance themselves, or their alternative would really be to go to the black market.”
The first misunderstanding about Chinese trusts is what they actually are. Their business has nothing to do with the term “trusts” used in the west to describe funds that are conservatively managed for the benefit of a third party.
In China, trusts are the widest ranging of the country’s financial institutions. They can engage in investment banking, property lending and even private equity deals. They are also the biggest force in shadow banking, with Rmb10tn ($1.65tn) of assets under management, more than insurance companies or securities brokerages.
The model for trusts has been to plug the holes that banks are unable or unwilling to fill, and then package their loans and deals into high-yielding investment products. Trusts are restricted by regulators to selling these products to wealthy individuals, and most risk is borne not by the trusts but by the investors, as is the case for hedge funds throughout the world.
The Chinese property sector is a classic example of how this has worked. In 2011 the government was worried about an overheated housing market and all but banned banks from lending to developers. Even the best could not get bank funding so they turned to trusts, which were still permitted to lend to developers and could suddenly do so at rates of 10-15 per cent.
About three-quarters of the property loans by Ping An Trust, the country’s largest trust by assets and a subsidiary of Ping An Group, have been made to the country’s 20 biggest listed developers. “It’s not like we’re going down the ladder to scoop up less worthy counterparties,” Mr Tung says.
Ping An Trust’s focus is now shifting in part to cash-strapped local governments – borrowers viewed almost as toxic by Chinese banks and global investors. Local government debt has soared to Rmb17.9tn, up nearly 70 per cent from the end of 2010, the national audit office said on Monday. “Just as the market is getting scared about local governments, we actually see providing financing to them as a good opportunity,” Mr Tung says.
With thick round glasses, trim grey hair and a quiet English accent from his studies two decades ago at the University of Oxford, Mr Tung is a most presentable face for Chinese shadow banking. Even while expanding Ping An Trust’s assets under management by about Rmb10bn a month, he has insisted on a 15 per cent capital ratio – well above Basel III requirements of 10.5 per cent for banks.
Throughout the trust sector as a whole, risk-management practices are tough. Mr Binder of McKinsey notes that the standard loan-to-value ratio for collateralised property lending is about 50 per cent – a world apart from the 100 per cent, no-collateral loans common in the US before the subprime crisis.
Yet some trust companies have been involved in much riskier transactions. In the case of Jilin Trust, it sold an investment product backed by Rmb1bn of loans to Liansheng Resources Group two years ago, when the coal miner was heavily indebted.
With Liansheng now undergoing restructuring, this could be one of the first significant defaults in the trust sector, according to analysts. Some in the industry believe this would actually be a good thing, teaching investors to assess trust products on the basis of risk and not just returns – to sift out the best of China’s shadow banks from those best avoided.
“While there is concern that this will result in a house-of-cards scenario, the perspective from many trust companies is that it will lead to a flight-to-quality scenario, and I agree with that,” says Jason Bedford, a former big four auditor. “The trust sector needs a blow-up.”
吉林信托(Jilin Trust)和平安信托(Ping An Trust)都在中国金融体系的阴影区域开展业务，向那些在银行看来风险过高的借款方提供融资，但它们的相似之处也仅此而已。
麦肯锡(McKinsey)亚洲资产管理咨询业务负责人白德范(Stephan Binder)表示：“事实上，信托公司在中国的金融系统中扮演了一个非常重要的角色。它们为那些风险很高的企业提供了一条融资途径，否则，那些企业将完全无法获得融资 ，或只能求诸黑市。”
在平安信托的房地产贷款当中，约有四分之三贷给了中国前20大房地产上市企业。平安信托是中国平安(Ping An Group)旗下的子公司，以资产规模计是中国第一大信托公司。童恺表示：“我们不会降低身段去和身份较低的对手交易。”
如今，平安信托的业务重点已部分转向资金紧张的地方政府，而在中国银行业和全球投资者看来，这些地方政府几乎是不能触碰的“有毒"借款方。中国国家审计署(National Audit Office)周一表示，中国地方政府的债务规模现已飙升至17.9万亿元人民币，较2010年底增长了近70%。童恺说：“虽然市场对地方政府日益感到恐惧，但事实上，我们认为向地方政府提供融资是个大好机遇。”
童恺算得上是中国影子银行领域颇为拿得出手的代表性人物。他戴着厚厚的圆框眼镜，灰色的头发修剪得宜，二十年前在牛津大学(University of Oxford)留过学，因此英语发音带着柔和的英腔。即便是在以每月100亿元人民币的速度扩张平安信托资产管理规模的过程中，他仍坚持让公司保持15%的资本金率，远高于《巴塞尔协议III》(Basel III)中要求银行保持的10.5%的资本金率。