Friday, May 15, 2009

中国银行业改革面临倒退危险

Patrick Chovanec 眼下,在西方国家政府争论应如何改革它们的银行体系之际,中国政府却面临着一个不同的问题:如何避免让它过去10年来已获得的改革成果前功尽弃。现在的确存在着一种危险,即:决策者有可能在短期刺激计划的名义下毁掉他们早些时候做出的努力。 问题的核心是中国政府正在实行的通过大规模扩大银行信贷来刺激经济的策略。政府4万亿元人民币(合5,860亿美元)经济刺激计划的一半资金都有赖银行提供。除此之外,政府还为支持企业的商业借贷制定了高目标。今年一季度,中国银行业新增贷款超过4.5万亿元,较2008年全年的数字还高出8%。 这种局面会令人不禁回想起前些年的情形,当时中国政府严重依赖银行资金来支撑经济增长,特别是大型国有企业的发展。上世纪八、九十年代,中国银行业积累了大量行政指令导致的呆坏帐,这些债务要么没法得到偿还,要么当初就根本没打算偿还。2003年,不良贷款占中国银行业贷款总额的20.4%,相当于中国国内生产总值(GDP)的16.5%。如此之高的坏帐让整个中国经济面临着陷入困境的危险。 中国政府后来设法扭转了这种局面,当时,中国新成立了银行业监督管理委员会(China Banking Regulatory Commission),政府又拿出1,000亿美元资金注入银行业,此外,还通过外国“战略合作伙伴”向中国银行业传授全球最佳经营管理规范。到2008年末,不良贷款比率降到了2.5%。与此同时,中国银行业在企业文化方面也发生着更深层的变化。银行业人士开始像银行家而不是像政府官员那样来考虑问题。经过十年的艰苦改革,中国四大国有银行中的三家──中国银行(Bank of China)、中国工商银行(Industrial and Commercial Bank of China)和中国建设银行(China Construction Bank)──先后在香港挂牌上市,中国农业银行(Agricultural Bank of China)的上市工作也在进行中。然而,在取得这番来之不易的进步之后,中国的银行业改革现在面临着倒退的危险。 从表面上看,中国银行业似乎已经相当健康。据银监会称,尽管经济出现下滑,但今年银行业不良贷款将继续下降,不论是绝对规模,还是占贷款总额的比例。看上去,中国银行业俨然是一台运转良好、有能力继续推动中国经济前行的发动机。 不过,进一步研究会发现,中国银行业还存在几个监管机构尚未能妥善解决的问题。就以银行业大规模发放新的刺激性贷款之前已存在的贷款组合来说。鉴于中国出口的大幅下滑,还有全世界范围内信用价差的扩大(这意味着违约风险的上升),人们很难轻易相信这些贷款组合的质量还能不断改善。事实上,银监会最近已允许中国银行业对未到期贷款重新安排偿债条款,将不良贷款展期成为不到期的新贷款,从而降低列为不良贷款的贷款额。相比之下,在华经营的外资银行认定的不良贷款自2008年初以来已经增加了一倍多。这些银行一般都会遵守他们本国监管机构的严格规定。 不过,已有贷款与新增贷款相比还是个小问题。中国的银行现在批准放贷不是因为商业环境前景看好,或是恰当的信贷分析表明银行这么做能赚到钱,而是因为政府告诉他们要让资金流动起来。财务报告显示,银行业未针对“变坏”贷款留出足够的拨备或类似性质的资金。 银监会对此似乎泰然自若,它在公开声明中说,这些贷款流向了政府支持的经济刺激项目,还款不成问题。但鉴于有那么多的基础设施项目在实施当中,经验告诉我们,这些项目不会都能达到它们在成本和收入方面的预期。各省、市政府不大可能公然违约,但如果需要,他们将有很多办法跟银行重新商谈贷款条件。 大部分新增贷款的风险比基础设施建设贷款要高得多。今年一季度,只有37%的新增贷款是中、长期贷款,人们可以认为这类贷款是用于基础设施项目的。超过半数新增贷款(2.2万亿元)是短期贷款,其中超过20%(9,440亿元)是用于企业应付帐款的所谓票据融资。这类贷款自去年初以来已增长了150%。这表明,它们正被用作补缺资金,以帮助那些在现金流方面有困难的企业免于陷入破产境地,至少暂时会起到这样的作用。其他迹象显示,这些低息贷款还被用于高风险的股票和房地产投机。无论是哪种情况,对银行来说都不是安全的做法。 粗略计算显示,这有可能使中国政府面临比上一轮银行业改革时更严峻的问题。当时,银行不良贷款比率最高时超过了20%。如果对今年一季度已经发放的新贷款按这一比率计算,则将产生9,120亿元坏帐,远远超过中国银行业目前5,500亿元的坏帐总额。而今年才刚刚开始。如果这波信贷扩张按目前的速度继续下去,中国银行业今年将有可能产生3.6万亿元坏帐,远远超过中国银行业2.2万亿元的实收资本总额。即使贷款增速慢下来,或事实证明本轮新增贷款的不良贷款率要低于以往水平,最终的不良贷款数字仍会非常惊人。 或许中国政府现在设想,它能通过实施另一波救助、花钱解决银行业的任何危机。它的确有这个财力。即使几家大银行上市前政府拿出1,000亿美元进行一次资本重组的事再来一次,这笔钱也只占中国政府庞大外汇储备的区区5%。如果这是维持就业、防范社会动荡需要付出的代价,那么中国领导人会很乐意签署支票。对银行进行掠夺和调整资本结构是北京将其庞大的美元储备注入国内经济的几种机制之一。 但这并不能让这波信贷爆炸──以及任何随之而来的救助行动──成为一项好政策。首先,股东们肯定会遭受损失。至少,随着新资本的注入,他们要面对股本价值的稀释。但对他们利益造成的真正损害不是用坏帐比率或全部发行在外总股本数可以量化的。全球投资者之所以在中国各家银行首次公开募股时购买它们的股票,是因为相信这些银行能通过重组成为盈利企业。这些银行历史上曾经只是发放政府补贴资金的渠道。现在看来,这样的前景看上去远没有那么可信。 银行业的改革前景不仅对股东们很重要,按商业原则正常发挥功能的银行对中国经济获得长期成功同样至关重要。中国需要可靠的经济刺激方案,但它也需要能在可靠的监管框架下有效分配资本的银行业。鉴于中国的公共债务水平处于历史低点,政府原本可以借入刺激资金并在有需要时直接支出这些资金。但实际上,政府却在让银行大肆放贷。这是一种急剧倒退,而且,中国将会在接下来的很长时间内看到这种做法带来的后果 -- (Editor's Note: Mr. Chovanec is an associate professor with Tsinghua University's School of Economics and Management in Beijing.) While Western governments debate how to reform their banking sectors, Beijing is now facing a different problem: how to keep from gutting the last decade of banking reform it's already been through. There's a very real danger that policy makers will undo their earlier efforts in the name of short-term stimulus. The central problem is the Chinese government's strategy of stimulating the economy through an enormous expansion of bank lending. The government has turned to the banks to finance half of its four trillion yuan ($586 billion) stimulus package. In addition to that, the government has set high targets for commercial lending to support businesses. China's lenders pumped out more than 4.5 trillion yuan in new loans in the first quarter of 2009, 8% more than in all of 2008. This is eerily reminiscient of an earlier era when the government leaned heavily on banks to finance economic growth, and especially large state-owned enterprises. In the 1980s and '90s, Chinese banks piled up a colossal tangle of politically directed bad debts that either could not be repaid, or were never meant to be repaid in the first place. In 2003 nonperforming loans made up 20.4% of banks' total loan books, a face value equivalent to 16.5% of GDP. This threatened to swamp the entire economy. Beijing managed to clean up that problem with the help of the new China Banking Regulatory Commission, $100 billion in new government capital, and foreign 'strategic partners' to train banks in global best practices. Nonperforming loans were brought down to 2.5% by the end of 2008. This was accompanied by a deeper change in corporate culture, as bank staff started thinking like bankers instead of like agents of government policy. A decade of difficult reform culminated in Hong Kong stock listings for three of the big four -- Bank of China, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and China Construction Bank -- with the fourth, Agricultural Bank of China, on the way. Yet despite this hard-won progress, Beijing is now in danger of backsliding. On the surface, China's banks appear to be remarkably healthy. The CBRC reports that this year, despite the economic slowdown, nonperforming loans have continued falling, not only as a percentage of the rapidly expanding base but in absolute terms. China's banks, the story goes, are a well-tuned engine capable of lifting the Chinese economy up. A closer look, however, raises several red flags that regulators haven't been able to address satisfactorily. Take existing loan portfolios even before the rash of new stimulus lending. Given the severe drop-off in Chinese exports, along with the worldwide widening of credit spreads (reflecting increased risk of defaults), it strains credulity to believe that the health of these portfolios could be improving. In reality, the CBRC recently allowed Chinese banks to minimize the recognition of nonperforming loans by rescheduling loans before maturity and 'evergreening' troubled loans by rolling them over into new ones. In contrast, NPLs recognized by foreign banks operating in China -- which generally follow the stricter rules of their home regulators -- have more than doubled since the start of 2008. Existing loans, however, are of minor concern compared to new ones. China's banks are approving loans not because the business climate is promising or because proper credit analysis indicates they can profit by doing so, but because the government has told them to let the money flow. And the figures in financial statements suggest that the banks are making inadequate provision, in terms of increased reserves or the like, for any of these 'loans' going bad. CBRC officials appear unperturbed, saying in public statements that the loans are going into stimulus projects sponsored by the government, which will certainly repay. But with so many infrastructure projects in the works, experience indicates that not all will meet their cost and revenue projections. While provinces and municipalities are unlikely to openly default, they will enjoy plenty of leverage in renegotiating repayment conditions if necessary. Most of the new loans are far riskier than that kind of lending. In the first quarter, just 37% of new lending was for medium- or long-term loans, the type one might expect for funding infrastructure projects. More than half -- 2.2 trillion yuan -- was short-term, including more than 20% (944 billion yuan) in so-called bill financing to temporarily cover a company's payables. These loans have grown 150% since the beginning of last year. That suggests they are being used as stop-gap funding to help save companies with cash flow troubles avoid bankruptcy, at least for the moment. Others have suggested these low interest loans are being used to fund high-risk speculation in stocks and real estate. Either way, it's hardly a 'safe' bet for banks. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest this could become an even more serious problem than Beijing faced in its last round of banking reform. Then, the nonperforming loan ratio eventually exceeded 20%. If that rate were applied to the new loans already issued in the first quarter of this year, 912 billion yuan can be expected to go bad, more than doubling the 550 billion yuan in bad loans currently on the books. And the year is barely getting started. If the overall credit expansion continues at the current pace, China's banks are on track to make up to 3.6 trillion yuan in rotten loans, far exceeding the 2.2 trillion yuan paid-in capital in the country's entire banking system. Even if lending does slow, or proves somewhat safer than the historical pattern suggests, the numbers are still alarming. Perhaps the Chinese government is assuming it can just buy its way out of any banking crisis by orchestrating another round of bailouts. It has the money. A replay of the government's $100 billion pre-IPO recapitalization would require just 5% of the country's massive foreign currency reserves. If that's the price of maintaining employment and preventing unrest, China's leaders will happily write the check. Despoiling and recapitalizing the banks is one of the few mechanisms Beijing has to inject its outsized dollar-denominated reserves into the domestic economy. But that still doesn't make this credit explosion -- and any subsequent bailout -- a good policy idea. For one thing, shareholders are sure to suffer. At the minimum, they face dilution when new capital is injected. But the real damage to their interests can't be quantified in terms of bad debt ratios or total shares outstanding. Global investors bought into China's bank IPOs in the belief that those banks, which once functioned merely as conduits for state subsidies, could remake themselves into profit-making enterprises. Today, that promise is looking far less believable. The promise of bank reform was important to more than just shareholders -- functional banks run on commercial principles will be crucial to China's long-run economic success. China needs responsible economic stimulus, but it also needs banks that allocate capital efficiently, governed by a credible regulatory regime. With public debt at a record low, the government could have borrowed stimulus funds and spent them directly as needed. Instead, it let the banks run wild. It's a dramatic setback, and China will be counting the cost for a long time to come.

No comments: