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* Trust assets have grown fourfold since 2007
* Industry becoming larger than insurance
* Loan books suspected to include high-risk credits
By Christopher Langner
Sept 28 (IFR) - China's slowing economic growth is putting the spotlight on the quality of loans - both within the country's official banking sector and beyond.
China's banks grew their assets 19% in 2011 to Rmb110.68trn (US$17.6trn), consultants at KPMG said this week. The report comes as analysts are warning of a spike in non-performing loans as the country's economy cools.
"We are at a critical point where, if (economic) growth doesn't start to pick up, we could enter a cycle of loan seasoning," said Charlene Chu, senior director of financial institutions at Fitch Ratings.
But the growth in the banking sector pales in comparison to the staggering 58.2% expansion in the trust sector in 2011, according to an earlier KPMG report, and concerns are mounting that the industry's rapid growth and loose regulation are becoming a systemic risk.
Since 2007, trust assets have grown fourfold. Fitch estimated that shadow-banking assets had already reached Rmb5.5trn in June this year, while an earlier KPMG report said 66 PRC trust companies had assets of Rmb4.8trn under management at the end of 2011.
Current growth rates suggest trusts will soon become the second-largest investor base in China's financial market, surpassing the Rmb6.3trn of assets held in the insurance sector as of April.
Trusts are still a fraction of total lending in the country. Yet, analysts are alarmed. They see signs of trouble in their rapid growth and light regulation, two features that the Chinese trust sector shares with the subprime mortgage industry in the US before the credit crisis.
"At a certain point, I think some investors in trust products will potentially have a rude awakening: higher return generally comes with higher risk," said David Cui, China strategist for Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "Trust products have significant exposures to property, infrastructure and financial sectors - as a result, some of these products may incur losses."
In March 2007, outstanding of subprime mortgages totalled about US$1.3trn. At present, the Chinese trust sector holds US$873bn in assets, many of them seen as just as risky as subprime housing debt.
There are more similarities. Chinese trusts are also closely tied to the housing industry. They have become a main source of funding for many of the homebuilders in the country, as the government has curbed traditional bank lending to property companies.
Trusts lend money to real-estate companies at interest rates of 15% and, in some cases, as high as 80%, according to bankers. Those rates are much higher than they return to investors. Trusts, typically, yielded 12%-15% returns, KPMG said. It is those figures that helped real-estate trusts become the fastest growing sub-sector of the Chinese trust industry in 2010 and 2011.
The regulator is closely watching this shadow-banking industry. Between May 2011 and September 2011, the China Banking Regulatory Commission issued a series of guidelines to improve transparency of real-estate trust products.
KPMG said that the regulator's simple request for full disclosure for new trusts reduced their rate of growth to 16% in December 2011 from 49% in June 2011.
The CBRC also wants trusts to operate and manage risks more like banks. As a result, many real-estate trusts have started selling riskier assets.
However, regulatory pressures may not be able to avert the danger. Even if trusts unload their more troubled loans, they could still be holding many more toxic assets that the regulator cannot easily identify. That is because shadow banks are often lenders of last resort. As such, they do not always attract the best debtors.
"In general, 'borrowers' in the shadow-banking sector, including the trust market, are less creditworthy than those borrowing from commercial banks. So, the chance of losses in this sector should be higher," noted BofA Merrill's Cui.
Trust companies comprise roughly a fifth of the estimated shadow-banking system and analysts say it is difficult to predict what will happen if more loans start to go bad. Debts running to several billion dollars remain unaccounted for by regulators.
"Shadow banking in China is, in effect, a second balance sheet that lacks transparency," summarised Mark Young, head of Asia-Pacific financial institutions at Fitch. "It forms part of a theme of liberalisation of banking within China - once you let the genie out of the bottle it is difficult to control it." (Reporting By Christopher Langner; Editing by Steve Garton)