One month ago, China came "this close" to the one event which terrifies Beijing more than anything: a run on China's shadow banks.
As a quick reminder, 150 customers of China's Mingsheng Bank, the country's largest private bank, were furious in mid-April when they learned that some 3 trillion yuan invested in Wealth Management Products, the backbone of China's shadow banking system, had vaporized after bank employees had engaged in fraud and embezzled the funds without ever investing it (later it emerged that Mingsheng employees had put the money into “cultural relics” and jewelry, for their own use).
And while fraud and embezzlement are both endemic in China, the bigger concern raised by the article was the threat of a bank run across China's massive and unregulated, nearly $10 trillion shadow banking system. Indeed, while there have been numerous allegations and warnings that China's entire shadow banking facade, dominated by WMPs and other "investment products", is nothing but a giant ponzi scheme in which recoveries - should there be a bank run, a topic recently discussed on Bloomberg - would be non-existent if there is ever a bank run, defaults of WMPs issued by big banks – and this case an unapproved WMP – are rare, as are shadow bank runs.
However, in a stunning announcement made by one of China’s largest insurers, Foresea Life has warned of "mass defaults and social unrest" unless China's regulator lifts a recent ban on its issuance of new products. In a letter to China’s insurance regulator, first reported by the Financial Times, Foresea Life Insurance which is a heavy investor in WMPs, has warned that the company expects "redemptions" of 60 billion yuan, or $8.7 billion, this year and might be unable to meet payouts unless it is able to sell new products.
Jut so there is no confusion, this is the definition of a ponzi scheme, and now that it has been so explicitly framed the result could be even greater redemptions, i.e., "bank runs" across companies that invest in WMPs.
Foresea's displeasure is linked to a December decision by the China Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC), which banned Foresea for three months from applying to sell new products. Two months later, in February, the agency banned Foresea chairman Yao Zhenhua, China’s fourth-richest man, from the industry for 10 years.
Questions about potential fraud at the company have remained unanswered, however the life insurer which allocated billions to WMPs in pursuit of yield (what else) was all too vocal in a letter dated April 28, in which Foresea asked the CIRC to resume new product approvals “in order to avoid inciting mass incidents by clients and localised and systemic risks, producing greater damage to the industry”. According to the FT, the term “mass incidents” is commonly used in China to describe demonstrations, protests and riots. It was also used by Hank Paulson in 2008 when demanding a blank check from Congress threatening the US with widespread panic unless the US banking sector was bailed out.
That this warning has now moved to Chinese users of shadow banking is troubling.
To be sure, this is not the first time a near-insolvent Chinese company has threatened with social unrest if it does not get a bailout. One month ago, China's - and the world's - biggest aluminum producer China Hongqiao Group demanded that both the Chinese Non-Ferrous Metals Industry Association and the Chinese government come to its aid, warning in its March 4 letter of “serious effects” if nothing is done, including “regional systemic financial risks” and “dramatic social unrest.” Yet while the fallout from one major commodity company would be largely contained, mostly to its own angry workers, the social panic and mass defaults resulting from the failure of China's $4 trillion Wealth Management Industry, would have far more dire implications.
Some more background on the troubled life insurer courtesy of the FT:
Foresea is a unit of Baoneng Group, a property and financial conglomerate that Mr Yao also chairs. Baoneng made headlines last year by attempting a hostile takeover of China Vanke, one of China’s largest residential developers. Baoneng has used the sale of so-called “universal insurance” products to finance its stake in Vanke and other listed companies. Such policies are, essentially, investment vehicles offering high yields and guaranteed payouts on maturities. Distributed through banks, they bear little resemblance to traditional insurance, which pays out only in the event of a risk incident such as death, illness, or accident.
The mass proliferation of such "shadow banking" products, largely as a result of deregulation of the insurance industry in recent years, has led to the sharp rise of universal insurance sales, which has helped groups such as Foresea and Anbang Insurance Group to grow. As a reminder, Anbang - which has a very questionable reputation - is also one of the most prolific acquirers of global corporations as it seeks to find high yielding targets for its "shadow" funds.
As the FT also notes, while Foresea’s premiums soared from Rmb32bn in 2014 to Rmb100bn last year they since tumbled 61% in the first quarter this year.
More troubling is that the date of Foresea’s letter indicates that, by late April, the regulator had not yet approved new Foresea products, despite the expiration of the three-month ban. In a statement on its website late on Wednesday, Foresea said that “the company’s operations are normal and its cash flow is stable”, adding that it earned Rmb1.4bn in profits in the first quarter. Needless to say, it wouldn't say anything else until it was too late (see Canada's Home Capital Group).
On one hand, the Chinese regulator's initiative to limit WMPs is a welcome change to the Chinese funding "wild west." It was observed in the latest PBOC monthly credit update, which revealed that for the first time in a decade, a key component of China's shadow funding, Entrusted Loans, declined.
The FT adds that in addition to Foresea, the CIRC has moved to contain universal insurance in recent months, amid President Xi’s call to curb financial risk. Analysts warn that the high yields offered by universal insurance force issuers to take risks in order to earn the returns necessary to meet promised payouts.
Many universal insurance products ostensibly carry long durations of five or even 10 years but the policies often include generous redemption terms, enabling investors to cash out of the products with minimal penalties.
Meanwhile, Foresea’s warning that "mass redemptions" could leave the group unable to meet payouts highlights the liquidity risk created by taking on short-term liabilities to purchase long-term, illiquid assets. In a further crackdown on China's unsustainable shadow banking system, in May the CIRC imposed a similar three-month ban on Anbang and accused the group of “wreaking havoc” in the market with aggressive sales tactics. The agency specifically criticized Anbang for selling products with short maturities.
On the other hand, however, while such a regulatory crackdown is long overdue, should the "shadow" funding of "insurers" like Foresea (and Anbang) be halted, the company - which by its own admission is a ponzi scheme - would disintegrate.
For now, however, it faces a more immediate challenge: what happens if Foresea is not granted regulatory relief as it demands? If the insurer is unable to resume issuance of its traditional shadow funding products, and should the "redemption run" accelerate, the company will have no choice but to eventually demand a PBOC liquidity injection or outright bailout. Considering how generous the Chinese central bank has been, this request will likely be satisfied.
But a far bigger problem, one which not even the PBOC would be able to contain, is what happens if accelerated "redemption" problems, currently limited to just Foresea, spread to the rest of the nearly $10 trillion shadow banking industry.