One lesson from the 2007-08 crisis was that the vast majority of financial market participants, never mind the general public, were unfamiliar with subprime mortgages until the crisis was underway. Even now, we doubt many have much understanding of repo, the divergence between LIBOR and Fed Funds from 9 August 2007 and Eurodollar liquidity. In a similar way, when China’s bubble bursts, we doubt the majority will be that familiar with “ghost collateral” and “yin-yang” property contracts either.
 
A second lesson from the 2007-08 crisis was that as the value of the collateral underpinning the vast amount of leverage declined, the surge in margin calls led to cascading waves of selling in a downward spiral.

A third lesson was that the practice of re-hypothecating the same subprime mortgage bonds more than once, meant collateral supporting the most vulnerable part of the credit bubble was non-existent. It only became apparent with the falling prices and margin calls. Few people realised the bull market was built on such flimsy foundations, as long as prices kept rising.

A fourth lesson was that in order for the bubble to reach truly epic proportions, key financial institutions, especially banks, needed to conduct themselves in a negligent fashion and totally ignore increasing risks.

Each of these warning signs from the 2007-08 crisis exists in China’s property market now – and other parts of its financial system - bar one…falling prices leading to cascading waves of selling. However, as we’ll explain, we think it’s only a matter of months away now.

We should note that our thesis that China’s bubble would eventually be undermined by a “black hole” of insufficient collateral is one that we have been developing for several years. What we came to realise is that insufficient collateral is nothing more than normal business practice in the Chinese economy. It doesn’t matter whether it’s related to commodity-backed loans, property speculation or managing redemptions in the Wealth Management Products (WMPs) sector.

The first sign of this practice to received worldwide attention came to light in 2014 with the collateral fraud at China’s third largest port, Qingdao, which spreading to another port, Penglai, before it suddenly got covered up stopped. Numerous borrowers were found to have pledged the same copper and steel inventory as collateral to obtain funding from various banks, including state-owned Citic Resources, as well as Citi, Standard Chartered and others.

Not long after the scandal emerged, media attention began to wane, as commentators either assumed it was fixed or were distracted by other issues. However, it wasn’t fixed and we had a shocking reminder last month with the first major publicly announced loss. ED&F Man took an $80m hit after acting as a broker between Australia’s ANZ Bank and two Hong Kong-based trading companies in a sale-and-repurchase financing deal. The trade was backed by storage receipts for about $300 million of nickel stored in Glencore-owned warehouses in Asia. The problem was that the warehouse receipts were forged. As we said.

What is surprising is that it has taken over three years for the first serious hit from China's "ghost collateral" to emerge. Or perhaps not: in a time of generally rising prices, few if any traders actually bother to check if their pledged collateral ever exists. The problem emerges when prices decline, which courtesy of China's bubble machine, has so far not been an issue.

In June 2017, we discussed an article, “Ghost collateral’ haunts loans across China’s debt-laden banking system”, by our favourite Reuters reporter and forensic investigator of China’s collateral black hole, Engen Tham. Here are a few soundbites from Tham’s impressive piece.

One lawyer said he discovered that the same pile of steel was used to secure loans from 10 different lenders.

Most of the bankers said that kickbacks were prevalent, with loan officers turning a blind eye to the quality of collateral and knowingly accepting dubious and even fraudulent documents. Two of the bankers said they themselves had taken bribes to smooth the approval of loans.

Overall, 23 of the 30 bankers described the existence of ghost collateral as a serious problem and expected more instances to emerge as the Chinese economy slows. The bankers interviewed come from 13 banks in China, including some of the nation’s biggest lenders.

…fraudulent collateral is “a huge issue,” said Violet Ho, senior managing director and co-head of Greater China Investigations and Disputes Practice at Kroll, which conducts corporate investigations on the mainland. “Often you also see that the paperwork around collateral may be dodgy, and the bank loan officer knows, the intermediary knows, and the goods owner knows – so it’s essentially a Ponzi scheme.”

More than six months later and Egen Tham is back with a “special report” on loan fraud and missing collateral in China’s property market, “Hidden peril awaits China's banks as property binge fuels mortgage fraud frenzy”. We strongly recommend the article as Tham goes into forensic detail as he examines specific legal disputes which act as a window on the broader Chinese property market.

Here is our summary.

Reuters discovered an epidemic of mortgage fraud in China’s property market from extensive research and interviews with buyers, sellers, real estate agents, loan agents (see below), bankers and lawyers from three major Chinese cities and four smaller ones.

Buyers habitually overvalue the cost of the house or property they are buying so they can borrow more funds which are typically channelled into the property market, e.g. buyers who have insufficient down payment or income. A mortgage banker at Shanghai Pudong Development Bank estimated that 20-30% of his clients borrowed the down payment from a third party.

Small banks and loan companies do not have the resources to monitor if money is borrowed to finance down payments on property deals. Reuters notes that short-term household loans increased by 243% to 1.6 trillion yuan in the first ten months of 2017.

There are up to three contacts for an individual property transaction – the legitimate one, one for the bank providing the loan which overstates the property’s value and one for the tax authorities. These are widely known as “yin-yang” contracts in which real and fake agreements operate side-by-side.

In these re-packaged loan arrangements, all parties, including the bank and the seller, can be complicit in the fraud. Tham provides detailed examples. Since “everybody is doing it”, the crimes go unpunished, even when the guilty admit them in court documents regarding related claims.

Reuters reports that it interviewed twelve estate agents who admitted to helping clients commit mortgage fraud. One salesperson at the E-House China agency said that about 50% of his clients engaged in mortgage fraud. Another real estate agent estimated that about 60% of Shanghai property deals involve “some kind of re-packaging”.

A separate industry of loan agents has evolved which help property buyers to fraudulently secure mortgage loans. Real estate agents, and the banks themselves, introduce borrowers to the loan agents which keeps the criminal activity at “arm’s length”. 

While many western websites are blocked by the Chinese authorities, discussions about securing a fraudulent mortgage, the price of fake documents and adverts from loan agents are prevalent on social media.

The motivation for mortgage fraud is the fear of missing out in the great Chinese property bubble. While official data showed that house prices rose 12.4% in 2016 (fastest since 2011), this understates reality. The state-controlled Chinese Academy of Social Sciences estimates that prices rose by an average of 42% in 33 major cities.

Reuters noted that property market insiders “see little prospects” of an end to mortgage fraud, even though the Chinese regulators have asked banks to stop over-valuations and “yin-yang” contracts. Even when evidence of fraud is specifically shown to a bank, it is likely to be ignored.  

To add some colour to our prose, here are a handful of soundbites from Tham’s article.

Almost all contracts for the sale of existing property in China have some “yin-yang” element, according to Denny Jiang, a former banker and recent home buyer in Beijing.

A Hong Kong property investor surnamed Fu, who declined to give his full name because he was admitting criminal behavior, told Reuters that 20,000 yuan (about $3,000) in a traditional red gift envelope was enough for a valuation company to inflate the price of the apartment he wanted to buy in Shenzhen by 40 percent. That increased the amount the bank was prepared to lend him by 1.26 million yuan.

While property prices in China continue to rise, mortgage fraud remains largely a hidden danger, much as subprime loans in the United States remained mostly out of sight ahead of the 2008 global financial crisis. The fear is that in a property correction, fraudulent mortgages would unravel, accelerating a collapse of housing prices in the world’s second biggest economy. This, in turn, would imperil China’s debt-laden financial system.

“It seems banks don’t consider the issue a serious one.”

We think the last two comments are particularly poignant, harking back to some of the key themes of the 2007-08 crisis. As we noted above, the one thing missing from China’s bubble is falling prices leading to cascading selling which exposes the “ghost collateral” in the financial system. As this chart from Bloomberg shows, the month-on-month growth in Chinese house prices has slowed dramatically from the heady levels of 2016, as Chinese authorities have increasingly tried to cool the bubble.

“Houses are for living in, not for speculation” as Xi Jinping stated at the recent Party Congress. Even though property sales have been slowing, The Standard reported the state’s CCTV said that the property sector’s three regulators, the PBoC, the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development and the Ministry of Land and Resources, remained committed to stepping up financial regulation and cracking down on speculation after a joint meeting in Wuhan last month.

The regulators said China would prevent funds from being illegally channelled into the property market, and ensure capital allocation between real estate and other industries was balanced. The three central government entities also told provinces to stick to their tightening measures and be consistent in policy, warning against lax regulation that could lead to big fluctuations in the market and a build-up in financial risks.

"(We) must not tolerate any thinking that we can sit back and relax," the regulators said, according to CCTV. China will also improve its management of the land market and prevent cases of high land prices pushing up property prices.

In Deutsche Bank’s latest China macro presentation, “Risks to watch in next six months, part IV”, the bank explained why property prices will cool further and could be declining on a year-on-year basis by the middle of next year (the month-on-month decline would likely be apparent in early 2018). DB’s rationale is as follows. Leverage in the financial sector is slowing rapidly.

Financial deleveraging is a key factor behind rising interest rates…

…which will deflate China’s property bubble during 2018.

DB believes that unless the Chinese authorities rein back their deleveraging policies, H2 2018 could see the market slow rapidly…

…which assumes China’s central planners can fine tune a deflating bubble once it starts. We have our doubts.