Debt guarantee tangle: China’s private firms hit by default contagion

This photo taken on January 28, 2019 shows a worker checking wheels at a factory in Lianyungang in China's eastern Jiangsu province. China's manufacturing activity contracted for a second consecutive month in January, official data showed on January 31, another sign of the country's economic slowdown. (AFP)
Updated 12 February 2019
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Debt guarantee tangle: China’s private firms hit by default contagion

  • As economy slows, banks wary of risky loans to private firms
  • Several well-run private firms file for bankruptcy

SINGAPORE: The collapse in China of a complex web of debt guarantees involving several private firms highlights risks in its financial system and opens up a potentially hazardous front for an economy in the grip of its slowest growth in nearly three decades.
It is the last thing Beijing needs as it tries to fight off intensifying pressure on growth from a months-long trade dispute with the United States. Yet, as the government steps up economic support measures and moves to loosen gummed-up funding, it might be inadvertently inflaming financial risks with its call on state banks to sharply boost lending to the private sector.
The warning bells are already sounding in the once-prosperous eastern city of Dongying, a hub for oil refining and heavy industry in Shandong province. Here, at least 28 private companies are seeking to restructure their debts and avoid bankruptcy, mainly due to souring loans that they guaranteed for other firms, court rulings seen by Reuters show.
Among the 28 firms are Shandong Dahai Group and Shandong Jinmao Textile Chemical Group, which were on the 2018 top 500 best-run private enterprises in China.
For a private firm to get bank loans in China, especially those in traditional, capital-intensive industries, it often needs substantial collateral or the guarantee of another company. The guarantor itself is very likely to have taken on loans guaranteed by other firms.
The private sector mess in Dongying highlights the inherent dangers in cross-guaranteeing of debt, with defaults quickly cascading across the system when one loan goes bad, threatening to disrupt local financial systems and new lending.
The concern is that Dongying is just the tip of the iceberg as cross-guaranteeing of loans is a common practice across China.
Private firms’ funding options are somewhat constrained because banks are reluctant to lend to the non-state sector, said Yang Zaiping, secretary-general of Beijing-based Asian Financial Cooperation Association, which comprises financial institutions from about 30 countries.
“There is a severe imbalance between private companies’ contribution to the Chinese economy and the financing that they get. They account for 50 percent of taxes, 60 percent of GDP, 80 percent of urban jobs and 90 percent of new hires, but only receive 25 percent of loans disbursed,” Yang, a former Chinese banking regulatory official, told Reuters.
“If private companies don’t have other sources of funds to repay their debts, or collateral, they have to find guarantees, which will add 2 to 3 percentage points to their financing costs,” he said.

Sting of cheap credit
As of end-June, Shandong Dahai had outstanding guarantees on 2.67 billion yuan ($394 million) of debt for 14 companies, according to a company filing in August. The total amount of guarantees was equivalent to 48 percent of its net assets.
Six of the firms have run into financial or legal trouble and two have been blacklisted by courts as “dishonest debtors” for their lack of creditworthiness.
Resource-rich Dongying, the site of China’s second-largest oilfield Shengli, used to be one of the country’s richest cities thanks to its vibrant private economy, boasting the highest income per capita in Shandong in 2017.
But excessive lending to local companies during boom times saw firms diversify into non-profitable, non-core businesses. So when credit conditions later tightened as Beijing embarked on a years-long deleveraging campaign, a series of loan and bond defaults in the region followed.
“Bad loans are often extended during good times,” said a Shandong-based official, who declined to be named.
The consequences are now clear. Two Dongying banks — Guangrao Rural Commercial Bank and Dongying Bank — have been hit by a sudden surge in non-performing loans.
Over 95 percent of Guangrao Rural’s bad loans were backed by guarantees, but the back-stop is mostly useless now because it was provided by firms that were heavily indebted and some had suspended production, according to a ratings report in May.
In Dongying, the local government has come to the rescue of the private companies by pushing through debt restructuring to avoid bankruptcy, said the Shandong-based official.
The Dongying government’s finance bureau did not respond to a request for comment. Officials at Shandong Dahai and Shandong Jinmao declined to comment.

To lend or not to lend?
China’s top banking regulator Guo Shuqing, one of the most powerful men in the financial sector, wants banks to double their funding allocation to private companies in three years — to 50 percent from 25 percent.
But faced with the rising default risks of private borrowers in cyclical sectors, and given their unsafe financing practices — from share-pledged loans to cross guarantees — banks are wary of lending to them.
Several bankers told Reuters they are keen to avoid repeating excessive and riskier lending that followed Beijing’s 4 trillion yuan stimulus package a decade ago.
Even though China has cut banks’ reserve requirement ratios five times since January last year, banks would rather use this freed up liquidity to buy “bonds at any cost” than give out loans, said a bank executive at the financial markets department of a joint-stock bank.
Private players are heavily concentrated in manufacturing and real estate whose bad loan ratios in these sectors have been much higher than the industry-average. Private companies were also the biggest defaulters last year, accounting for 126 of the total 165 bond defaults, according to Guotai Junan Securities.
And, as the economy brakes in the face of domestic and external pressures, with growth slowing to a 28-year low in 2018, the fear is that the cross guarantee practice exposes China’s financial system to a bad loan crisis.
“As growth slows and pressure increases on the economy, financial risks easily become contagious,” the Shandong official said.


BMW picks insider Zipse as CEO to catch up with rivals

Oliver Zipse
Updated 19 July 2019
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BMW picks insider Zipse as CEO to catch up with rivals

  • German giant has lost ground to Mercedes-Benz and Tesla as tech steps up

FRANKFURT: BMW has named Oliver Zipse as its new CEO, continuing the German carmaker’s tradition of promoting production chiefs to the top job even as the auto industry expands into new areas such as technology and services.
Hailing Zipse’s “decisive” leadership style, BMW hopes the 55-year-old can help it win back its edge in electric cars and the premium market  from rival Mercedes-Benz.
But some analysts questioned whether Zipse was the right choice with new fields such as software and services like car-sharing becoming increasingly important.
“What is intriguing is the cultural bias to appoint the head of production. It works sometimes but ... being good at building cars is not a defining edge the way it was 20 years ago,” said Jefferies analyst Philippe Houchois.
Current CEO Harald Krueger, and former chiefs Norbert Reithofer, Bernd Pischetsrieder and Joachim Milberg were all former production heads.
Zipse joined BMW as a trainee in 1991 and served as head of brand and product strategies and boss of BMW’s Oxford plant in England before joining the board.
He will become chief executive on Aug. 16, taking over from Krueger who said he would not be available for a second term.
“With Oliver Zipse, a decisive strategic and analytical leader will assume the Chair of the Board of Management of BMW. He will provide fresh momentum in shaping  the future,” said Reithofer.
Zipse helped expand BMW’s efficient production network in Hungary, China and the US, in a move that delivered industry-leading profit margins.
Under Krueger, BMW was overtaken in 2016 by Mercedes-Benz as the best-selling luxury car brand.
It also had an early lead over US  rival Tesla in electric cars, but scaled back ambitions after its i3 model failed to sell large numbers.
Reithofer initially championed Krueger’s low-key consensus-seeking leadership, but pressured him to roll out electric vehicles more aggressively, forcing Krueger to skip the Paris Motor Show in 2016 to reevaluate BMW’s electric strategy.
Krueger’s reluctance to push low-margin electric vehicles led to an exodus of talented electric vehicle experts, including Christian Senger, now Volkswagen’s (VW) board member responsible for software, and Audi’s Markus Duesmann, who is seen as a future CEO of the company.
Both were poached by VW CEO Herbert Diess, a former BMW board member responsible for research who was himself passed over for BMW’s top job in 2015.
VW has since pushed a radical 80 billion euro ($90 billion) electric car mass production strategy, and a sweeping alliance with Ford.

Other skills
“A CEO needs to have an idea for how mobility will evolve in the future. This goes far beyond optimising an existing business,” said Carsten Breitfeld, chief executive of China-based ICONIQ motors, and former BMW engineer. “He needs to build teams, attract talent, and promote a culture oriented along consumer electronics and internet dynamics.”
German manufacturers have dominated the high-performance market for decades, but analysts warn shifts towards sophisticated technology and software is opening the door to new challengers.
“Tesla has a lead of three to four years in areas like software and electronics. There is a risk that the Germans can’t catch up,” UBS analyst Patrick Hummel said.
Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport car magazine, normally quick to champion German manufacturers, this week ran a cover questioning BMW’s future.
“Production expertise is important, but if you want to avoid ending up being a hardware provider for Google or Apple, you need to have the ability to move up the food chain into data and software,” a former BMW board member said.