Small firms in tight spot over financing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 24 November, 2008, 12:00am

Be it a huge construction project or a complicated disaster relief effort, no one can argue that things cannot be done strikingly fast and without opposition on the mainland.

That is the benefit of running a nation that still has links with its not too distant command-economy past. In the current global economic crisis, that ability to order men, machine and money at will is coming in handy.

A case in point is Beijing's planned lifeline for cash-strapped small enterprises. It may not have the same urgency as earthquake reconstruction, but top officials are taking the task just as seriously.

By ordering banks to open the lending floodgates to small and medium-sized enterprises, Beijing is hoping to ease a credit crunch that has already seen thousands of businesses go to the wall. The question is whether the same brand of Chinese speed and efficiency will be effective in an area where banks are increasingly seen as their own masters.

Despite contributing the lion's share of economic output, SMEs face numerous difficulties in securing bank financing. Large state-owned enterprises have traditionally been given priority over smaller firms when loans are doled out. Loans to small, often family-run, businesses, are also seen as more risky.

Officially, that reluctance has changed since a directive from the top that loans to small firms must be freed up to help them ride out the economic storm. But like many things on the mainland, propaganda sometimes bears little relationship to reality. Insiders fear that serious difficulties remain for banks trying to make a U-turn from their previous tight-fisted attitude towards SMEs. Small employers contribute 60 per cent of industrial output and three quarters of urban employment on the mainland. But many are in trouble.

Flagging domestic and overseas demand has already forced tens of thousands of small mainland firms to shut and the looming recession is threatening to cripple more of them.

In September, the People's Bank of China increased this year's lending quotas for national banks by 5 per cent and regional lenders 10 per cent, largely to help finance capital-starved small enterprises. The move should have theoretically unleashed more than 180 billion yuan (HK$240 billion) onto the market.

The China Banking Regulatory Commission followed that up quickly with a call for commercial lenders to ensure the increased loan quotas went to small companies. To assess how banks were performing, the SME loans would be appraised separately from other loan businesses, the regulator said.

To address the lack of qualified collateral among most SMEs, the authorities have also asked local governments to set up loan guarantee companies that would offer state backing to financing to these businesses.

In Zhejiang, a coastal province known for its booming private sector, the provincial authorities mandated every county-level government to tap into its own coffers for a loan guarantee company.

Government-guaranteed loans are no novelty but since 2001, when the mechanism was introduced, only an accumulated 1.35 trillion yuan of loans have been backed by governments of different levels, Xinhua reported. In contrast, new loans granted by mainland banks last year totalled 3.6 trillion yuan.

'Though the SME-specific guarantee company industry has been growing, it is clawing instead of moving steadily forward,' said Jonathan Gu, an official with the Shanghai government SME service centre.

But despite the decrees from on high and the good intentions, the benefits have yet to be seen on the ground, observers say.

'Lending controls are tighter than before,' said Zhou Dewen, chairman of the Wenzhou SME Development Promotion Federation. 'Funding is crucial for these companies' survival as well as the transformation of other industries, but it is harder to get loans.'

Mr Zhou said that it will take time for the policies to take effect. 'Even when the banks follow the instructions, SMEs will still be short of money. SME financing can't rely on banks alone,' he said.

Tao Dong, a Credit Suisse economist who visited SMEs in Guangdong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang recently, also had doubts about the policy.

'Many banks are listed companies and no longer state-owned enterprises. I doubt whether these policies will be implemented,' said Mr Tao. 'In the Pearl River and Yangtze River deltas, small firms have been shut one after another. In some cases, company owners have snuck away overnight, leaving billions of loans unpaid.'

He said blatant default situations like this had been a big blow to banks' willingness to grant loans. 'I'm afraid the situation is like other countries amid the financial crisis. The central government is loosening monetary policy, but banks are tightening lending.'

Banks' exposure to export-oriented manufacturers and small enterprises has been low and 'typically less than 5 per cent of their loans', according to JP Morgan analyst Samuel Chen.

But bankers argued that although the message to help SMEs has gone down well with lenders, it will take more time for them to figure out how to cater to them in this rough economic climate.

'Although the central government and regulators have been encouraging banks to lend to small corporates, banks as companies are responsible for making a profit. Risk control is the top priority,' said one senior official at a city bank.

Among the few domestic lenders that have publicised details about their SME loan service, alarm bells are ringing.

Bank of Communications, the country's fourth-largest lender, said SME loans increased faster than the 17.49 per cent year-on-year growth in all loan categories in the first nine months. In addition, the non-performing loan ratio of SME loans rose 9 basis points from January to 2.09 per cent at the end of September.

Similar trends were reported by Bank of Ningbo, a large city commercial lender mainly serving SMEs, and Shenzhen Development Bank. Bank of Ningbo saw its NPL ratio rise sharply from 0.36 per cent at the end of last year to 0.63 per cent by the end of September, while Shenzhen Development Bank reported an increase in 'special-mention loans' overdue 31 to 90 days as smaller clients faced repayment difficulties.

Most other listed mainland banks - including the Big Five state-owned commercial lenders - appear to be slow off the mark in helping SMEs. Despite their pledges in June to support SMEs in response to Beijing's call, they have not revealed the loan volume to the sector in their third-quarter financial reports.

Sandwiched between the central policy redirection and the escalating risk environment, banks, especially those with a niche in the SME market, have begun exploring innovative ways of doing business.

Despite the worldwide caveat on credit-backed securities, Zhejiang's China Zheshang Bank planned to issue 696 million yuan of one-year SME asset-backed securities in the middle of this month to banks and fund management companies in the interbank market.

The securities are based on loans to SMEs that have operated for at least six years and provided property as collateral for the loans. It is the first asset-backed securities launched by mainland banks.

'Our bank will increase lending to SMEs from the money raised from the issue,' said Luo Feng, an official of the bank's capital department.

Others are trying out less controversial means. A-share-listed Bank of Beijing, the country's largest city commercial lender, has started accepting intellectual property such as patents as collateral. It also helps clients raise money from private equity and venture capital funds, a practice the bank's officials believe might lower the risk of a default.

'For SMEs, expanding the definition of collateral assets gives them access to more credit,' said Xu Maomao, the director of the SME service centre at Bank of Beijing.

'In addition, introducing to our clients [venture capital] and [private equity] investors, who help upgrade their managerial skills, could boost the chances of business success.'

China Merchants Bank launched a finance consulting product for SMEs in June and announced it had signed agreements with 10 clients. With the Shenzhen bourse and securities, trust, financial leasing and investment guarantee companies, it advises SMEs to find suitable financing channels at development stages and helps them access the funds.

A number of other banking institutions have or are establishing specific risk pricing mechanisms for SMEs. 'With the SME business, you have to deal with it in a specific manner, differentiating it from the rest of the bank's clientele,' said Bank of Beijing's Ms Xu. 'That's the direction the banking sector is going as a whole.'