Money on tap, but will it reach those in need?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 December, 2008, 12:00am

The phone rings. You pick up the call and there's a banker, volunteering an instant credit line with no strings attached. To many businessmen, this sounds like a dream. Banks have been tightening their purse strings in the past three months, pushing many corporates to the verge of collapse.

But to Mr Corporate, the financial controller of a listed foreign-owned manufacturer in Guangdong who understandably prefers to remain anonymous, it's all too real.

The call is from one of the top three listed state-owned commercial banks, with which his firm normally has little contact.

It is offering a 20 million yuan (HK$22.6 million) 'clean' loan for each factory: no site visit, no meet-the-management session, no collateral required. All you need to do is say 'yes' and sign the paper.

'I couldn't believe my ears,' said Mr Corporate.

Less than a year ago, the same bank had fobbed him off with a credit line of only 3 million yuan, despite the firm's US$1 billion in revenues, a sizeable fixed deposit account and much string-pulling.

Now, a new rule is in place. Within days, he got two US$20 million 12-month credit lines for two factories at about 5 per cent interest, a standard 10 per cent discount to the rate set by the People's Bank of China.

This demonstrates the power of the government in such mass 'campaigns'.

In an attempt to boost the economy and employment, Beijing has been pump priming and ordering banks to lend.

State leaders have made bold statements. Government television carries slogans like 'Together we can face the challenge'. The loan quotas of policy banks were immediately raised by 500 billion yuan. A decades-old loan cap for commercial banks was removed by the PBOC.

Bank regulators, who only nine months ago had told banks to tighten credit, are now asking them to work with corporates to fight the economic winter and expand their loans, particularly to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and farmers.

Within weeks, different banks churned out new lending targets with double digit growth and competing loan schemes targeting SMEs.

Mr Corporate's loan from heaven is a showcase. It will look good on the bank's report to the state for several reasons. The firm is a privately owned medium-sized operation. It is located in the Pearl River Delta, where factories have been hit hard by the US slowdown and tens of thousands of workers have been laid off. It is a 'new' client. Two factories have been 'saved'.

However, a little bit of digging shows that behind all the hype, banks are just putting on a facade to satisfy the authorities.

Mr Corporate's firm indeed fits all the criteria for financial assistance - the trouble is it doesn't need a loan at all. It has zero gearing. Its earlier application for a yuan loan was solely designed to reduce its currency exposure when the yuan was appreciating and buyers paid it in dollars.

'It won't do us any harm by having a credit line ready. After all, cash is king nowadays,' said Mr Corporate in explaining his decision to borrow.

So, not a single cent of the loan has been drawn down so far.

Here is a case of a mainland bank throwing cash at those who they feel are safe but not at those in need. I can't say how typical this is of the whole sector. But the undeniable fact is that banks are behaving differently from what we saw in the last spending spree, back in the late 1990s.

Instead of blindly taking orders, they are charting a difficult course between their role as government-controlled entities and as listed companies accountable - or at least theoretically accountable - to their shareholders.

This difficulty is best reflected in the latest remarks from the chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, Liu Mingkang. While calling on banks to lend to those with cash flow and liquidity problems, he warned against lending to industries suffering from overcapacity and poor management.

From this, three implications follow.

First, those in dire financial straits are not getting the money. The power of the relaxed lending policy to save jobs is doubtful.

Second, while it is good that mainland banks have finally become more risk-averse, their 'churn-out' mode to satisfy political concerns makes me uncomfortable. After all, they do not have a good track record of telling gems from stones. And, to a lesser extent, the bad-debt concern remains valid.

Third, if this case does reflect bankers' more conservative mentality, I would not put too much faith in the multiplier effect that economists claim trillions in government spending will have on the private sector.