Over the years, China has valiantly struggled to convince the international public it will end its debt addiction any minute now, with the Politburo vowing year after year that it would if not delever in the immediate future, then surely limit the issuance of household loans. So far, every such attempt has been a failure, for one simple reason: as goes China’s debt, so goes the most important asset in China’s economy, its housing stock.
So while there are ample reasons to be skeptical, overnight China’s Banking Regulatory Commission unveiled its latest attempt to halt the country’s relentless debt load when it imposed limits on lending by peer-to-peer platforms to individuals and companies in an effort to curb risks in one part of the loosely-regulated shadow-banking sector. An individual can borrow as much as 1 million yuan ($150,000) from P2P sites, including a maximum of 200,000 yuan from any one site, the CBRC said in Beijing on Wednesday. Corporate borrowers are capped at five times those levels.
The regulator added, in what we doubt was an attempt to reassure industry watchers, that China had found problems in 1,778 online lending platforms, accounting for 43.1% of total.
China’s authorities are rightfully concerned about defaults and fraud among the nation’s 2,349 online lenders. In December, the country’s biggest Ponzi scheme was exposed after Ezubo, which until then had been China’s largest P2P lender, defrauded more than 900,000 people out of the equivalent of $7.6 billion and promptly folded (the response was hardly enthusiastic, as we revealed in a clip from February.)
The measures will probably leave about 200-300 P2P platforms by this time next year, said James Zheng, chief financial officer of Lufax, the top lending platform in China. “That’s okay because they’re cracking down on all the bad guys,” he said at a conference in Hong Kong. “What doesn’t kill will make you stronger. That’s the case for us.” Good luck.
Under the new rules, P2P lenders are barred from taking public deposits or selling wealth-management products and must appoint qualified banks as custodians and improve information disclosure.
“The P2P business is not very strictly regulated yet, but you can see the regulator is taking a step forward,” said Xu Hongwei, chief executive officer of Shanghai-based Yingcan Group, which tracks the industry. Products offered by P2P platforms in China can include anything from loans for weddings, guaranteed against the cash gifts that couples expect to receive, to high-yield lending for risky property or mining projects.
As Bloomberg notes, China’s P2P industry brokered 982 billion yuan of loans in 2015, almost quadruple the amount in 2014 and an approximately 10-fold increase from 2013, according to Yingcan. P2P firms attracted more than 3.4 million investors and 1.15 million borrowers in July, with loans extended at an average interest rate of 10.3 percent, according to Yingcan. Still, despite its torrid growth, P2P lending is still a tiny fraction of the overall loan market, and certainly of the broadest Total Social Financing universe, which infamously saw $1 trillion dollar in aggregate new loans created in the first quarter of 2016, providing a global credit impulse, which has since faded.
In any case, it appears that in this particular case, China is eager to halt this problem before it becomes too big. In April, China’s cabinet launched a campaign to clean up illicit activities in Internet finance, focusing on areas such as third-party payments, peer-to-peer lending, crowdfunding and online insurance. It suspended the registration of all new companies with finance-related names.
And we have our doubts that this latest “debt cap” will last, because earlier today, Peer 2 Peer lender Yirendai, the company which Bloomberg has dubbed “China’s answer to LendingClub” plunged 22%, the most on record since its December 2015 IPO, on massive volume, following yesterday’s imposed P2P limits. For a sense of scale, YRD created some $680 million in loans in Q2, up 118% Y/Y, with net revenue more than doubling to $110 million, or 140% Y/Y.
Needless to say, the company acts, and is priced like, a growth stock. The problem, as the chart below shows, is that the growth suddenly stopped.
Furthermore, if the company is indeed China’s answer to the recently devastated LendingClub, this is just the beginning, as the bubble has now popped with a little help from the government.
So will the CBRC relent, and lift the caps? It depends on just one thing, the only thing that the politburo is more worried about than asset bubbles – social unrest.
If enough people protest, get angry or downright violent as a result of the collapse in P2P stocks, and eventually, the entire industry, or simply are unable to obtain loans elsewhere should the industry falter, then Beijing will promptly undo what it has done. Until then, however, keep an eye on risk levels in China, where suddenly the most permissive marginal source of lending – and this risk asset upside – was just advised ordered to go into a state of near hibernation.
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