Two people look towards high-rise buildings in Kowloon, Hong Kong, in a file photo. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority and Beijing have agreed to launch a cross-border bond connect, granting foreign investors access to the Chinese onshore bond market. (Antony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images)Two people look towards high-rise buildings in Kowloon, Hong Kong, in a file photo. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority and Beijing have agreed to launch a cross-border bond connect, granting foreign investors access to the Chinese onshore bond market. (Antony Dickson/AFP/Getty Images)

Beijing and Hong Kong have approved a new cross-border bond trading program, called bond connect, hoping to attract a new wave of foreign investors to buy Chinese onshore bonds.

The platform is similar in theory but differs in execution to the existing stock connect between Hong Kong and the mainland, which allows foreign investors to purchase mainland stocks. The bond connect will link Hong Kong to Shenzhen’s bond markets and is expected to go live on July 1, the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China.

Beijing hopes the bond connect will legitimize its bond market on the global stage and help diversify bearers of onshore default risk. But immediate success is unlikely, given the existing lukewarm reception of the similar stock connect program and overall investor skepticism of Chinese credit.

Expanding Access

China is the world’s third largest bond market following the United States and Japan, but is largely closed off from foreign investors. It first opened the onshore bond market to foreign investors in February 2016. Under this arrangement, foreign asset managers wishing to purchase such bonds must register locally in mainland China.

The bond connect will officially eliminate that requirement, as firms in Hong Kong will have the ability to purchase onshore bonds at will, without a mainland license.

In a joint statement May 16, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) and Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) said that “Northbound trading will commence first in the initial phase, i.e. overseas investors from Hong Kong and other countries and areas (overseas investors) to invest in the China Interbank Bond Market.” The opposite southbound trading, or mainland investors investing in Hong Kong bonds, will commence in the second phase at a later date.

Oppenheimer_bonds1

China is the world’s No. 3 bond market (Source: Oppenheimer Funds)

In theory, bond connect will no doubt expand the market for Chinese onshore bonds and bring in a new wave of investors. “The major advantages of the Bond Connect compared to the existing China Interbank Bond Market scheme are the speed of gaining the access and the fewer onshore account set up needed,” Gregory Suen, investment director of fixed income at HSBC Global Asset Management, told industry publication Fund Selector Asia.

Today, prior to the bond connect, about 473 foreign investment firms are active within China’s onshore bond market with investments totaling 800 billion yuan ($117 billion), according to PBoC estimates. However, the true number of foreign firms holding Chinese debt is less than the official figures, as about 200 of the 473 are investors from the Chinese territory of Hong Kong, which Beijing deems foreign.

To cater to the anticipated trade flow, the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing and China Foreign Exchange Trade System formed a joint venture on June 7 called the Bond Connect Company to offer trading and support services to market participants of the bond connect.

‘Not a Case of Build It and They Will Come’

Beijing hopes demand for bond connect from foreign institutional investors will exceed the lackluster enthusiasm investors currently have for the Hong Kong-Shenzhen stock connection, where trading activity remains tepid.

But that’s far from a certainty.

The Hong Kong-Shenzhen stock connect has been open for six months, but logistical and demand issues remain. Clearing and settlement differences between Shenzhen and Hong Kong regulators have caused a sizable portion of trades to fail in recent months, according to a South China Morning Post report. In addition, foreign demand for Shenzhen stocks so far hasn’t met Beijing’s expectations, with the technology-heavy Shenzhen issuers viewed as perhaps too risky for foreign investors.

It’s difficult to see bonds faring better. Despite Beijing’s opening up the domestic bond market to foreign investors last February—with no approval necessary as long as the investor has a local registered entity—foreign ownership of China’s bond market remains tiny.

At the end of 2016, foreign holdings of onshore bonds are only 1.3 percent of total market value, according to estimates from the Financial Times

That means investors don’t believe the investment returns on Chinese bonds are enough to justify the heightened default risk of owning Chinese debt, which has fueled much of China’s recent economic growth and today sits at almost 260 percent of GDP, according to ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service.  

Looking past macro issues, individual bonds are also notoriously hard to evaluate for foreign investors.

The industry standard global credit rating agencies of Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s Investors Service, and Fitch Ratings are barred from operating in China. Chinese bonds are instead rated by domestic ratings agencies, which are viewed by foreign investors with distrust for granting overly generous credit ratings. In other words, it’s difficult to assess the credit-worthiness of Chinese issuers because information on bonds is unreliable.

Oppenheimer_bonds2

Investors believe Chinese domestic credit rating agencies have tendencies to give out overly generous ratings to bond issuers (Oppenheimer Funds).

“For foreign investors, it’s not a case of build it and they will come,” concluded Rachel Ziemba, Managing Director at Roubini Global Economics, on CNBC. “They want to understand, they want to be paid for the risks they are taking on. In an environment where interest rates are rising in China, where the property market is flattening out a bit, that question mark about more information and drivers is going to be very important.”

The new U.S.-China trade deal signed during Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping’s visit with U.S. President Donald Trump in April outlined a path for the U.S. credit rating agencies to begin operations in China later this year.

To foreign investors, that’s a step in the right direction, while also introducing new challenges. Foreign credit agencies will operate under supervision of Chinese securities regulators. During times of economic duress, can they remain independent and objective?

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In a file photo, miners push carts containing coal at a mine in Qianwei county, Sichuan. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)In a file photo, miners push carts containing coal at a mine in Qianwei county, Sichuan. (Liu Jin/AFP/Getty Images)

A rebound in global coal prices became one of the biggest stories in commodities during the second half of 2016. A more than 90 percent increase since mid-year in the benchmark Australian thermal coal prices has lifted stocks of international coal producers.

But don’t tell that to Chinese coal producers. The recent rally in coal prices hasn’t reversed the fortunes of many Chinese coal producers still wallowing in overleveraged balance sheets, high debt burden, and weak demand.

Recent bond market travails of these companies signal more defaults may lie ahead for Chinese onshore issuers as trillions of yuan in bonds become due in 2017.

Sichuan Coal Default

State-owned Sichuan Coal Industry Group missed a bond payment on Dec. 25. A total of 1 billion yuan ($150 million) in principal plus interest were due.

It was the second default for the coal company this year. Sichuan Coal also missed an interest payment in June but that default was ultimately resolved after the Sichuan government stepped in. Bond investors were paid at the end of July with loans from state-owned Sichuan Provincial Investment Group and a consortium of local and national banks.

ATC_Coal

Australian thermal coal prices during last twelve months (Indexmundi.com)

Other Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are experiencing similar liquidity issues. China’s biggest lender—the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China—on Dec. 30 agreed to invest in Taiyuan Iron & Steel Group, Datong Coal Mine Group, and Yangquan Coal Industry Group via debt-to-equity swaps. Such swaps have been a key tool of Beijing to reduce leverage amongst SOEs by exchanging debt for equity. The swaps instantly eliminate debt and reduce leverage ratios at the cash-strapped firms.

Steel, coal, and other heavy industries have languished on weak global and domestic demand. Beijing also launched a program to shut underperforming mines and plants and reduce its coal producing capacity. China’s Shanxi Province in the northeast is its biggest coal-producing area, accounting for more than 25 percent of the country’s coal production last year.

Trillions of Yuan Becoming Due

Historically, bond defaults have been unheard of in China. But in 2016, 55 corporate defaults were recorded, more than double the number for 2015. And 2017 will likely see even more defaults.

More than 5.5 trillion yuan ($800 billion) in bonds will mature in 2017, or 1.8 trillion yuan more than 2016, according to China Chengxin International Credit Rating Group. That’s a significant amount of cash Chinese companies must come up with during the next year.

Sichuan Coal’s default—assuming the local government declines to extend another bailout—could signal that Chinese Communist authorities are willing to allow more bond defaults going forward. In truth, analysts have expected massive bond defaults for years, while Beijing has been selective in choosing which SOEs to bail out. Regardless, the number of such bailouts has decreased, underscoring authorities’ increasing comfort level with letting companies fail. With the significant amount of bonds due in 2017, a spike in bond defaults will likely result.

Furthering the challenge facing Chinese companies is the economic backdrop, which doesn’t look friendly for the Chinese bond market.

China’s rickety financial system is built entirely on overleveraging with cheap debt.

Like the rest of the global bond market, Chinese bonds have already been under pressure from the U.S. Federal Reserve’s plans of raising short-term interest rates. This has raised yields across the globe. China’s 10-year government bond yield settled at 3.07 percent on Dec. 30, slightly lower than mid-month but far higher than the 2.8 percent range at the beginning of 2016 (bond yields and prices move in opposite directions).

Faced with increased risk of capital flight, China may elect to guide its own rates higher. But in such a scenario, raising new debt would become prohibitively more expensive during a time when many Chinese companies are facing liquidity problems amidst slowing economic growth. The central bank’s actions would further squeeze Chinese borrowers in need of new debt to roll over existing debt.

China’s rickety financial system is built entirely on overleveraging with cheap debt. It is especially susceptible to rate hikes and without the type of economic growth required to withstand such rate increases.

With so much debt becoming due and armed with few options to raise new capital, 2017 could spell disaster for cash-strapped Chinese companies.

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People work at an offshore oil engineering platform in Qingdao, Shandong province, July 1, 2016. Because of too much debt, a Chinese engineering company has recently transformed itself into a bank.  
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)People work at an offshore oil engineering platform in Qingdao, Shandong province, July 1, 2016. Because of too much debt, a Chinese engineering company has recently transformed itself into a bank.  
(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

China is desperate to solve several problems it has due to its debt to GDP ratio being north of 300 percent. It may have found a pretty unconventional one by letting companies become banks, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal.  

With profits headed south, heavily indebted Chinese heavy-machinery giant Sany Heavy Industries said this week it won approval to set up a bank in the Hunan Province city of Changsha. With 3 billion yuan ($450 million) of registered capital, it will be a relatively large institution as Chinese city-based banks go. Sanyplans to join forces with a pharmaceutical company and an aluminum company.

Sany already operates an insurance and finance division with the goal of internal financing and insurance services for clients. 

Sany Heavy Industries already operates a Finance and Insurance arm, although it's unclear what gold has to do with it. (Company Website)

Sany Heavy Industries already operates a Finance and Insurance arm, although it’s unclear what gold has to do with it. (Company Website)

Debt Problem

One problem is that companies are defaulting on bond payments and there is no adequate resolution mechanism for bad debts, at least according to Goldman Sachs.

“A clearer debt resolution process (for example, how debt restructuring on public bonds can be achieved, how valuation and recovery on defaulted bonds are arrived at, the timely disclosure of information and clarity on court-sanctioned processes) would help to pave the way for more defaults, which in our view are needed if policymakers are to deliver on structural reforms,” the investment bank writes in a note. 

It would not be the first time China tries a circular financial arrangement to solve some structural issues.

By becoming or owning banks, the companies can just shift debt around different balance sheets to avoid a default, although this is probably not the resolution that Goldman Sachs had in mind when talking about structural reforms.  

Another problem is that the regime has more and more difficulties pushing more debt into the economy to grease the wheels and keep GDP growth from collapsing entirely.

China needs 11.9 units of new debt to create one unit of GDP growth. At the same time, the velocity of money or the measure of how often one unit of money changes hands during a year has fallen to below 0.5, another measure of how saturated the economy is with uneconomical credit. If the velocity of money goes down, the economy needs a higher stock of money to keep the same level of activity.

(Macquarie)

(Macquarie)

So if companies can’t pay back loans, old banks don’t want to give out loans, and consumers don’t want to circulate the money, you can just let some companies become banks to prevent them from defaulting and maybe even issue new loans to themselves. It would not be the first time China has tried a circular financial arrangement to solve some structural issues.  

Sany Not Alone 

According to the Wall Street Journal report, the Sany Heavy Industries case is only one of a few. Other companies in the tobacco and travel sectors, for example, have taken over banks or formed new ones. 

ChinaTopix reports that the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) has already awarded five licenses for private banks and received another 12 applications during the past year. It also mentions that industrial firms are behind this move:

“One bank, Fujian Huatong Bank, which has a registered capital of Rmb3 billion ($450 million), was promoted by 10 Fujian-based companies in different sectors, including retail, manufacturing and real estate.”

We don’t know if the regulator had this in mind when they launched the initiative to boost private banks in China in 2014 in order to improve lending to the technology sector, but it did explicitly mention that private companies should form banks.  

“Qualified private enterprises shall be encouraged to set up private banks. The innovation of products, services, management, and technology by private banks will inject new vitality into the sustainable and innovative development of the banking sector,” the CBRC states in an undated report.

It remains to be seen whether this is a long-term sustainable solution. 

Follow Valentin on Twitter: @vxschmid

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