Pettis: No Lehman but shadow run possible

China Bubble Pop

Exclusively from Michael Pettis’ newsletter:

Short-term rates in the interbank lending market rose steadily over the past two weeks and then suddenly soared Thursday amid rumors of the market’s having frozen up and one or more large banks having missed payments. Rates decline Friday but still remained high.

For the past ten years China’s soaring credit has been accommodated by rapid money expansion as the PBoC was forced to monetize large net inflows on the current and capital account. This year, however, while credit continued to expand at historically unprecedented rates, net foreign exchange inflows seem to have dried up, especially after the authorities clamped down some time in May on the over-invoicing of exports that had been used to bring “carry trade” money illegally into the country.

The tension created by accelerating credit expansion (much of it supporting activities that were not generating sufficient cashflow to repay the associated debt) and decelerating money creation has created liquidity strains for much of the past year. Last weeks’ events were likely to have been simply an exacerbation of those strains.

I believe talk in the market of China’s experiencing its own “Lehman moment” are very much exaggerated. There is liquidity in the system and the PBoC still has the tools needed to alleviate a short-term liquidity crunch before it leads to a banking crisis. Government credibility is high, and given the wide-spread assumption that the government stands behind the banks, I do not expect anything approaching a bank run.

There are however two important lessons to be drawn. First, we are likely to see similar stress in the banks many times again (and have seen it before) as a financial sector wholly addicted to cheap and plentiful credit struggles to accommodate Beijing’s determination to control credit growth.

Second, the way the crisis was handled should make it clear that volatility in the financial sector is suppressed by administrative measures. This, however, may increase the risk of a future gapping in confidence and volatility.

During the coming week I believe that a significant amount of WMP will mature, and because of asset/liability mismatched this WMP must be rolled over. Beijing, correctly in my opinion, continues to be eager to clamp down on risks within the shadow-banking sector. This is likely to create further stress in WMP placement, which, if mismanaged, could create a run on WMP.

If there is indeed a reduction in the amount of funding available for WMP, the money will have to flow into some other sector. Given the large size of the WMP market, these flows might be significant, although it is not yet clear to me where they will go.

Probably the main lesson of last week is that systems in which volatility is suppressed often seem less volatile, but this is only true when shocks are small. Large shocks tend to result in increases in volatility that far exceed expectations.

David Llewellyn-Smith
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