Friday, November 06, 2020

China Stopped The Ant IPO To Quarantine A Western Financialization And Securitization Pandemic

nakedcapitalism |  The Financial Times comment section confirmed this take and criticized the pink paper’s account, which mentioned but didn’t tease out the significance of Ma criticizing the government for being leery of unsecured personal lending:

At the end of October, Mr Ma criticised China’s state-owned banks at a financial summit in Shanghai. He suggested the big lenders had a “pawnshop mentality” and that Ant was playing an important role in extending credit to innovative but collateral-poor companies and individuals.

From the Financial Times’ peanut gallery:

Hater of Simpletons

For those who didn’t know what happened : check the new regulation which limits Ant’s leverage and enhances consumer protection, which also limits Ant’s valuation as a “tech” company. That was the main reason Jack fired at regulators in his speech [at the end of October] – and to be honest, there was no way he didn’t know the regulation long before the listing date and the speech (gov spent months on a policy, if not longer and would consult industry leaders)! If the IPO were not halted, investors would have suffered from major losses, not to mention the high leverage (60x+) and ABS put Ant’s customers at risk. Jack fired the speech to evade regulation and made sure HE made enough money from the listing. Not investors, not Ant users. Being sarcastic is easy. Try to get clear of what REALLY happened.

Now to the substance of the dispute, which led to the halt of the IPO and will require Ant to substantially restructure its business. Ant originates personal and small business loans to parties with little in the way of assets. These loans command higher interest rates than more conventional loans and from what we infer, “higher’ can mean “pretty high”.

As we have written, China hasn’t been shy about using leverage to boost growth, even though as we and others have written, over time, the incremental lending has produced less and less in the way of GDP lift. China has also had multiple mini-financial crises involving its “wealth management products.” These are typically uninsured investments that provide a fixed interest rate for a set period of time, typically five years. They have often provided funding for state-level real estate investments. Nevertheless, even if you allow for Michael Hudson’s view that land should be taxed aggressively to limit real estate rentierism, economists have found that borrowing to make productive investments in businesses, equipment, and buildings adds to growth, while increases in personal borrowing are a brake.

Another reason for China to take a dim view of personal borrowing is that the government prioritizes wage growth and improving living standards as its basis for legitimacy. There’s no reason, as in the US, to use consumer borrowing to mask stagnant worker wages. And the Chinese may even have recognized that overly financialized economies have lower rates of growth than ones at a more modest level of financial “deepening”. The IMF found that Poland was at the optimum level, but argued that more finance might not create a drag if the sector was well-regulated.

Mind you, we aren’t saying that China is a paragon of regulatory virtue. They still allow for stunning amounts of margin lending against stocks. And they’ve also sat pat as ghost cities, too often shoddily built, continue to rise, a textbook case of trading sardines.1 But they appear to want to avoid having a finance-driven economy, and also appear to have learned from some of our mistakes.

Now to the specifics of why Chinese officials came down on Ant. First, from the Wall Street Journal:

Some of the writing was on the wall earlier. While Ant was gearing up to launch its IPO, regulators had begun taking aim at the company’s fast-growing microloan business, which provides short-term credit to hundreds of millions of individuals and scores of small businesses.

On Sept. 14, China’s banking and insurance regulator issued a private notice to some commercial banks warning them about the risks of making loans in partnership with third-party institutions, according to a copy of the notice seen by The Wall Street Journal. It said banks should not be outsourcing their loan underwriting and risk controls.

When Ant partners with banks to make loans, the lenders provide the funding and bear the risk of defaults, while Ant collects fees for facilitating the transactions.

Two days later, the regulator published a guideline that placed caps on the volume of asset-backed securities that could be issued by microlenders. Two subsidiaries of Ant have bundled many loans into securities and sold them to raise funds for lending operations.

In other words, Chinese officials tried halting Ant’s practice of originating risky individual/small business loans and selling them to banks, both on the bank and Ant ends of the pipeline. That apparently didn’t lead to a change of course at Ant or its allied banks or lead to any change in appetite for its IPO.