Private firms in China are feeling the pain. Despite less emphasis on deleveraging in recent months and ample liquidity in markets, many privately owned enterprises in China are still starved of credit.

In July, China’s central bank announced easing measures to expand lending and increase investment in corporate bonds (link to previous article here). A few months on, liquidity situations have improved for some local government financing vehicles (LGFVs) onshore, but tight credit conditions continue to deprive many weaker private corporates of funding.

Source: Wind, Fidelity International, November 2018

At a high level, credit growth continues to slow as policy makers seem determined to maintain deleveraging, even as they tinker with the pace and focus of the campaign. Off-balance sheet financing, primarily shadow banking and wealth management products, is shrinking rapidly, cutting off a refinancing channel for many corporates.

Source: Wind, Fidelity International, November 2018

Meanwhile, on-balance sheet financing is not growing fast enough to compensate for the decline in off-balance sheet financing. This is because deleveraging measures such as the macro-prudential assessment (for monitoring banks’ liquidity and risk-taking) and new asset management rules (such as the removal of implicit guarantees) have reduced banks’ risk appetites. As a result, they now focus on credit quality over yield/return, reflected in the growing proportion of AAA ratings among onshore bond issues in 2018.

Source: Wind, Fidelity International, November 2018

While measures in mid-July were partly meant to help the lower rated corporates, within the AA bucket, banks still prefer to lend to government-backed issuers over privately-owned enterprises (POEs), whether in the form of bond or loans. Since July, POEs are getting far less onshore funding than government-related issuers.

Source: Wind, Fidelity International, November 2018

Historically, private firms have turned to smaller, mid-tier banks for financing, as the larger, stated-owned banks can simply lend to the bigger, safer state-owned enterprises. This track record means smaller banks have developed a better understanding of POEs’ fundamentals, credit profiles and management.

However, the monetary and regulatory tightening across China over the past 18 months have made interbank funding more difficult for smaller banks, reducing their risk appetite. Meanwhile, larger banks with more liquidity remain unwilling to lend to private firms as they lack conviction and understanding of the sector. This has meant that private firms - even ones with solid track records and legitimate business models - are struggling to get credit, especially when compared to LGFVs and SOEs with similar fundamentals.

Turbulence to linger

In October, we saw nine defaults among private firms, reflecting the tight credit conditions for POEs in the “high yield” segment (which in China refers to an onshore AA rating, as anything lower is practically non-existent).

Source: Wind, Fidelity International, November 2018

Looking at the near term, we expect volatility to remain in the coming few months as onshore corporates face a meaningful amount of maturities in the first half of 2019. Onshore defaults could rise, albeit from a low base.

Source: Wind, Fidelity International, November 2018

Comments from the investment desk:

Freddy Wong, Portfolio Manager, Fixed Income:

How can things improve from here?

From the perspective of the onshore bond market, POEs are riskier but not offering much higher yields than LGFVs or SOEs in the AA or high-yield segment. The market needs more credit differentiation before banks have incentive to buy bonds from POEs.

Perhaps “harder” guidelines by Chinese authorities are needed for this to happen. Recent signs indicate a shift may be underway as measures supporting private firms are getting more targeted. This month, CBIRC Chairman Guo Shuqing was considering boosting banks’ private sector loans to more than 50 per cent of new corporate loans in the coming three years, vs. 25 per cent currently, according to Xinhua.

While this may be hard to achieve in the near term, it shows the government is keeping liquidity loose to stabilize credit conditions, aiming to ensure funding for all corporates at costs that reflect their fundamentals.

More pain before gain

Looking ahead, China will likely go through more pain before it gains. With slowing housing prices and consumption, as well as price declines in risky assets, the market's growth expectation should be recalibrated to a less aggressive, more sustainable trajectory.

Only after the market fully digests these negative factors will investor attitudes become supportive of asset prices again. Positive fiscal policies, such as tax reforms, should also inject some momentum into the market.

Onshore China’s current credit condition is a product of the holistic deleveraging effort by policymakers combined with a structural reshuffle of corporate financing channels.

In this sense, the growth of shadow banking in recent years was a product of imbalances within the banking system, where private firms could not get sufficient access to funding. Now, as shadow banking shrinks, bigger players in the banking system could be pushed to take on more credit risk and increase support to private companies. This transition from off-balance sheet to on-balance sheet will not be painless, but should eventually lead to a more transparent and efficient funding ecosystem in China.

Bryan Collins, Head of Asian Fixed Income:

Risk sentiment remains weak due to concerns around macro headwinds, trade wars, instability in emerging markets and moderating global growth. There is growing expectation in the market that China will add more policy support for its economy, which would also help mitigate any impact from trade wars.

Slower growth and a weaker macroeconomy mean softer property demand and consumer spending (especially on large ticket items). Meanwhile, choppy equity markets correspond with fundamental weakness in various sectors. In this environment, it is paramount to focus on credit quality and avoid names with poor liquidity and debt management.

Recent large-scale offshore issuance has added pressure to Chinese credits across ratings (including some investment-grade property names), widening yield spreads. Valuations are very attractive but spreads are unlikely to tighten in the near term due to the weak macro environment and credit conditions.

For 2019, property developers are not aiming for big growth targets, but instead focusing on deleveraging and liquidity preservation. They can accept flat growth, or even declining sales if the physical market materially deteriorates absent a strong policy response. We are somewhat relieved to hear that no developers are counting on policy loosening.

Currently we are overweight on risk and passively adding to it, especially when valuations are attractive. For example, we’re seeing some new BB range issuances with 8 to 9 per cent coupons, close to double the coupons offered 1-2 years ago.

Source: ICE BofAML Indices, Bloomberg, Fidelity International, November 2018
Bryan Collins

Bryan Collins

Freddy Wong

Freddy Wong

Vanessa Chan

Vanessa Chan

Stanley Shek

Stanley Shek

Bob Chen

Bob Chen

Investment Writer