Why can't private banks break China?

European banks trying to break into China are biting off more than they can chew.

When private bankers think of China they might see millions and millions of smiling Mao Zedongs — in green and pink and mustard yellow, on vast piles of renminbi banknotes. Private banking was legalised in China in 2006, and foreign players including HSBC, Citibank, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank quickly rushed in to service the country’s wealthy. The population of rich Chinese is, after all, growing rapidly, and each new Chinese millionaire is a potential client.

I had hoped to share impressive figures on just how many millionaires there are in China, but none of the statistics agree. Some reports say there are 562,000 high net worths (those with investible assets of over $1 m); others place it as high as $1.3 m.
Among the higher estimates, a 2012 Wealth Insight report finds that China’s 1.3 million HNWs own combined assets of $4.3 trn but only 17 per cent of this wealth is professionally managed — exciting news indeed for wealth managers hoping to get their hands on the remaining 83 per cent. Then again, you’d be feeling even more optimistic if you’d read a 2012 Accenture report, which said that only 7 per cent of this $4.3 trillion is under management.

On the one hand, this shows that everyone agrees that there’s plenty of unmanaged money on the mainland. On the other, a data shortage like this should be an early indication that setting up in China isn’t as easy as it sounds.
When it comes to talking about their business, many private bankers can rival the Communist Party in terms of secrecy and suspicion. It was a struggle to find people to go on record, some wouldn’t talk to me at all, and it took four emails with one PR to clarify if one bank was or wasn’t offering private banking services in China

One reason for this caginess could be that many banks haven’t performed as well as they’d hoped. "If I hear one more private bank saying they will go into China and break even in three years I’ll kill myself!" said one exasperated industry insider, who believes banks should expect to wait at least ten years to break even. "Everyone will say it’s changing, and that they’ve picked up clients, but they may have picked up five, or even ten clients — and that’s out of a potential pool of tens of thousands."

An early hurdle for private banks entering China was the financial crisis. ‘Some of the foreign players scaled back their presence in China, especially during the financial crisis, because some of the private banks suffered during the crisis, and that’s when the Chinese banks took the window of opportunity to rapidly grow their private banking business in China,’ says Jennifer Zeng, a partner at consulting group Bain.

‘That trend since then has been continuing: Chinese banks have a majority share of onshore private banking.’ Bain estimates that while 45 per cent of wealthy Chinese use private banks and other wealth-management institutions, 85 per cent of them are choosing to instruct local banks.
Chinese banks have some natural advantages when it comes to onshore banking in China. They are subject to fewer legal restrictions than foreign banks and so can offer a greater range of products, and because of their much larger retail presence they are better placed to identify newly rich clients ready to graduate from high street to private banks.

Foreign banks, however, aren’t helping their cause. Many don’t have a Chinese name and haven’t adapted their brand to the Chinese market: ‘Why should a Chinese HNW care about some bank’s Swiss heritage?’ asked one interviewee. Private banks have mistakenly followed the example of luxury fashion brands, which have successfully played up to their European heritage by not translating their names, but he says that ‘this might work for UHNWs, who speak some English, but not for HNWs’.

He believes private banks have been slow to grasp that China’s newly wealthy aren’t necessarily cosmopolitan, international families. A millionaire in today’s China could equally be a butcher in a mid-tier city, but one who’s built up a local business empire. He may speak no English, and may barely travel — except perhaps to Hong Kong for shopping or Macau for gambling weekends — and may have little exposure to, or interest in, Western financial brands.

But foreign banks suffer from more than an image problem. As you can imagine, banking a Communist country’s super-rich can throw up plenty of complications. First, many potential clients may not have made their money legally — government officials with modest salaries and enormous bank accounts come to mind. (According to Bloomberg last year, the 70 wealthiest members of China’s legislature were worth $90 billion; the combined worth of those in all three branches of the American government was $7.5 bn, by contrast.)

Secondly, many of the products that a private bank might usually want to offer are illegal. There are still restrictions on moving currency out of China, but many HNWs want to do precisely this — and bankers are always quick to point out that this doesn’t have to be for nefarious reasons, but simply as a means of risk diversification.

There are legal ways of moving assets abroad, such as through floating a company in Hong Kong or by having overseas contracts or businesses, and less legal ones: The Economist quoted research suggesting that $430 billion was transferred out of China in 2011 through mis-invoicing. One of the reasons gambling in Macau is so popular, I was told, is that it’s another way to bring money offshore.

Last year a banker at Standard Chartered was detained from March to May after one of his clients fled China having stolen $50 million. It’s not only private bankers who can face severe penalties: ‘Here’s one important thing to bear in mind: any investment adviser that is advising clients on taking money outside of China is not acting in the best interest of that client, because that’s not correct,’ an industry expert told me.
The private bankers I spoke to in Hong Kong, who handle offshore Chinese wealth, were all adamant that anti-money-laundering checks ensured that they never handled black-market money — but equally they believed there was plenty swilling around.

According to Bain's 2011 private banking report, the number of HNWs looking to invest abroad has increased rapidly. Investment immigration — where Chinese HNWs invest abroad in order to gain residency overseas — is a well-trodden path, with 60 per cent of HNWs polled saying they had either completed investment immigration, applied for it or are still completing their application.

Hong Kong is believed to house half of China’s offshore wealth, so Hong Kong-based China teams in all the major private banks are competing for this money. With their international networks, wide range of products and expertise, Western private banks have the upper hand in Hong Kong — but even this may not last long.
‘I’ve seen more and more Chinese banks setting up private banking operations in Hong Kong, and there’s increasing interest in them, too,’ says Marie-Louise Jungels, head of Continuum Capital, an external private bank in Hong Kong which helps HNWs consolidate their financial affairs. ‘I don’t think Chinese banks are quite on the same level — they will be mainly deposit takers for now and I don’t think their platforms are as sophisticated yet. But, if they’re determined, this can change very fast, as with everything China does at the moment.’
China, indeed, is taking the fight overseas. In 2008, the Bank of China opened its first private bank abroad, setting up an office in Switzerland, and China Merchant Bank, China Construction Bank, the Agricultural Bank of China and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China have all started private banking operations overseas too.

When I asked one industry source how he saw China’s wealth management landscape developing in the next ten years, he answered that the pace of change defied predictions. ‘I don’t think you can look at China in that timeframe. If you look at the country over the last three years, it’s a very different country now,’ he said. ‘You can have a directional ten-year goal, or series of goals, but I don’t think that’s time well spent. You’re not going to get it right.’

Instead of the Chairman Mao portrait found on Chinese banknotes, I thought of a piece of revolutionary memorabilia I have at home — a Mao alarm clock my mum picked up in China in the Seventies. The mechanism’s broken, so when it’s wound up the seconds speed up and slow down at random, and the little model of Mao waves its Red Book arrhythmically until, suddenly, the tinny alarm goes off and the whole thing shakes. Private bankers wide-eyed at the vast opportunities offered by China should remember that an alarm can go off at any moment.

This story first appeared on Spear's.

China's Spring Festival. Photograph: Getty Images

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?