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中国银行业乱局是个政治问题

裴敏欣 2013年07月01日

中国人民银行最近特意压缩银行信贷以整治影子银行的说法从政治角度来看站不住脚。只有中央政治局才有可能做出这样的决定。但中共中央第三次全体会议召开在即,届时将宣布最重要的经济措施。在此之前,中国不可能冒着影响经济形势、打乱自身部署的风险对影子银行采取大胆行动。

    最近一个时期内,中国最严重的信贷紧缩似乎已经过去。6月25日,中国人民银行(the People's Bank of China)发布了一份公告来稳定人心,扫除了投资者对中国银行间同业拆借市场流动性不足的担忧。中国股市停止暴跌,银行间拆借利率从20%以上回落至6%左右(仍为最近恐慌行情出现之前平均利率的两到三倍)。看来中国已经躲过了自己的雷曼时刻,至少目前是这样。

    不过,还有许多问题,其中既有最近中国银行体系陷入混乱的原因,又有它对中国经济的影响。

    对于最近中国银行间拆借市场为什么会出现资金紧张的情况,人们莫衷一是。外界广泛认为是中国人民银行人为制造了信贷紧张的局面,目的是整治国内的影子银行。央行则为自己开脱,但它的解释并不非常可信。央行将这次恐慌归结为一系列巧合,比如银行要在6月底前公布经营数据(这项要求迫使许多银行压缩贷款余额,同时矫饰自身的风险情况),5月底和6月中期清缴税收(缴税造成现金退出流通)以及端午节假期前现金需求增多。

    许多经济学家和投资者都接受另一种解释,那就是,获得新一届领导人许可后,央行和国内影子银行体系的参与者展开了一次高风险角逐。由于在影子银行体系中,借款人获得的资金主要来自银行间市场,减少此类贷款供应释放出了一个有力信号,即中央政府不会再允许冒险行为,也不会允许国内信贷泡沫继续膨胀。有些分析师甚至认为,这是中国政府打响的第一枪,它标志着去杠杆化进程的开始。

    还有第三种解释,它更简单、而且可能更为合理。那就是长期以来一直存在的一个问题在没有征兆的情况下突然爆发了,完全出乎中国货币监管部门的预料,而且监管部门对此应对不力,很可能是造成本次危机的原因。

    很长一段时间以来,人们一直把中国影子银行体系的扩张(据估算,这个体系的信贷余额约等于正规银行业资产负债规模的10-15%)视为中国金融行业的风险源头。中国的决策者完全清楚这个领域的风险活动,但一直选择按兵不动,原因是影子银行有多种有利用途,也有着强大的利益团体。无法从正规国有银行得到贷款的地方政府、房地产开发商和私营企业主能以更高的利率为代价从影子银行获得资金。而国有银行和投资公司将借款人发行的理财产品兜售给追逐高收益的储户,进而获得可观的交易费。在一切进展顺利的情况下,许多有钱有势的人赚了钱,金融行业的风险则不断积累。

    和金融领域类似的冒进事件一样,信心会瞬间化为乌有,人们会慌忙逃离市场。面对这种预料之外而又有很大破坏性的局面,就连经验丰富、很有能力的监管部门也经常准备不足。如果从这个角度来分析中国银行间拆借市场近期出现的震荡,我们也许能更好地理解本次短期恐慌的成因,进而避免反应过度或过度解读。

    The worst credit squeeze in China in recent memory seems to be over. After the People's Bank of China (PBOC), the country's central bank, issued a reassuring statement on June 25 that dispelled investors' worries about the lack of liquidity in China's interbank loan market, Chinese stock markets halted their plunge, and the rates of China's interbank loans fell from over 20% to around 6% (still two to three times greater than the average rate before the recent panic). China's Lehman moment, for now at least, appears to have been averted.

    However, many questions remain, both about the causes of the recent turmoil in China's banking system and the implications for the Chinese economy.

    As for what prompted the recent seizing-up of China's interbank loan market, there is no shortage of theories. The PBOC, widely perceived as having engineered an artificial credit squeeze to crack down on China's shadow banking sector, has come out with innocent but not very credible explanations. It blames the panic on a set of coincidental factors, such as the June deadline for banks to report their numbers (a requirement that forces many banks to reduce outstanding loans and embellish their risk profiles), tax due dates at the end of May and middle of June (tax payments suck cash out of the circulation), and increased demand for cash before a traditional Chinese holiday.

    An alternative explanation, popular mainly among economists and investors, is that the PBOC was engaged in a high-stakes game with players in China's shadow banking system, all with the blessing of China's new political leadership. Because interbank loans constitute the bulk of funding for borrowers in the shadow banking system, making such loans less available sends a powerful message that the central government will no longer tolerate risky behavior and keep inflating China's credit bubble. Some analysts went so far as to suggest that this is the first shot fired by the Chinese government to signal the start of a deleveraging process.

    There is a third explanation, which is simpler and perhaps more reasonable. This incident is most likely a botched response by the Chinese monetary authorities to a problem that has been long in the making but exploded without warning and caught them completely by surprise.

    The growth of China's shadow banking system (with estimated outstanding credits equaling roughly 10-15% of the balance sheet of the formal banking sector) has long been flagged as a source of risk in China's financial sector. Chinese policy-makers are fully aware of the risky activities within this sector but have opted to do nothing because the system serves several useful functions and has powerful interest groups. Local governments, real estate developers, and private entrepreneurs unable to obtain loans from the state-owned formal banking sector can tap this system for funding by paying a higher interest rate. State-owned banks and investment companies pocket lucrative transaction fees by peddling wealth management products (WMPs) issued by borrowers to depositors chasing high yields. When this game is going well, a lot of rich and powerful people make money while risk builds up in the financial sector.

    As with similar instances of financial recklessness, confidence can evaporate quickly, setting off a panicked exit from the market. Even sophisticated and capable regulators are often ill-prepared for such unforeseen and highly disruptive events. If we analyze the recent gyrations in China's interbank loan market from this perspective, we may gain a better understanding of the causes behind the short-lived panic and avoid overreacting to or over-interpreting this event.

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