Alternately conservative and liberal policies and regulations by the Chinese authorities have resulted in the real estate bubble getting bigger and increasing inflation
Back in June I wrote a column about the Chinese real estate bubble. Recently we know that the Chinese authorities have been tightening, but often we do not know how much and in what ways. Apparently, neither do the Chinese authorities. On November 15, the state media newspaper the China Daily announced that China's four biggest state banks had used up their full-year credit quotas for property developers and would stop extending new loans to them for the rest of the year.
The paper cited a source from the ministry of housing and urban-rural development and quoted several unnamed executives from the banks. For example, one anonymous credit department executive at the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) was quoted as saying, "It is impossible to extend fresh loans to developers."
What is interesting is that the same newspaper printed a story 10 hours later denying the report. China Daily wrote: "China's top four banks rejected reports that they would stop lending to real estate developers for the remainder of the year." So we have a state newspaper quoting a ministry that was quoting an executive from a state-owned bank, which statement was later denied by the same state newspaper quoting information from the same state-owned banks. Is this sloppy journalism or an intentional 'mistake'? My bet is the latter.
The incident says volumes about the real estate boom in China, inflation in China, the government's attempts to control the economy and problems associated with distortions of information.
What is clear is that the Chinese are worried about the rise of inflation. The People's Bank of China (PBoC) said that the reason it raised interest rates was to manage "inflation expectations and consolidating the results of real-estate adjustment policies." And it went on to blame a part of the problem on "loose monetary policies in major economies", meaning the United States.
One of the problems with the Chinese economy is that it is still very much dominated by central authorities in Beijing. These authorities have ironically put their faith in the one thing that the government often disregards: the law. The Chinese government likes to try to control its economy, and specifically the real estate market, with regulations. They should know better.
They have been through this before. Starting in late 2007, the Chinese started to put on the brakes for their property markets. Rather than just raise interest rates, they used regulatory methods, including things like credit ceilings, higher down payments, restrictions on third homes and increasing bank's reserve requirements.
The problem with these restrictions is that they don't really work. During the last bubble, banks were supposed to demand a 40% down payment from families seeking second mortgages, but many turned a blind eye if the loan applicant did not hold another property, even if other family members did. They were also supposed to give loans only if the borrower had a certain size apartment, but they never checked.
When the first regulations don't work, the government pushes the brakes a little harder. They use stronger and stronger restrictions and eventually overshoot. By May 2008 prices had fallen by 30%. And the sales volume in Shanghai was 50% lower than a year earlier.
The Chinese reacted to the crash like all other governments have. They started stimulating their economy with a vengeance. In 2009, the government ordered the state-owned banks to start lending, and lend they did. They lent a record 9.6 trillion yuan ($1.4 trillion) in 2009. If the US stimulus had been on a similar size relative to GDP, it would have been $6 trillion.
This year they reigned in the loans a bit, but not much. Their loan target is 7.5 trillion yuan, but that has almost certainly been exceeded. In September alone, China's total lending-including loans from smaller commercial banks-reached 500 billion yuan, far exceeding a previous estimate of 280 billion yuan. In contrast, in 2008 only 4 trillion yuan ($585 billion) was extended in new loans.
It is not surprising that this wall of money created a real estate bubble. The only real question is why it didn't create more inflation. The answer is that it probably has. The reported inflation is 4.4%, but it could be much more. Food prices are up an annualized 10%, 18 staple vegetables are up 62.4%, ginger is up 89.5% and garlic is up 95.8%. Price controls are being considered.
So, now the cycle is repeating itself. This year the government started tightening in February. Like price controls on food, none of these regulations will work. To try to rein this deluge will no doubt take stronger and stronger measures. The Chinese government is desperately trying to avoid what occurred in 2008, which is why the disparity of information is hardly surprising. But since it is using the same tools, undoubtedly it will have the same result. Unfortunately this time, the effects will reach far beyond China.
Many smart investors are betting on water. Debashis Basu sketches what is on their mind
In this second part of our investigation into the workings of gold loan companies, we delve into the financial model of an industry leader, Manappuram Finance, which is listed on the BSE
Going by their recent blockbuster performances, it would seem that gold loan companies are poised for exponential growth for a long time to come. Many of these companies have been quoting astronomical growth figures, supported by unrelenting demand from a public increasingly looking at gold more as an investment than as a piece of jewellery. Indeed, players in the gold loan business are increasingly trying to spread awareness on how lower income families can leverage their gold holdings instead of keeping their valuables idle or borrowing at sky-high rates from pawnbrokers.
Leaving aside Manappuram Finance, other prominent non-banking financial companies (NBFCs) like Muthoot Finance and Muthoot Fincorp are not yet listed entities, and hence do not need to disclose their financials to the public. But their performance too, by all accounts, is very good. The question is, would these growth figures remain robust under changed circumstances, such as a significant fall in gold price?
Let us try to get a grip on the financials of these companies by looking at the only listed entity - Manappuram Finance. This Kerala-born company has been on a phenomenal growth curve for over a decade now. Over the past five years, its revenues have surged 2,322% from a modest Rs19.74 crore as on 31 March 2006 to Rs478.2 crore as on 31 March 2010. Profits have zoomed 2,923% in this period, from Rs3.96 crore to Rs119.72 crore. The company's loan book has grown by leaps and bounds from Rs63.16 crore to Rs1,890.71 crore during this period.
This fantastic growth momentum has continued in the June quarter of the current fiscal year. Income surged 177% to Rs186 crore while net profits zoomed 225% to Rs46 crore over the corresponding quarter last year. Thanks to such vigorous growth in turnover and profits, Manappuram's shares have shot up from Rs13 in April 2009 to Rs116 (on 19th August). By the end of the June quarter, the company's loan book stood at Rs2,681 crore. The management has indicated that they plan to achieve a size of Rs8,000 crore by the end of this fiscal year.
What makes this business so lucrative is the sizeable spread that the company can earn and the low non-performing loans, until now. For Manappuram, the spread between the yield on advances and the cost of funds is as high as 16%. Another highlight of the business is the strikingly low incidence of non-performing loans (NPLs). Apparently, gold loans rarely become NPLs primarily because of the low average loan duration, the desire to repay the loan and reposses the jewellery and the ease of disposing the jewellery for loans which are defaulting. Manappuram's gross NPAs stood at a mere 0.19% of the total assets for the June quarter.
Where do NBFCs like Manappuram get the funds to loan you at an
ever-increasing pace? Unlike traditional NBFCs, they do not rely on fixed deposits. Of late, they have also attracted attention from private equity players. Last month, Muthoot Finance raised Rs157 crore through private placement from leading PE firms Baring Private Equity Partners India and Matrix Partners India. Over the past few years, Manappuram has also received patronage from several PE firms including Sequoia, India Equity Partners, Ashmore Alchemy and Granite-Hill. Manappuram received around Rs70 crore from Sequoia and India Equity Partners in 2008, with another Rs70.8 crore coming into their books in 2009 from Ashmore Alchemy and Granite-Hill, together with the previous PE investors. This year, Sequoia exited the company with returns of nearly 7.4 times. In May this year, Manappuram made a placement to Qualified Institutional Investors raising Rs245 crore. According to a report in the Economic Times today, Manappuram is further looking to raise Rs1,000 crore through the QIP route in the third quarter of this fiscal. This fund-raising spree is the outcome of an ever-increasing gold loan book.
But while this can explain the fact that lenders would be more confident in dealing with Manappuram, it does not explain the main source of funding. After all, Manappuram has a loan book of around Rs2,000 crore and we are talking of a few hundred crores raised from PE investors.
Look at the balance sheet and you will find that the source of funds for these companies is mostly borrowings from banks, bonds, debentures or commercial paper and also private equity funds. On 31 March 2010, Manappuram had advances of Rs1,891 crore. The majority of this was gold loans. This was funded by equity capital of Rs34 crore, reserves of Rs576 crore (including share premium reserves) and loans funds of Rs1,836 crore. The bulk of the loan funds was secured borrowings from banks (Rs1,367 crore) and funds through bonds/debentures (Rs262 crore) and commercial paper (Rs65 crore). It is worth focusing on what is the security that Manappuram has given to get a "secured" loan? After all, it has no productive assets. Fixed assets including intangibles amount to only Rs57 crore. The gold in its locker does not belong to the company. Well, the answer to this question leads us to the very secret of the current success of gold loan companies.
As we found out, some 90% of Manappuram's borrowings are secured against the very loan it gives out, in a remarkable case of pyramiding. Banks are funding its receivables arising out of gold loans even though the underlying gold does not belong to it. In effect, thanks to an interesting piece of financial engineering and support from banks, the gold people loan out to Manappuram becomes an asset for the company! This looks like a pyramid scheme but everyone believes that the pyramid will not topple as long as the going is good. While we have no forecast on the price of gold, we certainly believe that a business model, built by pyramiding money, entirely based on the speculative price of a single product, has huge potential risks. What are these risks? That's in our third part.