Via AFR : While investors fret about the carnage in European bank stocks, some analysts are warning that they’re ignoring problems much closer to home: the possibility of an Asian banking crisis.
Legendary Swiss investor Felix Zulauf, who runs Zulauf Asset Management, was one of the first to sound the alarm, warning that China’s economic woes would inevitably infect Singapore and would probably prompt a banking crisis.
“Singapore, which has attracted a lot of foreign capital over the years because of its image as a strong-currency state, will be extremely exposed to the situation in China,” Zulauf told Barron’s Roundtable in January.
“Singapore’s banking-sector loans have grown dramatically in the past five or six years. Singapore is now losing capital, which means the banking industry is losing deposits.”
He said this would probably cause carry trades to backfire, triggering heavy losses for those who had borrowed heavily to buy higher-yielding assets.
“I expect a banking crisis to develop in Singapore and to spread eventually to Hong Kong,” he said.
But Zulauf isn’t alone in worrying about the financial health of Singapore’s large banks. Analysts say Singapore’s three largest banks – DBS, Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp and United Overseas Bank – could suffer a sharp spark in problem loans if the Chinese economy brakes sharply.
Big corporate loan books
After all, all three are big lenders in the Asian region, with significant corporate loan books. The three banks could face a big jump in their problem loans if there is a spate of defaults by debt-laden Chinese companies, or from other companies in the region whose earnings are already tumbling as a result of flagging Chinese growth.
Investors are already showing a skittishness about the banks. Although Singapore’s stock exchange has been closed this week because of Chinese New Year, fears about the hefty exposure of Singapore’s three biggest banks to mainland China have been weighing on their share prices.
The share price of DBS has slumped almost 30 per cent in the past year, while Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation is down 27 per cent and United Overseas Bank, which has lower exposure to China, has declined 23 per cent.
Meanwhile, jitters over the exposure of Asian banks to China is causing global investors to withdraw funds from Singapore, which has helped push the Singapore dollar close to a six-year low.
It’s a similar problem in Hong Kong, where capital outflows appear to be accelerating as investors worry about the huge exposure the city’s large banks have to Chinese borrowers.
Analysts say this could create a liquidity problem for Hong Kong’s banks because while global investors are able to withdraw their funds quickly from this deregulated financial centre, local banks face a much tougher task in extracting their cash from mainland China.
Nervousness about house prices
In addition, capital outflow is putting upward pressure on short-term interest rates, and fuelling nervousness about the outlook for housing prices in Hong Kong, which have already fallen almost 10 per cent from their September peak.
The Hong Kong dollar recently touched a seven-and-a-half-year low against the US dollar, amid growing speculation the city will be forced to end its currency peg with the greenback.
These worries are already being reflected in sharp slides in the share prices of British-listed banks such as HSBC and Standard Chartered, both of which are estimated to derive about a third of their revenue from China.
HSBC’s share price dropped a further 1.4 per cent in trading overnight, while Standard Chartered dropped 5.6 per cent.
In the past year, HSBC’s share price has tumbled 29 per cent, while Standard Chartered’s share price has had a stunning 55 per cent decline.