In April, China's banking system received a warning shot when Fitch Ratings lowered its long-term outlook on the country's "issuer default rating" (IDR) to negative from stable. A single notch drop to AA- still means renminbi-denominated bonds are investment grade. But the ominous message from the ratings agency was that China's banks are awash in bad debt after a frenzy of lending, and could require a government bailout if their balance sheets deteriorate any time over the next few years. And Fitch has said there is a 60% likelihood of that happening. "There is a possibility that if [the sector] runs into trouble, the market will not be able to absorb the risks," according to Vincent Ho, Fitch's associate director in Hong Kong. "At the end of the day, we cannot rule out sovereign support for such a large system."

Although several weeks have passed since Fitch's report was published, clouds continue to gather. In terms of macroeconomics, for example, inflation in May was running at 5.5%, a three-year high, and — in spite of ongoing interest rate hikes and increasing quantitative restrictions on bank loans — the ominous signs are not expected to clear in the near term.

Fitch is also now not the only ratings agency to sound the alarm about China's banks. In a Moody's Investors Service report published in early July, analysts acknowledged that the sector is wobblier than they had previously thought. Earlier in the year, Moody's had warned that Chinese banks could be sitting on far more non-performing loans (NPLs) than the 1% of total lending reported by Chinese officials. Largely because of the country's trillions of renminbi of loans to local governments, Moody's says NPLs on the banks' balance sheets could rise to between 8% and 12% of total lending, compared with the 5% to 8% in the ratings agency's base case, or 10% to 18% in its stress case. Whatever the percentage, the numbers are large.

Mainland China's banking system is one of the largest in the world in terms of assets, after the U.S. The country also has three of the world's 12 largest banks in terms of top-tier capital adequacy, according to The Banker magazine: Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (in sixth place), China Construction Bank (eighth place) and Bank of China (ninth place). According to the China Banking Regulatory Commission's annual report for 2010, these banks, along with Agricultural Bank of China and Bank of Communications, accounted for about half of all lending in China, with other state-owned institutions making up most of the remainder.

Fuelling the sector's growth (and chipping away at its tier-one capital) is real estate. Fitch estimates that much of the rapid expansion of bank lending — the equivalent of around 140% of GDP last year, compared with 111% in 2008 — has been for housing, often via local government financing vehicles (LGFVs).

Moody's approximates that China's banks have funded at least RMB 8.5 trillion (US$1.3 trillion) of the RMB 10.7 trillion of outstanding local government debt, which was a significant portion of the RMB 14 trillion national stimulus package rolled out in the wake of 2008 global financial crisis (and a higher estimate of the debt than what Chinese officials reported recently following the first-ever audit of local government debt). Much of those loans are due in the next few years. While the LGFVs have implicit state backing, they are not risk-free because of the vehicles' interlinking relationship with the banks.

Victor Shih, a political science professor at Northwestern University in Chicago, notes that LGFVs have had an upsurge in bond issuance for property projects in which "the risk ultimately leads back to the banking system." Because domestic financial institutions are the only players of significant size in the onshore bond market, their LGFV bond holdings are highly susceptible to a property market downturn. "Those bonds are completely tied to real estate and land value," says Shih. "Without land value increasing, local authorities would not be able to raise money to repay bondholders."

A banking crisis would have a domino effect throughout the economy, predicts Fraser Howie, managing director of brokerage house CLSA in Singapore. "If you are going to address the misallocation of capital inthe banking system and credit system, that's going to have huge knock-on effects on the profitability and viability of the banks," he says, while also pointing out that the country's myriad state-owned enterprises — which thrive off of subsidies, including cheap bank loans — will take a hit, too. And if there were a major banking crisis, "you would start to see money trying to get out of China," he adds. "What would the government do to maintain stability? You could have a whole host of problems. It's almost far too complicated to contemplate."

What's more, China has a very small window to fix the sector's problems, according to Fitch. In a report published in June last year, "our colleagues placed the risk at 60% that the Chinese banking system could run into trouble within the next two to three years," says Fitch's Ho. "In terms of the sovereign ratings, since we revised the local currency IDR to negative from stable, we have been giving ourselves a timeframe of 12 to 18 months to observe the development…. We could take further rating action within this period."

Ho says LGFV and property-related lending are the primary areas of concern. The agency estimates that a rise in the NPL ratio to between 15% and 30% could require the equivalent of between 10% and 30% of GDP to support the system. China's central bank said in May that the sector's NPL ratio was 1.1%, although private-sector estimates put the ratio much higher. Credit Suisse, for instance, suggested in June that the ratio was around 25%.

The problem could be magnified by the hard-to-estimate off-balance sheet liabilities of the banking sector. According to Ho, Fitch estimates that these liabilities could be as much as RMB 10 trillion. Many of those liabilities are in the form of "entrusted loans," in which the banks are middlemen arranging loans from one corporate client to another. Bloomberg reported in June that China's banks helped arrange RMB 320 billion of such loans in the first quarter of 2011 that were not recorded on balance sheets, an increase of 110%, according to central bank data. Although a bank has no direct credit risk with such loans, it is still vulnerable should the final borrower trigger a chain of defaults.

Too Little, Too Late?

China's regulators are aware of the dangers of the banks' excessive real estate lending and have been pushing for more restraint, while requiring financial institutions to bolster their balance sheets. The central bank has raised reserve requirements for banks 16 times over the past 18 months (currently at 21.5% of their deposits) and has upped interest rates three times this year, with the benchmark one-year lending rate now 6.56% and the benchmark one-year deposit rate to 3.5% since the latest hike on July 6.

The country's financial institutions are also being pushed to raise capital from the markets.Securities Daily, an official newspaper, reported that mainland lenders will amass up to RMB 130 billion this year. The banks are well on their way — China Minsheng Banking Corporation has announced plans to issue some RMB 20 billion of convertible bonds in Shanghai while increasing the number of "H" shares it has listed in Hong Kong by about 40%; both Bank of Communications and Bank of China are looking at up to RMB 20 billion each through RMB-denominated Hong Kong bond issues; and China CITIC Bank has a RMB 26 billion rights issue in Hong Kong and Shanghai in the works.

Meanwhile, the recent state measures, including monetary tightening and the termination of some infrastructure projects, have been set in motion in a bid to prevent a banking meltdown. Although Shih applauds those steps, he says some should have happened soonerand more aggressively. "For political reasons, it was not done. So now investments have been getting bigger and the bubble has been getting bigger and bigger," he notes. Government officials "are trying to engineer a very, very soft landing. But it's so soft that it really isn't a landing at all. The bubble is getting bigger, but at a slower pace. Fixed asset investment isn't growing at 40% a year anymore; it is growing at 25%."

That doesn't mean that steps taken now won't have an effect, or that a crisis is imminent, experts say. In any case, a crisis may not necessarily be a bad thing. "As with much of what is going on in China, the genuine 'value added' is real but a crisis would take out much of the froth," says Howie. "The popping of the Chinese bubble will lead to a more sober and realistic reassessment of China, which would be better in the long term."

No Easy Way Out

In staving off a crisis, China has several factors working in its favor, including exceptionally strong foreign exchange reserves. According to Fitch's April report, "The strength of the sovereign's balance sheet gives substantial resources with which to handle the emergence of problems in the financial system." The country's sovereign net foreign asset position of 50% of GDP in late 2010 was the world's second highest, after Taiwan's 92%.

But relying on foreign reserves to prevent a domestic banking crisis could be risky, not least because of how much of its reserves are denominated in U.S. dollars. Ratings agency Standard & Poor's (S&P) kicked off a spate of warnings on the U.S. in the spring, citing the country's growing debt, which reached US$14.46 trillion at the end of June, or about 98%of GDP. S&P said a ratings downgrade could be taken within one to three years. In June — as debate on raising the U.S.'s debt ceiling brewed — Moody's and Fitch joined the chorus. (If politicians in Washington don't reach an agreement to raise the government's US$14.29 trillion borrowing limit before August 2, the U.S. could default on debt obligations.)

A downgrade of U.S. debt would, indeed, make it more difficult for China to solve its financial problems. Any large sell off of China's stockpile of dollars would spark an international exodus from U.S. treasuries, leaving China in an even worse position. And there would nowhere else for China to invest that much money.

It would be in the interest of other countries to make sure China doesn't fail — especially the U.S., which would be unlikely to find a holder or buyer of its debt issuance. "We can think of the U.S. as being too big to fail — well, the same can't really be said about China. Its problems are more complex and its system needs a real shake-out," Howie notes. "There certainly will be a big effort to help China but [if the country goes into meltdown] who knows what the ramifications and fallout will be?"

The economic risks arising from China's shaky financial system and the U.S. public debt position are immense — and intertwined — but this may provide a reason for optimism. Although China may fear that its Treasury purchases are now less-secure investments than it thought, and U.S. politicians gripe about the country being owned by China, neither side can afford to let the other fail.

The U.S. and Chinese governments "have to cooperate or else they will all lose," according to Fitch's Ho. "Their relationship is being managed better than it was in the past and the superpowers know what type of game they are in. So hopefully they can work things out over the medium term, and evidence over the past years since the global financial crisis is that they have been cooperating quite well."