|Second wave of credit crunch may come if foreign lenders ditch debt market|
By Craig Stephen
Last update: 4:22 p.m. EST Feb. 8, 2009
HONG KONG (MarketWatch) -- Last week the head of Hong Kong's Monetary Authority Joseph Yam warned local legislators that Financial Tsunami Part II could soon hit Hong Kong and other Asian markets.
He has said this a couple of times, and investors seem unmoved as share prices both here and in China both finished the week higher.
Perhaps Yam's pronouncements don't carry the sway of a Fed Chairman but they are worrying enough to take a closer looking at, and may offer clues to the upcoming Hong Kong Budget.
One explanation could be Yam is just feeling a bit down after the HKMA Exchange Fund lost a record HK$74.9 billion ($9.66 billion) last year.
Yam has also been in the firing line for letting Hong Kong residents buy HK$20 billion of now-worthless Lehman Brothers-backed mini-bonds on his watch. Hardly the finale he might have wished for as he gets set to retire this year from his job as the world's highest-paid central banker, with a cool HK$11 million in salary.
It could be argued there are encouraging signs the worst of the financial crises is behind us. We have had global bailout packages for banks, loan guarantees and mega stimulus packages.
But if we look at previous crises in Hong Kong, it could pay to be on guard. While the Asian financial crisis 12 years ago started in Thailand and spread around the region domino-style, the final act took another year to play out, with a crescendo of selling in Hong Kong.
Yam's argument runs that, while the global financial system has been patched up to avert a collapse, Asian economies have in the meantime weakened considerably, leaving them exposed as the huge leverage built up in the boom days unwinds.
Here he is talking not about collateralized debt obligation or other exotic derivatives, but rather the wholesale corporate debt market.
Hong Kong is possibly a uniquely international banking market, with the world's 500 largest banks doing business here, according to HKMA records. This vast pool of liquidity is one reason Hong Kong is credited as the biggest foreign direct investor in China. This year it's estimated up to US$22 billion of syndicated corporate loans will mature here, and foreign lenders account for roughly 40% of that.
The worry now is that foreign banks, beset with problems at home, will baulk at rolling over these loans. This could potentially trigger a wave of corporate collapses.
Yam describes this as the danger of "financial protectionism," where foreign banks are going to focus on lending in their own backyard.
Perhaps this is an understandable consequence of the post-credit-crunch financial world. Will banks bailed out by U.S. or U.K. taxpayers still have an appetite to lend working capital to a manufacturer in Guangdong to save jobs there?
Going by the size of the international finance sector in Hong Kong, it would leave a big gap if such capital retreats.
Yam did say, however, that Hong Kong is in a strong position -- the HKMA Exchange Fund topped $202 billion at end of 2008, of which $129.9 billion was foreign currency.
He also added -- rather ambiguously -- that the government will look at providing assistance if troubles materialize. Perhaps there will be some business-friendly packages when Budget Day arrives on Feb. 27.
It will be worth considering how HSBC Holdings (HBC:
HSBC Hldgs Plc is positioned. HSBC serves as Hong Kong's de facto central bank and was one of the first to warn back in September that this credit crunch would be worse than the one a decade ago.
It is likely to be under pressure to pick up the slack if foreign lenders retreat.
HSBC in the past has stepped in when local banks got into trouble, such as by taking over Hang Seng Bank. HSBC also avoided taking funds from the U.K. government, but it is now facing speculation it needs more capital.
Whatever assistance the HKMA or government comes up with is likely to be politically charged. Hong Kong corporations are not, by and large, wholly institutionally owned like in Western markets, but rather are controlled by family tycoon shareholders. Any direct assistance may expose the government to charges of bailing out the corporate elite at a time when ministers say there is nothing in the kitty for give-aways for the wider population.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post even carried an opinion piece saying the government shouldn't run an economic stimulus package. That probably reflects the look-out-for-yourself ethos in Hong Kong. And in the corporate world, when things get tough, Hong Kong usually plays by the laws of jungle: Ailing firms die or are swallowed up by the bigger guys.
Perhaps this was why, last month, stalled legislation for a new bankruptcy protection law was resurrected.
It will be worth watching closely if Yam's warnings on financial protectionism come true and what, if anything, the Hong Kong government might do about it.
Some legislators suggested a good start would be to review salaries at the HKMA.