Following the biggest quarterly credit injection in Chinese history, it is safe to say that China's banks are flush with yuan loans. However, when it comes to dollar-denominated assets, it's a different story entirely. As the WSJ points out, in the past few years, a funding problem has emerged for China’s biggest commercial banks, one which is largely outside of Beijing’s control: they’re running low on US dollars so critical to fund operations both domestically and abroad.
As shown in the chart below, the combined dollar liabilities at China's four biggest commercial banks exceeded their dollar assets at the end of 2018, a sharp reversal from just a few years ago. Back in 2013, the four together had around $125 billion more dollar assets than liabilities, but now they owe more dollars to creditors and customers than are owed to them.
The reversal is the result of just one bank: Bank of China, which for many years held more net assets in dollars than any other Chinese lender, ended 2018 owing $72 billion more in dollar liabilities than it booked in dollar assets. The other "top 3" lenders finished the year with more dollar assets than liabilities, even though their net dollar surplus has shrunk substantially in the past five years.
And yet, as everything else with China, there is more than meets the eye: as the WSJ reports looking at Bank of China's annual report, the bank's asset-liability imbalance is more than addressed by dollar funding that doesn’t sit on its balance sheet. Instruments like currency swaps and forwards are accounted for elsewhere.
This is reminiscent of the shady operations discussed recently involving Turkey's FX reserves, where the central bank has been borrowing dollar assets from local banks via off balance sheet swaps, which it then used to prop up and boost the lira at a time of aggressive selling of the local currency. It is safe to assume that the PBOC has been engaging in a similar operation.
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