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China’s Debt Bomb: No One Really Knows the Payload [Chart]

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China's Debt Bomb [Chart]

China’s Debt Bomb [Chart]

No One Knows if its a Hand Grenade or a Nuclear Explosion

The Chart of the Week is a weekly Visual Capitalist feature on Fridays.

The ramp up in Chinese debt accumulation has been a leading concern of investors for years. The average total debt of emerging market economies is 175% of GDP, and skyrocketing corporate non-financial debt has launched China far beyond that number.

The real question is: by how far?

The answer is disconcerting, because nobody really knows.

If the Chinese debt bomb is detonated, the impact on markets is anybody’s guess. Kyle Bass says the losses would be 5x that of the subprime mortgage crisis, while Moody’s says the bomb will be safely disarmed by authorities far before it goes off.

In today’s chart, we look at various estimates to the size of China’s debt bomb, its payload, and what might spark the fuse.

China’s Debt Bomb: The Payload

Mckinsey came out with a widely-publicized estimate of China’s debt at the beginning of 2015. Using figures up to Q2 2014, they estimated that total Chinese debt was 282% of GDP, an increase from 158% in 2007.

Since then, various trusted organizations have come up with follow-up estimates.

On the low end, Goldman Sachs came out with an estimate in January 2016 of 216% total debt-to-GDP for 2015. (A few months later, they put out a separate report saying that total debt-to-GDP was estimated to be closer to 270% for 2016.)

On the high end, Macquarie analyst Viktor Shvets said that China’s debt was $35 trillion, or “nearly 350%” of GDP.

The truth is that it’s anybody’s guess. China’s official estimates are fairly useless, and the country has a massive and quickly evolving shadow banking sector that complicates these projections significantly.

Explosive Materials

Total debt is made up of various components, including government, corporate, banking, and household debts.

In the case of China, it is corporate debt that is particularly explosive. According to Mckinsey, the country’s corporate sector already has a higher debt-to-GDP than the United States, Canada, South Korea, or Germany, even while still being considered an “emerging market”.

S&P Global Ratings now figures that Chinese corporate debt is in the 160% range, up from 98% in 2008. The current number in the United States is a less ominous 70%.

China’s central bank is just as concerned as anyone else. Here’s what the Governor of the People’s Bank of China, Zhou Xiaochuan, had to say about a month ago:

Lending as a share of GDP, especially corporate lending as a share of GDP, is too high.

Xiaochuan also noted that a high leverage ratio is more prone to macroeconomic risk.

Defusing the Bomb

If there’s something that can ignite the fuse of China’s debt bomb, it’s non-performing loans (NPLs).

An NPL is a sum of money borrowed upon which the debtor has not made scheduled payments. They are essentially loans that are either close to defaulting, or already in default territory.

China has an official estimate for this number, and it is a benign 1.7% of debt. Unfortunately, independent researchers peg it much higher.

Bullish analysts have the number pegged in the high single-digits, while bearish analysts put the range anywhere between 15% and 21%. Even the IMF says that loans “potentially at risk” would be equal to 15.5% of total commercial lending.

If there’s a place to start defusing the bomb, this is it.

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Banks

The Making of a Mammoth Merger: Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade

A look at the histories of Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade, what comes next after the merger, and the potential impacts on the financial services industry.

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Charles Schwab and TD Ameritrade: A Mammoth Merger

In this era of fierce competition in the discount brokerage space, scale might be the best recipe for success.

Charles Schwab has once again sent shockwaves through the financial services industry, announcing its intent to acquire TD Ameritrade. The all-stock deal — valued at approximately $26 billion — will see the two biggest publicly-traded discount brokers combine into a giant entity with over $5 trillion in client assets.

Today we dive into the history of these two companies, and what effect recent events may have on the financial services industry.

The Evolution of Charles Schwab

1975 – U.S. Congress deregulated the stock brokerage industry by stripping the NYSE of the power to determine the commission rates charged by its members. Discount brokers, which focused primarily on buying and selling securities, seized the opportunity to court more seasoned investors who might not require the advice or research offered by established brokers. It was during this transitional period that Charles Schwab opened a small brokerage in San Francisco and bought a seat on the New York Stock Exchange.

1980s – The company experienced rapid growth thanks to a healthy marketing budget and innovations, such as the industry’s first 24-hour quotation service.

This fast success proved to be a double-edged sword. Charles Schwab became the largest discount broker in the U.S. by 1980, but profits were erratic, and the company was forced to rescind an initial public offering. Eventually, the company sold to BankAmerica Corporation for $55 million in stock. A mere four years later, Charles Schwab would purchase his namesake company back for $280 million.

1987 – By the time the company went public, Charles Schwab had five times as many customers as its nearest competitor, and profit margin twice as high as the industry average.

1990s – In the late ’90s, Charles Schwab moved into the top five among all U.S. brokerages, after a decade of steady growth.

2000s – The company made a number of acquisitions, including U.S. Trust, which was one of the nation’s leading wealth management firms, and most recently, the USAA’s brokerage and wealth management business.

The Race to $0

For Charles Schwab, the elimination of fees is the culmination of its founder’s vision of making investing “accessible to all”.

charles schwab falling trade fees

The company’s fees were slowly declining for decades. In late 2019, it finally took the plunge and introduced free online trading for U.S. stocks, exchange-traded funds, and options. The response was immediate and enthusiastic, with clients opening 142,000 new trading accounts in the first month alone.

Although Charles Schwab sent rivals scrambling to match its no-commission trade offer, fintech upstarts like Robinhood have offered free trading for years now. The “race to zero” reflects a broader generational shift, as millennials are simply more likely than earlier generations to expect services to be free.

The Evolution of TD Ameritrade

1975 – The origin of TD Ameritrade can be traced back to First Omaha Securities, a discount broker founded by Joe Ricketts. The company changed its name to TransTerra in 1987.

1988 – TransTerra’s subsidiary, Accutrade, was the first company to introduce touch-tone telephone trading, a major innovation at the time and one of the first early forays into automation.

Early 1990s – Ricketts’s willingness to integrate emerging technologies into the trading business helped his companies achieve impressive growth. In 1997 the company acquired K. Aufhauser & Co., the first company to run a trading website.

The Internet wasn’t a puzzle. We were crystal clear from the beginning that customers would migrate to this.

– Joe Ricketts (2000)

Late 1990s – The Ameritrade brand was solidified after the company changed its name from TransTerra to Ameritrade Holding Corporation in 1996. The newly named company completed an IPO the following year, and established its new brand Ameritrade, Inc., which amalgamated K. Aufhauser, eBroker, and other businesses into a unified entity.

2000s – Ameritrade entered the new millennium as the fifth largest online investment broker in the United States, fueled in part by marketing deals with AOL and MSN.

The modern incarnation of TD Ameritrade took shape in 2006, when TD Bank sold its TD Waterhouse USA brokerage unit to the Ameritrade Holding Corporation in a stock-and-cash deal valued at about $3.3 billion. At the time of the deal the new company ranked first in the U.S. by the number of daily trades.

2016 – TD Ameritrade acquired the discount brokerage Scottrade for about $4 billion. The deal brought 3 million client accounts and $170 billion in assets under management into the company, and quadrupled the size of its branch network.

What Comes Next?

Naturally, the announcement that these massive discount brokers plan to merge has generated a lot of speculation as to what this means for the two companies, and the broader brokerage industry as a whole.

Here are some of the consensus key predictions we’ve seen on the deal, from both media and industry publications:

  • After the deal is approved, the integration process will take 12 to 18 months. The combined company’s headquarters will relocate to a new office park in Westlake, Texas.
  • Charles Schwab’s average revenue per trade has dropped nearly 30% since Q1 2017, so the company will likely use scale to its advantage and monetize other products.
  • The merged company will continue to adopt features from fintech upstarts, such as the option to trade in fractional shares.
  • E*Trade, which was widely considered to be an acquisition target of Schwab or TD Ameritrade, may now face pressure to hunt for a deal elsewhere.

Even though these longtime rivals are now linking up, stiff competition in the financial services market is bound to keep everyone on their toes.

I think Joe Ricketts and I agree that our fierce competitiveness nearly 30 years ago is proof that market competition can be a source of miraculous innovation.

– Charles Schwab

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Banks

Why It’s Time for Banks to Make Bold Late-Cycle Moves

As we enter a late-cycle economy, a staggering 60% of banks are destroying value. Here’s the steps they can take in order to succeed.

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Why It’s Time for Banks to Make Bold Late-Cycle Moves

An economic downturn is approaching on the horizon. Amid low interest rates and a manufacturing slowdown, industries and investors alike are scrambling to prepare as the window of opportunity closes.

Banking is no different. After a decade of expansion, the industry is showing many signs of a late-cycle economy. On top of this, a staggering 60% of banks are destroying value. Today’s infographic from McKinsey & Company explores the steps banks can immediately take to succeed in the next economic cycle.

How is Value Created?

In the banking sector, three main factors contribute to value creation:

  • The location of the bank
  • The scale of its operations
  • The effectiveness of its business model

Given that geographic reach is mostly out of a bank’s control, and scale takes time to build, banks must focus on their business model.

There are three universal business model levers that all banks can immediately act on to change their destiny.

1. Risk Management
Banks can protect returns in an economic downturn by managing risk. For example, new machine-learning models can predict the riskiest customers with 35 percentage points more accuracy than traditional models.

2. Productivity
To radically reduce costs, banks can transfer non-differentiating activities to third-party “utilities”, through outsourcing, carve-outs, or partnerships. This has the potential to increase return on equity by as much as 100 basis points.

3. Revenue Growth
When customers are satisfied, they generate more value for banks—and vice versa. For instance, customers who report low satisfaction with their mortgage experience are almost seven times more likely to refinance with a different bank.

By materially improving decisive points in the customer experience, banks can increase revenue and reduce churn rates within 12-18 months.

The Four Banking Archetypes

Beyond these universal performance levers, a bank should prioritize late-cycle economic decisions based on the archetype it falls under.

  • Market leaders are top-performing financial institutions in attractive markets
  • Resilients are top-performing operators despite challenging market conditions
  • Followers are mid-tier organizations generating returns due to favourable market conditions
  • Challenged banks are poor performers in unattractive markets

Different archetypal levers are available depending on each bank’s unique circumstances.

  1. Ecosystem
    Banks can find new revenue streams across and beyond banking, leveraging customer relationships and white-label partnerships.
  2. Innovation
    Banks can create value by developing new methods, ideas, products and services. To implement this effectively, banks must set goals for the return on innovation as well as the timeframe.
  3. Zero-based budgeting
    By justifying expenses for each new period, banks can drastically reduce costs. This involves starting from a “zero base” rather than prior years’ numbers.

Here’s how banks across the various archetypes can take action:

 
Ecosystems
Innovation
Zero-based Budgeting
Market Leaders
-
Resilients
Followers
-
Challenged
-
-

For example, while market leaders’ large capital base is best used for ecosystem and innovation plays, challenged banks need to radically rethink their business model or merge with similar banks.

Reinvent, Scale, or Perish

As the late-cycle economy slows even further, no banks can afford complacency. In fact, history has shown that 35% of market leaders drop to the bottom half of peers in the next cycle.

Now is the time for banks to take bold action through universal and archetypal levers—or risk being left behind.

For a more detailed breakdown of the actions that banks can take in this market environment, check out the full report by McKinsey & Company.

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