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China's once high-flying trust industry has seen its fortunes reverse this year as a slowing economy and competition for investor funds curb growth.
Trust loans outstanding increased for 33 straight months through June this year, helping China's trust sector surpass the insurance industry as the largest category of financial institution by assets, behind commercial banks.
But figures released on Friday showed trust loans falling for a fifth straight month, the longest run of declines since 2010. Overall trust assets, which include loans, publicly traded securities and private equity-style investments, rose at their slowest pace in over two years in the third quarter, figures from the China Trustee Association show.
"The economy has cooled down," said Deng Jugong, a senior trust industry executive who asked that his employer not be named. "Companies' demand for finance isn't very intense."
Just a year ago, trust companies were riding a wave of growth. In 2010, as regulators tried to rein in the explosion in bank credit resulting from the country's 4 trillion yuan ($645 billion) economic stimulus plan, banks turned to trusts to help them comply with lending controls.
Trust companies bought loans from banks and packaged them into high-yielding wealth management products, which they marketed to bank clients as a higher yielding substitute for traditional savings deposits. Trust assets surged to 10.3 trillion yuan at the end of 2013, from just 2.9 trillion yuan in 2011.
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Now, however, the central bank has cut interest rates and is urging banks to lend more in a bid to temper an investment slowdown in real estate and manufacturing.
"We can't even push our own loans out the door," said a banker who packages wealth management products for a midsize Chinese lender in Shanghai. "Where are we going to find projects to make trust loans?"
At the same time, trust companies are facing increased competition from upstart firms offering savers new forms of high-yielding investment products.
Ironically, trust companies — which were often accused of regulatory arbitrage for performing bank-like functions free from the regulatory limits on traditional banks — are warning about the risks of even more lightly regulated peer-to-peer lenders.
"As long as there's profit to be made, people will swarm towards it like wasps," said Mr Deng. "This P2P market looks very chaotic. But we trust companies have to get approval from the bank regulator."
Trusts themselves have also grown wary of financial risks. Loans to property developers and local governments were a frequent area of co-operation with banks in 2010 to 2012, as lenders faced regulatory pressure to reduce their exposure to riskier sectors.
But the decline of the real estate market this year has caused distress among the smaller developers, which often relied on trust financing.
"The risk in real estate and local government financing platforms is increasing. We're extremely cautious about these now. So the number of projects from these two big sources has gone down," said a Shanghai-based trust executive.
New regulations targeting the risk from shadow banking have also hit the industry.
In April the banking regulator, which oversees trust companies, circulated new guidelines, known as Document No 99, that restricted banks' freedom to work with trusts. In particular, the rules forbade banks from using repurchase agreements that left lenders exposed to the underlying credit risk on loans, even when they no longer appeared on bank balance sheets.
The near-default of a high-yield trust product early this year has heightened awareness of risk.
Yet there are signs that some risky lending is not disappearing but rather taking on new, more exotic forms. As trust loans have declined, some trust financiers have turned to equity financing structures that include a repo requiring the equity issuer to pay fixed dividends and to buy back the equity at a specified date.
"They're using a repo to transform equity into a debt contract. In reality it's still based on a creditor-debtor relationship. But they don't like to use the loan format because it's often subject to restrictions," said Fan Jie, analyst at CN Benefit, a research firm that tracks China's trust and wealth management industry.