[E]ven though Chinese banks probably have little exposure to the sub-prime mess or to complex derivatives, it is not those instruments per se that created the crisis, but rather excess risk–taking encouraged by excessively loose money....These instruments were only the way in which banks took on excessive risk, they were not the cause of the excessive risk. Japanese banks in 1990 weren’t brought down by US sub-prime mortgages or toxic derivatives, but rather by old-fashioned loans, and it is useless to think that these former are the only risk to a banking system.
It has been very difficult to get a firm grasp on exactly what is going on in Chinese companies and banks as far as risk management goes. My working assumption is that they have very little risk management experience, very weak rules on disclosure, and a perverse set of incentives. That suggests to me that when faced with the same set of pressures faced by the leading Western corporations and financial institutions – i.e. ferocious liquidity growth and a previous environment of high rewards for excess risk taking – they are even more likely to have made some very risky bets.
Their lack of transparency has kept us from knowing exactly what is happening, but lack of transparency protected US and European banks for only so long before that very lack of transparency became the problem itself. The few glimpses we can get into risk management among Chinese institutions do not give me much comfort. If there is an economic slowdown, prepare to be surprised by all the garbage that comes out.