The Shadow Banking Alternative

There’s something cool about being ‘alternative.’ It’s why so many of us are drawn to alternative medicine, alternative energy, even alternative music—it just sounds cool. But how about alternative banking?

In a sense, that’s what shadow banking is: all the pain and pleasure of traditional banking, minus the rules and regulations. That’s the reason it’s getting so much attention now, and will likely get much more in the months ahead.

For sure, it’s already all over the map. Look at China, a prime market for investment and other business opportunities that’s currently in multiple cross-hairs. As a Reuters blog noted recently, strict restrictions on loans to the SMB market have led to the explosive growth of a shadow market comprising trust companies and short-term financing, with much higher rates of interest than the traditional model. This spawns numerous problems: In the city of Wenzhou last year, more than 40 business owners defaulted. Some of the money had come from pools of household savings, which in turn exacerbated the problem.

Nor is this a small-time problem. As the Financial Times just pointed out, several entities listed on Hong Kong’s Growth Enterprise Market, which was created to boost start-ups, are switching their business model to become money lenders. Even China Electric Power Technology Holdings, previously seen as the key to infrastructure building, is going this way.

Moving further west, there are clear signs that the entire European shadow banking system is teetering on the brink. There’s no question it’s at the core of the tectonic shifts in the viability of the Eurozone, with a huge impact on the Budesbank and potential peril to the entire banking system. And then there’s the largest shadow liability of all, some $15.5 trillion. That, for those who haven’t guessed is in the U.S—and as large as the figure is, it’s actually down from its peak of $20 trillion.

Despite this stunning growth, the term shadow banking is, by all accounts, quite recent. While there are likely other sources, it is most commonly attributed to remarks in 2007 by economist and money manager Paul McCulley. Still, the practice is as old as the hills.

But the fundamental question is just as old: Why is there so much money circulating outside the system? In fact, why are there so many individuals and entities willing to pay so much interest—in the case of some organizations in Hong Kong the figure is 42 percent, against a regular rate of 5 percent–to the lending institutions?

The reality is that much of shadow banking is quite legit, and much of the rest represents financial outliers that no credible banking institution wants to be involved with. But in the days and months ahead, the plethora of regulations now working their way through the legislative system in diverse regions—from Germany, where Chancellor Angela Merkel is threatening sharp mandates, to China, where the government is under pressure to bring more order to the system—will land in place and expose a strange disconnect.

There are people and companies around the world needing to borrow money, even at staggeringly high rates of interest, and there are people and companies willing to oblige them. All these transactions take place in what we might call an alternative universe, completely outside the banking system that’s been specifically designed for this contingency. And that’s not cool.

Could traditional financial institutions be playing a larger role in this vast shadow market, or would that mean lowering the criteria for making loans and lead to a replay of the mortgage mess?

Speculation welcome.