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I often hear the term shadow banking tossed around when discussing the United States and Chinese economies. What exactly is shadow banking and could you give examples of some specific companies that act as "shadow banks"? I have been told that in China, shadow banking refers to informal loans that are not written up in any documentation. Is this correct?

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While whomever told you about "shadow banking" in China is correct that in an international context, the term can often refer to informal banking arrangements (the earliest use of the term); however, these days, it is usually used in the sense first coined by Paul McCulley in a speech he delivered ("Teton Reflections") at the 2007 Jackson Hole conference. He described them as:

[T]he whole alphabet soup of levered up non-bank investment conduits, vehicles, and structures...

Unlike regulated real banks, who fund themselves with insured deposits, backstopped by access to the Fed’s discount window, unregulated shadow banks fund themselves with un-insured commercial paper, which may or may not be backstopped by liquidity lines from real banks.

Structured investment vehicles, as noted by Kitsune, are certainly one type of shadow bank, but nonbank broker-dealers, certain real estate investment trusts, and particular hedge funds can be viewed as types of shadow bank. The question to ask in determining whether an entity is a "shadow bank" is twofold— do they:

  1. perform credit, liquidity, or maturity transformation; and
  2. fund themselves through uninsured wholesale deposits (without recourse to liquidity facilities)?

As a direct answer to your question, Pozsar, Adrian, Ashcraft, and Boesky (2010) say:

Examples of shadow banks include finance companies, asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP) conduits, structured investment vehicles (SIVs), credit hedge funds, money market mutual funds, securities lenders, limited-purpose finance companies (LPFCs), and the government-sponsored enterprises (GSEs).

I strongly recommend clicking on that link and taking your time to browse the map on page 2.

It's worth noting both that many of these entities have existed for long periods of time without incident, and that due to choices in how banking is regulated, shadow banks are often the result of a desire to both limit the scope of regulation and to limit the risk of failure within the scope of regulation— which has the effect of pushing intermediation activities outside the regulated sphere.

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From the New York Fed:

Shadow banks intermediate credit through a wide range of securitization and secured funding techniques such as asset-backed commercial paper (ABCP), asset-backed securities (ABS), collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) and repurchase agreements (repos).

These sorts of things are issued through SIVs, structured investment vehicles. So for examples of firms that used them, Citigroup had some SIVs like Centauri. Europe had a few of these too, like Barclays's (UK) own Sheffield Receivables.

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Shadow banks are banks that authorities do not like, so they give them an ominous name. They are institutions that do not adhere to the rules and regulations the Federal Reserve and other governments have set up to keep track of their citizens. Here is an example:

http://www.chinalawblog.com/2012/10/getting-money-out-of-china-thats-illegal.html

Ms. Chu ran an underground bank, according to defense evidence cited by the Hong Kong judges, an operation that they said would match people who wanted to bring money into China illegally with those who wanted to get it out illegally. These strangers would deposit money in each other’s accounts — one inside China, the other in Hong Kong. Money doesn’t actually cross the border, making it difficult for regulators to track.

In one of Ms. Yan’s transactions, Ms. Chu directed her to deposit 3 million yuan (roughly $480,000) into a mainland bank account in the name of a stranger, also a client of Ms. Chu’s, the court said.

The same day, another stranger deposited checks worth the same amount that Ms. Yan had deposited on the mainland, converted into Hong Kong dollars, into an account Ms. Yan owned at an HSBC branch in Hong Kong. HSBC, which hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing, declined to comment.

Funds don’t actually cross the border, but the clients essentially moved money from one jurisdiction to the other, evading the $50,000 limit.

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