Slaying the Chinese Lending Dragons

10/03/2012 10:43 am EST


While consumers in China creatively sidestep lending fees, the Chinese premier wants to break big banks' hold on power. But the piles of bad debt held by the biggest institutions will make any major reforms a significant challenge, writes Daniel Bardsley of The National.

When Malcolm Li does freelance work in China, the money he earns is rarely paid directly into his bank account.

Instead, the translator for an energy company in Beijing usually gets his agent to send the funds through QQ. This is China's wildly popular instant messaging service that has almost 800 million account holders.

While transferring money from banks in China is easy, it is not free, as lenders typically charge a fee of 1%. By contrast QQ, which has an online store in addition to its messaging service, lets users send money between similar accounts for free.

"I can get the money directly and send it to my bank account," says Li, 23, who receives about 3,000 yuan ($477) each time from his agents.

"I think it's useful because I've done it twice or three times. It's very secure," he says. "[In contrast], a regular bank transfer is very expensive because the banks are monopolies."

As well as QQ, the Taobao online shopping Web site—China's eBay (EBAY) equivalent—is used to avoid bank charges, with media reporting parents often turn to it when sending money to their children at university. Money is sent to a student's Taobao account, and he or she then transfers it online to their bank account.

Just as the charges imposed by China's banks can seem high, returns on interest rates—largely determined by the central bank—are low. Most banks currently offer 3.5% on one–year deposits. Last year, when consumer inflation reached 6%, prudent savers were in effect losing money by keeping cash in the bank.

The normally reserved Economist magazine said a few months ago "regulated interest rates enable banks to rip off savers".

Not everyone agrees. Simon Gleave, the regional head of financial services at KPMG in China, says he believes the government sets "reasonable rates given the inflationary environment."

"Customers are not being vastly gouged by banks," he says. "If you compare [rates in China] to the international market, [they are] quite good."

The interest margins—the difference between what a bank charges in interest and what it pays out—is about 2.75% in China, compared with 2.25% for most international lenders.

"It's not a massive difference," says Gleave.

Aside from whether China's banks offer value for money to savers is the question of how helpful they are to the private sector in providing loans. The country's major state–owned banks, including the "big four" of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank, Bank of China, and Agricultural Bank of China, prefer to lend to large, state–owned enterprises.

They can be reluctant to offer the same services to small and medium–sized private businesses, which is especially galling for struggling companies when the banks are, at least officially, generating huge profits.

The big four made profits totaling 632.2 billion yuan last year, prompting the country's premier, Wen Jiabao, to call for reform. "Let me be frank. Our banks earn profit too easily. Why? Because a small number of large banks have a monopoly," he said in a state–radio broadcast in April.

"To break the monopoly, we must allow private capital to flow into the finance sector."

Analysts believe banking reform would certainly shake up the industry, but warn progress has been slow.

"They've been talking about financial market reform for some time. It's moving pretty slowly, and we haven't seen any significant progress yet," says Ren Xianfang, an analyst with IHS Global Insight in Beijing.

There are also other factors discouraging reform. Patrick Chovanec, an associate professor in the School of Economics and Management at Tsinghua University in Beijing, is convinced banks must be able to generate large profits on their lending to ensure they can cope with the bad debts in the system.

Much of this is hidden from the publicly declared balance sheets, and involves bad loans from the building boom that stretches back more than a decade. At the end of last year, bad debts were reported by the country's banking regulator to be 1.05 trillion yuan ($167 billion).

"Very simply, the banks need a guaranteed spread on their lending in order to earn their way out of bad debt," Chovanec says. "That's why it's going to be very difficult for them to deregulate the banking system and deal with the bad debt in the system."

With China set for its once–a–decade leadership transition, observers are waiting to see what the new administration will do.

Gleave hopes the authorities will give banks more flexibility in setting interest rates without moving to a full market–based system. "That allows better allocation of capital, and that will allow better economic growth," he says.

In the meantime, consumers such as Li will carry on going online to transfer his cash.

"I get the money free of charge," he says.

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