Since China Minsheng Bank Corp became the first private bank in 1996, the government has not approved any others, although it has allowed a small amount of private capital to be invested in commercial banks. This will soon change as the government opens up the financial sector to private enterprises.
China now has five State-owned commercial banks, three policy banks, 12 joint-stock banks, 144 city commercial banks, 47 foreign capital banks and numerous banks in towns and rural areas. The introduction of private banks will introduce more competition to the industry to the benefit of private businesses strapped for capital.
Until now, the names of more than 40 private bank applicants have gained pre-approval from the State Administration for Industry and Commerce. However, the success of Minsheng, which was founded at a time when loans for small and medium-sized enterprises were relatively undeveloped, is unlikely to be repeated today given the many financial products fighting for customers' attention. Some private banks are bound to fail if they do not have a sound risk-control system.
With the opening up of the banking industry to private capital after 14 years of hiatus. The biggest change in the policy is that private enterprises have seen their status elevated from "equity participator" to "initiator", according to the guidelines issued by the State Council in July that encourages more private capital to enter the financial industry.
Private banks that are filing for approval fall into two categories. First, there are enterprises or business associations that seek easier financing channels for the industry. For instance, Suning Commerce Group Co Ltd, a leading home appliance retailer, was the first listed company to announce its plans to apply for permission to launch a private bank. Other public corporations have also formed groups to create their own private banks.
The second category is more ambitious. This sector is the Internet companies that want to build a line of services on their own financial platforms, such as Tencent Technology (Shenzhen) Co Ltd.
Companies aiming to get a pieces of the pie in private banking cover a wide range of industries including e-commerce, real estate, food, garments, electrical equipment, technology and aviation.
Why does private banking look so enticing?
The Chinese banking industry has been enjoying lucrative profitability. According to the half-year profit statements of 2,467 A-share companies in 2013, the total net profits of the 16 listed banks amounted to 619.1 billion yuan ($102.1 billion). up 13.54 percent from the same period last year, accounting for 54.3 percent of total A-share profits. Although profit margins in banks have been decreasing in recent years, the large net profits still have a great appeal to private businesses.
Private banks can ease the difficulties in financing and acquiring loans by private enterprises. According to a study conducted by Qianzhan Industry Research, a Beijing-based research group, a mere 1.3 percent of small and medium-sized enterprises could conduct direct financing. Others accumulate capital through bank loans and private capitalization. However, because of their relatively low credibility, high management costs and banks' preferences for large-scale companies, only 10 percent of SMEs have access to bank credit. It is predicted that SMEs will need 17.5 trillion yuan in capitalization in 2014.
Severe competition in the banking sector stands in contrast with the private sector's enthusiasm. The profits in the banking industry are highly concentrated. Among the 16 listed banks, the profits of the top five State-owned banks made up 75.5 percent of the total profits in 2012. The total assets of city commercial banks accounted for a mere 9.4 percent of the total assets held by banking financial institutions.
Experts have been applauding the opening up of the banking sector to private capital. However, there are bound to be risks ahead.
Jin Liqun, chairman of the sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corp, said some of the private banks are bound to go bankrupt.
State-owned banks are not going to go bust because customers are assured their deposits will be safely managed because the central Party and the government will not cheat their own people, said Jin. Private banks, on the other hand, face the risk of bankruptcy. But people don't have to be overly concerned because development comes with risks, he added.
"Deposit insurance needs to be put in place to protect customers' interests in case of bankruptcy," said Jin. "I heard of opposition from large banks that claim the insurance system is nothing but a burden because they are not going to go bankrupt. However, these banks have been given government protection to be exempt from bankruptcy, which attracts customers to put their money into their accounts. What is the cost of establishing an insurance system compared with their vested interests?"
Experts also warn that the current enthusiasm may not pay off.
"Private companies should remain cool-headed before they enter the industry," said Ba Shusong, deputy director-general of the Financial Research Institute of the State Council Development Research Center. He cited a case in Taiwan in which 16 private banks gained approval in 1992, but where only six remain.
Generally speaking, banks see no profits within the first three years after their establishment. Companies should wait until the industry has undergone consolidation before they try their luck.
Bank of East Asia and DBS Bank were the first among overseas lenders that officially opened their sub-branches in the Shanghai free trade zone yesterday, as they were attracted by potential opportunities in China's latest financial reform test bed.
In addition, at least six foreign banks have received the nod from the China Banking Regulatory Commission to prepare for a new outlet in the FTZ. They include Citi, HSBC, Hang Seng Bank, Deutsche Bank, United Overseas Bank and ANZ. The FTZ will allow overseas banks to introduce new services and expand more rapidly in the country, said Geoffrey Choi, assurance leader of financial services at Ernst & Young for China.
Shanghai Pudong Development Bank's net profit jumped 19.8 percent year on year to nearly 41 billion yuan ($6.7 billion) in 2013, according to a filing to the Shanghai Stock Exchange late Friday.
The financial institution is the first listed commercial bank in China to disclose its 2013 results, Shanghai Securities News reported on Saturday.
Earnings per share stood at 2.195 yuan, up 19.8 percent from a year ago, according to the statement. Operating revenue stood at just over 100 billion yuan, up 20.61 percent year on year.
The lender's total assets reached 3.68 trillion yuan, up 17 percent from a year earlier. Its total liabilities stood at 3.47 trillion yuan, up 17.1 percent from a year ago.
The lender's non-performing loans ratio was at 0.74 percent, 0.16 percentage points higher than that at the end of 2012.
Its outstanding deposits totaled 2.42 trillion yuan by the end of 2013, up 13.41 percent from a year earlier. Outstanding loans reached 1.77 trillion yuan, up 14.37 percent from the end of 2012.
Chinese bankers are concerned about credit risks connected to enterprises that are affected by the nationwide campaigns to eliminate outdated industrial capacity and curb local government financing vehicles, said a report released on Monday.
The report, based on a survey by the Chinese Banking Association and Pricewaterhouse Coopers, which polled 1,604 bankers across 31 provinces and municipalities, said 54.5 percent of the surveyed bankers said they believe adjusting the nation's industrial structures may increase credit risks to China's banking system.
Also, 31.6 percent said they believe that nonperforming loan risks are most likely to involve micro-sized and small enterprise loans. Among the bankers, 61.3 percent said the Yangtze River Delta is most likely to face the pressure of increasing NPLS, since the region is host to micro-sized and small company enterprise hubs, which face systemic risks.
Market insiders said loans to micro-sized and small enterprises have been increasingly disputed in the banking industry. While some lenders think such loans may offer new growth opportunities, others have shunned applications for such loans.
"Leaders of banks are torn over the risks of loans" to smaller companies, said a source with a Shanghai-based, State-owned bank.
On the one hand, governments at various levels encourage support from the financial sector to small enterprises to help them grow, and such loans may indeed help them out during hard times.
On the other hand, it is quite risky to make loans under current conditions. In many cases, the applicants do not have guarantees, and they are seeking unsecured loans, said the source, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the matter.
NPLs have been rising in recent months, and they climbed by the largest amount in the third quarter, according to data from the China Banking Regulatory Commission.
Bad bank loans outstanding increased by 24.1 billion yuan ($3.96 billion) to 563 billion yuan at the end of September. But due to swift overall loan growth in the third quarter, Chinese banks' NPL ratios ticked up only slightly.
The system-wide NPL ratio reached 0.97 percent, compared with 0.96 percent at the end of June, the commission said.
About 43 percent of polled bankers said they have been closely watching the risks exposed to debts of local government financing vehicles.
On Dec 10, the central government announced that the performance evaluation of local government officials will no longer be based primarily on economic growth, but rather on sound financial management.
"The change is credit-positive for local governments as well as the central government, because reduced incentives to promote economic growth at all costs will instill fiscal discipline and curb the rapid rise in contingent, quasi-government debt," said Debra Roane, vice-president and senior credit officer of the sub-sovereign group at Moody's Investors Service in a note.
The new evaluation criteria should lead to greater discipline in borrowing. Local officials will be held accountable for their investment and borrowing decisions, including those related to LGFVs, and their handling of these decisions will be a key factor in promotions, said Roane.
The National Audit Office's initial survey of government debt revealed that LGFV debt alone amounted to 10.7 trillion yuan at the end of 2010, or 27 percent of GDP, of which 6.7 trillion yuan was classified as direct debt of local governments.
Moreover, estimates by the International Monetary Fund show a much greater increase and level of debt operationally outside the general government budget.
Deposit and loan margins will likely narrow, though not as much as expected, after the central bank removed a cap on deposit rates as part of its interest rate liberalization, central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan told Caijing magazine on Tuesday.
Zhou said loan rates likely will rise, along with deposit rates, but uncertainties remain as to whether the rate margin will widen or narrow.
What is certain is that after the liberalization, risk premiums will stay little changed across sectors, and money will be spent more efficiently.
Zhou's comments came after Beijing wrapped up its annual Central Economic Work Conference. A communique issued in the wake of the meeting listed interest rate liberalization as one of the six top economic priorities for next year. In its 60-point blueprint guiding China's reforms over the next decade, Beijing promised the liberalization will be completed by 2020.
The People's Bank of China, the central bank, has been loosening its control over interest rates in recent years as a key part of China's broader market-oriented financial reform. The last remaining control is a ceiling on deposit rates, which analysts believe distorts fund pricing and shelters banks from competition.
The average interest rate margin at Chinese banks was 2.63 percent at the end of September, according to China Banking Regulatory Commission data.
The rate was up slightly over the 2.59 percent seen in the previous quarter.
Zhang Qi, an economist with Haitong Securities Co Ltd, predicted lenders would struggle in the post-liberalization era.
"For lenders, making money will not be as easy," he said.
Zhou said that, barring a crisis, the central bank has no incentive to give financial institutions any special treatment, indicating that it won't shelter banks that are struggling to compete. "In normal times, we hope banks will provide better financial services to the society through competition."
A thinner interest rate margin likely will take a toll on Chinese lenders, whose balance sheets already are laden with bad loans stemming from China's 4 trillion yuan ($654.12 billion) stimulus to save the economy at the height of the financial crisis in 2008.
Chinese banks' share prices already had dropped last year, despite their healthy earnings, as investors feared the effects of interest rate liberalization.
The bank shares' average price-to-earnings ratio, a key measure of valuation, is about 6, compared with 11 in the entire A-share market.
To help the State-owned lenders get through a rough patch, Beijing has been making efforts to strengthen its balance sheets.
In August, Premier Li Keqiang promised to extend a pilot plan to sell bonds backed by bank loans. The bonds will be traded for the first time on exchanges. The move is expected to help banks unload problematic loans.
Last week, China Cinda Asset Management Co Ltd raised 2.5 billion yuan at its listing in Hong Kong, and a bulk of the money will be spent buying up bad assets from the banking industry.
Cinda is one of the four bad debt managers founded in 1999 by Beijing to clear up bad loans from China's State-owned banks. The other three also are expected to raise funds in the near term.
China will officially launch the pilot free trade zone (FTZ) in Shanghai on Sept. 29, taking a solid step forward to boost reforms in the world's second-largest economy.
Preparation work is going smoothly, sources with the Shanghai municipal government said on Tuesday.
Covering almost 29 square kilometers, the zone will be created modeled on existing free trade businesses in the country's economic hub -- Waigaoqiao Free Trade Zone, Waigaoqiao Free Trade Logistics Park, Yangshan Free Trade Port Area and Pudong Airport Comprehensive Free Trade Zone.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said earlier this month that for the pilot FTZ, a negative list approach will be explored and priority will be given to easier investment and greater openness.
China's legislature has given the green light to the State Council, or the Cabinet, to modify laws related to foreign enterprises in the zone.
As authorized by the National People's Congress Standing Committee, the State Council will suspend administrative approvals covering foreign-funded enterprises, Chinese-foreign equity joint ventures and contractual joint ventures.
The State Council approved the pilot Shanghai FTZ on July 3. In the pilot zone, goods can be imported, processed and re-exported without the intervention of customs authorities.
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