Banking Fintech

China’s P2P is taking the P

China’s P2P is taking the P, Photo: nito, Shutterstock.com
Written by Chris Skinner

China’s shadow banking system has been a major concern for a while now. Chris Skinner looks at the country’s peer-to-peer (P2P) lending market.

According to latest stats, China’s fintech markets are booming in 2016. Over $10bn went into fintech firms in China in the first half of 2016, though half of that was Ant Financial, followed closely by Lu and JD Finance.

What intrigues is that this is a market that’s newborn. Unlike the US and much of Europe, China’s explosion of riches over the past three decades stems back to open trade agreements and radical restructuring of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) into private company operations. Some fear this has led to bad practices, as it’s only 20 years since the Asian Financial Crisis, caused by poor risk management and bad loans.

My first visit to China was just after that crisis, and the talk was all about how to convert the banking system into something customer-focused. Until then, it was just an administration service for the People’s Government of China. That has changed, and the change has been fast (something I wrote about 10 years ago and again last year).

Now the issue is starting to hit hard, as China’s shadow banking system has been a major concern for a while now. Shadow banking provides financing and leveraged debt outside the regulated banking markets, and has been growing for a while now as China’s growth slows.

According to Bloomberg, China’s shadow lending has evolved to dodge a regulatory clampdown by using brokers and funds to take on the role previously played by more heavily regulated trusts in expanding informal financing.

On top of this, banks are increasingly turning to these so-called directional asset-management plans issued by brokerages and the subsidiaries of mutual-fund providers to channel lending. The amount of money placed in such products jumped 70% last year to 18.8 trillion yuan ($2.9tn), outpacing the 17% growth for trust assets … Commerzbank AG estimates shadow bank financing, hidden from view on balance sheets, may cause banks losses of as much as one trillion yuan ($155bn) over five years. Shadow lending assets swelled to 45 trillion yuan ($6.9tn) as of 30 June, equal to about two-thirds of the economy, from 19.2 trillion yuan ($2.95tn) in 2011, Moody’s Investors Service estimates. Yep, it’s an issue.

Propped up through debt

And while we’ve seen reliable peer-to-peer lending emerging in the UK under the careful diligence of firms such as Zopa and Ratesetter, China has seen a Wild West (or is that Erratic East?) of lending startups. According to the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, online lending in China registered peer-to-peer consumer lending at $52.44bn during 2015, while peer to business lending reached $39.63bn. These incredible numbers are indicative of the shortfall of traditional banking firms’ ability to provide access to credit to both consumers and small business. But it’s also now a big issue, as China’s economy has been slowing down and growth has been propped up through debt, which is thought to be worth 225% of GDP according to, among others, the International Monetary Fund.

The South China Post reported over the weekend that over a third of the country’s peer-to-peer lenders were problematic. By the end of 2015, nearly 2,600 P2P platforms were operating on the mainland – an increase of 65% compared with 2014 – yet the annual review of these services (the Blue Book of Internet Finance) found that 1,263 of the P2P platforms were problematic, which included cases of fraud or firms going out of business.

Many of these P2P platforms are involved in fraudulent tricks that take advantage of loopholes in regulations. For example, one typical case of fraud is where a P2P platform, in this case Rong Zuan Dai, went online in November 2015 and published 37 financing projects that promised high interest rates to hundreds of investors. Two weeks later, the website suddenly closed.

The highest-profile case so far involves the P2P platform Ezubao, which was allegedly running a Ponzi scheme and faked 95% of its online loans. The scheme split long-term financing schemes into several short-term projects, and used the lending from new investors to pay back original lenders. The whole thing collapsed earlier this year, but not without impact. Up to December 2015, Ezubao had collected more than 74 billion yuan ($11bn) from more than 900,000 lenders across the country.

Angry investors

Another big failure is Jinxing Investments whose owners, the Shanghai Uprosper Asset Management Co, disappeared with assets worth over 400 million yuan ($62m) un-cashable. This resulted in the Shanghai office of auditing firm Ernst & Young being surrounded by hundreds of angry investors last Thursday, as the peer-to-peer company had claimed that the risk management of their investment products were run by Ernst & Young. They weren’t.

Other cases of fraud saw company bosses launching P2P platforms to fund their own businesses because they found it was quicker and saved on costs. In one example, in January 2015, Gao Qin, founder of a real estate company in Jinan, was investigated over claims she illegally attracted public investment totalling more than a billion yuan ($155m) through two P2P platforms she had set up to fund her real estate business.

In August this year, China’s banking regulator introduced rules that imposed a cap on P2P loans, under which an individual can borrow only up to 200,000 yuan ($30,000) from any one P2P platform, with total loans limited to a million yuan ($155,000). More background if needed:

All this is taking place while the poster child of Chinese lending, Lufax, prepares its IPO. At its last fundraising round in January, the firm was valued at $18bn, and Thomson Reuters is estimating the firm will raise around $5bn from the IPO. Now OK, Lufax is different to the examples above, because it’s backed by reputable insurance group Ping An, China’s second largest insurance firm, which is trying to distance itself from the market as a whole. The president of Ping An Insurance, China’s second-largest insurer, told the Financial Times that most P2P lenders were “fakes” and that the vast majority of China’s P2P lenders wouldn’t be able to continue their business in the future.

The president of Ant Financial Services has also tried to distance the company from China’s broader P2P lending market. China’s self-styled “Warren Buffett” and billionaire businessman Guo Guangchang called the country’s Rmb 440bn ($65.9bn) peer-to-peer lending market “basically a scam”.

Hmmmm … not the best way to create a trusted system.

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– This article is reproduced with kind permission. Some minor changes have been made to reflect BankNXT style considerations. Read more here. Photo: nito, Shutterstock.com

About the author

Chris Skinner

Chris Skinner is an independent commentator on the financial markets through the Finanser, and chair of the European networking forum the Financial Services Club, which he founded in 2004. He is an author of numerous books covering everything from European regulations in banking through to the credit crisis, to the future of banking.

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