Too big to hail: China’s banking behemoths are too beholden to the state. It is time to set finance free

Too big to hail: China’s banking behemoths are too beholden to the state. It is time to set finance free

Aug 31st 2013 |From the print edition


AT FIRST sight, China seems to have a superb banking system. Its state-controlled banks, among the biggest and most profitable in the world, have negligible levels of non-performing loans and are well capitalised. That appears to suggest that the country’s approach should be applauded. Not so. For one thing, though China’s banking system is stable, its banks are not as healthy as they seem. The credit binge of recent years has left them with far higher levels of risky loans than they acknowledge. And a profit squeeze is coming. The banks are having to work harder to keep both their biggest depositors, who are tempted by alternative investment products, and their biggest borrowers, who are turning to the bond market instead. As a consequence, the country’s Big Four banks—Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China and China Construction Bank—will no longer make easy money by merely issuing soft loans to state-owned enterprises, or SOEs (see article).What is more, that vaunted stability has come at a high price. China’s policy of financial repression, which forces households to endure artificially low interest rates on bank deposits so that subsidised capital can be lent to SOEs, is a cruel tax on ordinary people. The size of China’s banks may seem impressive, but in fact it is a sign that the economy is excessively reliant on bank lending. And the incentives encouraging the risk-averse Big Four, whose bosses are leading figures in the Communist Party, to funnel lending to cronies at inefficient SOEs have starved dynamic “bamboo capitalists” of credit.

Excess of caution

China’s new leaders have acknowledged that the old approach has led to excesses, notably overcapacity in state industries. They are talking of allowing more private (but not foreign) investment in the financial sector and are urging banks to lend more to private firms. That is not enough.

For a start, China should end financial repression. If deposit rates were gradually freed, banks would be forced to compete with each other for depositors and free to win back customers now lost to the shadow banking system. Most Chinese banks have no clue today about customer service, risk management or credit assessment. That would have to change. Miserable returns on bank deposits encourage punters to plough money into real estate and other riskier investments, so paying decent deposit rates might help prick the property bubble, too.

Second, China needs to go beyond banking. In many developed economies, non-bank firms and financial markets vie with banks to issue credit, but in the Middle Kingdom banks still dominate. In recent years Chinese firms raised nine times as much money from banks as they did on the country’s stock exchanges. The corporate bond market has grown quickly of late (and big banks no longer gobble up most of the offerings). This growth should be encouraged.

Third, China must separate banking from crony state capitalism. The best way to do this is privatisation. Smaller banks like China Merchants and China Minsheng, in which private investors have significant stakes, lend much more energetically to small businesses and households than do the state-controlled goliaths. Privatising the Big Four would help, though it would make it harder for the state to manage any future banking crisis. And as long as sheltered, oligopolistic SOEs exist, banks will lend disproportionately to them because they enjoy implicit state backing. So the big SOEs must themselves face greater market discipline.

Finally, China should welcome competition, from abroad and at home. Two Chinese internet giants, Tencent and Alibaba, are starting to provide wealth management, investment funds and other financial services. Banks are lobbying against them. Regulators worry about the destabilising effect of start-ups with new business models, but for newcomers that do not pose a systemic risk they can afford lighter-touch regulation.

None of these changes should happen overnight. They can be implemented gradually. But a bit of disruptive innovation would be good for China’s stodgy banks, and its people.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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