Bank of China executive warns of shadow banking risks

Fri Oct 12, 2012 12:35am EDT
 
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BEIJING (Reuters) - A senior Chinese banking executive has warned against the proliferation of off-book wealth management products, comparing some to a Ponzi scheme in a rare official acknowledgement of the risks they pose to the Chinese banking system.

China must "tackle" shadow banking, particularly the short term investment vehicles known as wealth management products, Xiao Gang, the chairman of the board of Bank of China (601988.SS: Quote), one of the top four state-owned banks, wrote in an op-ed in the English-language China Daily on Friday.

"Unsurprisingly, although Chinese banks' non-performing loans are at a low level of 0.9 percent, the potential risks are worse than the official data suggest," Xiao wrote, adding that a problem could come as indebted borrowers face cash flow problems or enter default, straining the banking system.

"The music may stop when investors lose confidence and reduce their buying or withdraw from WMPs," he said, referring to wealth management products.

He warned of a mismatch between short-term products and the longer underlying projects they fund, adding that in some cases the products are not tied to any specific project and that in others new products may be issued to pay off maturing products and avoid a liquidity squeeze.

"To some extent, this is fundamentally a Ponzi scheme."

Xiao's op-ed is in line with similar warnings issued by outsiders, particularly the Fitch Ratings agency whose China banking analyst Charlene Chu has long warned of a maturity mis-match and the threat to the Chinese banking system of products with various terms and interest rates.

But it is rare for a senior Chinese official to acknowledge the extent of the problem.

"It is uncommon to find wealth management products that fail to clearly specify the underlying securitized assets," an official from the China Banking Regulatory Commission, which oversees financial products, told Reuters in August in response to a query on the underlying assets.   Continued...