Chinese retail banks gain consumer lending clout


    BEIJING- Chinese banks are gearing up to seize back lost business in consumer loans from fintech players like Ant Group, emboldened by a regulatory sea change that is making them more competitive while more hurdles are created for their online rivals.

    The new rules, which come on the back of Beijing’s shock canning of Ant’s $37 billion IPO in November, include the scrapping of limits on credit card interest rates and plans to greatly restrict the consumer data collection that has enabled the rapid growth of online lending platforms.

    As of Jan. 1, Chinese banks are no longer obligated to set daily compounding interest rates for credit cards between 0.035 percent and 0.050 percent. Some banks now plan to lower rates or even undercut online lending rates, while others are looking at accepting higher-risk clients by charging them higher rates, banking sources told Reuters.

    The changes “will guide more clients to the banking system, especially to local banks,” said a manager at a medium-sized lender based in eastern China.

    “With higher interest rates allowed, smaller banks can be more tolerant of clients with a higher chance of default.”

    The manager, like other finance industry sources who spoke to Reuters for this article, was not authorized to speak to media and declined to be identified.

    Internet lending facilitated by Chinese fintech heavyweights was virtually non-existent before 2014 but now helps source, according to some analysts, about 30 percent of the country’s consumer loans. China’s consumer loans market was worth some 14 trillion yuan ($2.2 trillion) in 2019, China Banking Association figures show.

    Ant, Tencent-backed WeBank and Inc have become powerful third-party intermediaries who draw in borrowers, take as much as a third of lending profit margins while the banks they partner with passively supply the credit and have limited knowledge of their borrowers.

    Ant alone was involved in 1.7 trillion yuan of consumer loans as of end-June, its IPO prospectus showed.

    The regulatory clampdown has been prompted not only by the perceived hubris of Ant founder Jack Ma when he slammed China’s financial regulatory system in late October but also by growing concerns about private-sector internet lending practices, finance industry sources and analysts say.

    Easy access to loans via China’s manifold consumer apps and opaque lending standards were feared to be setting the stage for a mountain of defaults in a pandemic-hit economy.

    Intimidatory debt collection practices had also made headlines.

    In late December, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIR C) issued statements warning of the risks of over-lending by online lenders and societal problems stemming from debt collection.

    “Regulators intend to bring all online lending businesses back to bank balance sheets to better control risks,” said a deputy head of an asset management department at a leading fintech firm.

    “The profit margins for the loan facilitation business will gradually disappear, and banks are going to be the ultimate winners,” the deputy head said.

    The CBIRC, the central bank and the China Banking Association did not respond to Reuters requests for comment. Ant, Tencent and WeBank declined to comment. JD.Com did not respond to a request to comment.

    Underscoring hopes for the banking sector has been a 7 percent rise in China’s banking subindex this year. In particular, China Merchants Bank (CMB), whose credit card business contributes almost a fifth of its interest revenue, has soared 18 percent. CMB did not respond to a request for comment.

    Draft guidelines proposed by the central bank this month are also expected to hobble fintech players, limiting the gathering of information they rely on for risk modeling.

    They would need central bank permission to access data related to payments, shopping history and transport use if the data is used to compile credit scores for the purpose of extending financial services.