Self Service Innovation in Asia: Little changes, big impact

Written by Zennon Kapron || October 07 2013

Many countries in Asia have been traditionally cash and brick focused: customers have been used to holding and using physical cash and visiting the brick and mortar branches. That’s changing rapidly as competitive pressures and demands from an increasingly sophisticated customer base are driving banks to create a new normal in both business model and customer interaction. A key part of that transformation will come from self-service innovation, yet self-service means different things in different countries.

In Japan, regular bank ATMs actually have limited hours of service both during the week and on the weekends. Historically this has been down to increased costs in terms of security / safety of both the machines and people and less demand from customers outside of normal business hours, especially in rural areas.

A certain subset of Japanese customers however, have, over the years, increasingly looked for “Anytime, anywhere” banking services. In early 2007, Japanese Seven bank brought ATMs into Japanese 7-Eleven convenience stores; the integration was made easier by the fact that 7-Eleven stores and Seven Bank itself are both owned by Ito Yokado. Japan actually has the largest absolute number of 7-Eleven stores in the world so now customers can withdraw money any time of day or night with their debit and credit card in more than 18,000 ATMs installed in 7-Eleven stores in Japan.

These ATMs also process remittances from Japan to other countries allowing Seven bank’s customers to send money nearly anywhere in the world, at any time of the day. It provides a convenient cash service for their customers and also satisfies their remittance needs, which means a more satisfied customer and bank.

ATMs in China have never had challenges of hours as most of them, unless they run out of cash, run 24/7 in nearly all locations. What has changed is the functionality. 10 years ago if you wanted to transfer money from one person to another, you faced a potentially hour plus wait at your local bank branch and many times had to transact in cash unless you wanted to go through the paper work.

Today you can use a Chinese ATM to directly pay anyone who has an account with that bank. Further, even if you don’t know their account number, you can even input their mobile phone number if it is associated with the account.

Although many of the changes in self-service aren’t major, they are tailored to the local customers and what might be an issue in one geography might not be in another. They can also result in increased revenue, such as the surcharge on out of hours transactions at the 7-Elevens in Japan, and decreased costs, such as fewer branch visits in China’s case, but they aren’t one size fits all.

Many financial institutions have come to Asia with this ‘one size fits all’ mentality and really struggled to gain market share and drive business. Not having the right mix can result in decreased revenue and incredible costs from poor strategies, but can also alienate customers which gives the bank a different problem: not how to move customers to self-service, but even how to have customers in the first place.

This blog is part of the Oracle / Kapronasia series on Future Finance. For more information, please visit the Future Finance blog at here.

The growth of the property and housing market is a key part of Chinese economic growth, but at the same time, there is increasing worries of a major bubble.

HSBC stumbles again with SMEs in China

Written by Kapronasia || September 17 2013

In another of what is appearing to be a series of missteps for the HK bank in mainland China, the organisation has further alienated a key segment of their Chinese customer base by tripling basic account fees for mainland China SMEs. This comes on the heels of moving away from individual account managers and shifting any customer service for SMEs to automated help lines in 2011.

As China moves along its path of financial reform, starting with the interest rate reform and the Free Trade Zone (FTZ) in Shanghai, it is not hard to see equity investors moving towards Shanghai-based firms and FTZ-related firms.

China’s Growth in Foreign Exchange Reserves

Written by Kapronasia || August 28 2013

Over the last few decades, the Chinese Central Bank has accumulated massive foreign exchange reserves making it the world’s largest holder at $3.44 trillion. Furthermore the expansion of these reserves, which has accelerated dramatically since 2000, has shown no signs of slowing. Figure one shows foreign reserve levels in China compared with Japan, the world’s second largest holder, along with the United States. Figure two shows the trajectory of China’s foreign reserve levels over the last three decades, which is now over 300 times larger than in 1980.

China: Moving Towards Interest Rate Liberalization

Written by Fay Zhou || August 15 2013

China’s Central Bank has been rapidly shifting towards full interest rate liberalization. On July 20th, 2013, The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) announced liberalizing the loan interest rate. With this announcement, the deposit interest rate ceiling is the last variable waiting to be liberalized in China.

With interest rates liberalization now on the horizon, competition in deposit interest rates is heating up. Many joint-stock banks have recently increased their long term deposit interest rates about 10%. Everbright Bank increased its 2-year term deposit interest rate from 3.75% to 4.125%, 3-year term deposit interest rate from 4.25% to 4.675%, and 5-year term deposit interest rate from 4.75% to 5.125%. It will be effective until the end of 2013. Since 2012, many city commercial banks have increased their deposit interest rate. We can see the interest rate liberalization trend, and it is currently affecting China’s banking sector from local banks to joint-stock banks, and maybe state-owned banks in the near future.

Increased Bank Deposit Rates in China 

 

 

In respond to Chinese national policy, Chinese banks have been actively advancing and cooperating with small and micro-enterprises in the lending business. The total small and micro-enterprise loan balance keeps climbing, and the proportion of small and micro-enterprise loan to total corporate loan remains on a stable level. Recently, the small and micro-enterprise loan balance reached to 12.25 trillion Yuan, and 28.6% of corporate loan belongs to small and micro-enterprises. The increase in small and micro-enterprise loan not only effectively relieves the constraint of funding issues for the companies, but also promotes the transformation of small and micro enterprises in China.

A look at how small and micro enterprise lending is growing.

Private banking in China finally taking hold

Written by Kapronasia || July 18 2013

Considered one of the best retail banks in China, China Merchant Bank (CMB) has started their private banking business in 2007. At the end of 2012, CMB's pre-tax profit from their private banking business reached 2.3 billion yuan. Other major banks in China have similarly increased their wealth management profit since 2010, when growth of the market really accelerated.

ICBC and BOC still have the largest private banking AUM among the top 5 while CMB has the most private banking centers to serve its HNWI customers. The high net worth customer segment (over 10M RMB in investable assets) is growing at 18% growth rate and reached to 700,000 by the end of 2012. It seems that banks have finally cracked the code and wealth management is set to grow in China. 

Potential of private banking

As part of Kapronasia's continuing webinar series, our next webinar on July 10th will be looking at Operational Risk Management in China's banking system. Given the events of recent weeks, risk management is once again key consideration for Chinese banks. To register for the webinar, please click here. 

With the liquidity crunch increasing in June and the interbank rate jumping to new highs, many state-owned banks are attempting to use the increased average wealth management product (WMP) yield to ease the tightened liquidity. Based on data from JRJ, the average monthly WMP yields in major state-owned banks increased in June compared to May based on the monthly average yields of the top 10 WMP in the bank. The average yields increased from 3.84% to 4.38% in the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), 4.16% to 4.57% in the Bank of China (BOC), 3.77% to 4.11% in the Agricultural Bank of China (ABC), and 3.58% to 4.44% in China Construction Bank (CCB).

Chart showing monthly average wealth management product yield in china's state owned banks 

 

 

 

 

A look at the increase in the Shanghai Interbank rate

Written by Kapronasia || June 21 2013

We mentioned earlier this week that there had been a sharp uptick in the Shanghai Interbank rate in the past month. This peaked last night at about 13%. With the attention, rightly so, that this is getting, it's worth taking a look at the issue and what's involved. 

According to data released by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), the interbank lending rate (weighted average interest rate) increased from 2.55% in April 2013 to 2.92% in May which will affect banking liquidity requirements. The interbank lending rate decreased from 2.77% to 2.47% in March, and it started to increase in April and May. The interbank lending rate in May is 0.42% higher year on year. The total interbank lending turnover was 21.85 trillion yuan, and the daily turnover reached 993 billion yuan.

 

 

 

 

China's Bank card issuance continues to increase

Written by Kapronasia || May 28 2013

Based on data released from the PBOC, bank card issuance in Q1 has increased 4.5% compared to 2012 Q4 to reach a total of 3.69 billion cards issued. Within the issued 3.69 billion cards, the total number of debit cards issued was 3.65 billion and total credit card issuance reached to 0.34 billion. From Q1 2012, the issued bank cards have had a steady growing trend which indicates that bank cards have becoming more and more Important as a payment method in China. Domestically, 10.6 billion bank card transactions happened in Q1 2013, and the total transaction value was 100.27 trillion yuan which increased 23.9% and 19.3% compared to Q1 2012.

 

Chinese Bankcard issuance

According to the annual reports released by city commercial banks, a lot of city commercial banks’ net profit growth rates in 2012 have shown a slowing down trend compared to 2011. For example, in 2011, both net profit growth rates of Hankou Bank and Bank of Chengdu were close to 50%, however, both of them shown a dramatic decrease as the end of 2012. Also, the net profit growth of the two listed city commercial banks - Bank of Nanjing and Bank of Ningbo, are showing a significant decline in 2012.

Lower net profit is putting a lot of pressure to Chinese commercial banks in 2013, and the figures implies that city commercial banks have to seek for new business and products to reboot high profit in 2013.

 

 

As the end of 2012, the total number of Chinese online banking registered users reached about 489 million. More specifically, according to the data released from Cebnet, CCB’s online banking customers increased to 119.26 million, jumping by 41% from 2011 to 2012. The number of BOC’s online banking customers has reached to 91.42 million, with a year-on-year growth rate of 66%.

Because of the dramatic increase in the number of online banking users, banks such as ICBC and CCB have launched more innovative personal banking services such as social insurance and wealth management services.

Number of Online banking users in China 

 

 

According to the CBRC, China’s commercial banks announced a total net profit of 1.24 trillion RMB in 2012, with the total net profit of the 16 listed banks comprising 1.03 trillion of that total. Among these 16 listed banks, the five major banks ICBC, ABC, BOC, CCB, and BOCom earned 239, 145, 139, 194, and 58 billion RMB respectively in 2012. China Merchants Bank (CMB) made 45.3 billion RMB net profit in 2012, topping other joint-stock banks. Bank of Beijing, as the leading city commercial bank in China, earned 11.7 billion RMB net profit last year. However, the overall net profit growth rate of China’s commercial banks has declined compared to 2011 apparently due to the process of interest marketization which has deceased interest based revenue recently. 

Chinese Banks Net Profit 2013

 

 

 

 

 

NPLs in Chinese Banks Trending upwards again

Written by Kapronasia || April 27 2013

According to the China Securities Journal, the quality of credit assets is again appearing as an issue for Chinese banks. The latest annual report shows that the non-performing loan (NPL) balance and non-performing loan (NPL) ratio both increased in 2012, a sharp move from the “double decreasing” in both NPL balance and NPL ratio in the previous years.

The total NPL balance in the 11 listed banks was ¥385.38 billion in 2012 with a YOY growth rate of 8.1% compared to ¥356.6 billion in 2011. China Construction Bank believes the upward trend in NPL is due to the macroeconomic fluctuations in manufacturing, wholesale and retail trade, and real estate.

According to CCW Research, a local Chinese IT market research company, China’s financial industry IT software spend in 2012 grew to 49 billion RMB and the spending will keep a steady growth in 2013. Banking segment spend is a key driver, making up about 72% of total spend. Comprehensive risk management and big data are the main IT focus areas for banks.

As securities companies continuously launch new business, CCW estimates that IT spending on new business-related solutions in the securities sub-segment will increase considerably in future. 

For insurance companies, the overall IT infrastructure is still very nascent. Large players will invest more money into the development and update of core systems.

So we’ve just come out of the October holiday here in China and are headed in the final frantic few months before Chinese New Year. The difference this year is the early November once in a decade leadership transition where nearly every Chinese leader and politician will be replaced and/or shifted around in China’s Communist Party. It was never in doubt that the transition would happen towards the end of this year, but it was only in the last few weeks that it became clear it would happen in early November.

This is an important transition for the government and only the second peaceful transition of power in recent China’s recent history. The transition is even more important because of the critical social and economic challenges that the country is facing right now. A slow/stagnant world economy and increased but still limited domestic consumption is limiting China’s economy as a whole which is exacerbating the internal challenges it is facing – one of the most critical being the increasing delta between the haves and have nots. If you have been reading international media recently, we’re starting to see more and more of this discrepancy being uncovered and it does nothing to help the government in the eyes of the people.

More specifically to the financial industry however, the transition means increased change. We’ve seen this already this year especially in the capital markets as the new chief regulators have done quite a bit to open the capital markets this year with increased rumours that regulation on the RFQLP programme should be announced shortly, adding yet another channel for off-shore RMB to come back into China’s mainland markets.

The shift in policy is also indicative of China’s increased awareness of money leaving China. With reports of both wealthy individuals and corporations legally and illegally sending money abroad, the issue which used to be too much hot money coming in, is now too much hot money going out. To a certain extent, this is a bit of a blessing in disguise for China as it will allow regulators to further open the market without risking the hot money inflows – which was viewed as a challenge in the past.

With the party congress set for November of this year, we’re unlikely to see too much more change until after Chinese New Year (Feb 2013). What we should be able to quickly determine though is how open the new leaders are to change and modernization of all industries, not just the financial services industry. As we’ve discussed on our blog before, this will largely depend on how quickly the new leaders can consolidate their power to be able to effect change and in which direction they decide to go.

Regardless, 2013 will be a new watershed for China’s financial services industry. Stay tuned early next year for our 2013 top financial technology trends report to see how we see things changing.

Mobile Banking in China continues to grow

Written by Kapronasia || September 13 2012

According to the latest semiannual reports issued by China’s commercial banks, e-banking continues to grow in importance as a part of banks’ business. For most of banks, e-banking channels has already contributed to over 60% of total transaction volume with the 5 large commercial banks’ total e-banking transactions showing a 35% growth rate year on year. Benefiting from the advancement of IT and the proliferation of smart mobile phone in China, mobile banking has become increasingly convenient for users and important for banks. 

In order to meet the strong demand for mobile banking, banks continue to update their mobile banking applications and launch new functions to enhance the user experience. For instance, Agricultural Bank released its new iPhone-enabled mobile banking app which not only supports banking transactions but also integrates online shopping. Bank of China launched the first Windows-enabled mobile banking application recently. We expect that in the future banks will offer more value-added services on their mobile banking products through innovations and ensure safe and reliable systems.

China’s banking IT spend will continue to grow strongly

Written by Kapronasia || August 23 2012

In 2013, China will take over Japan as the biggest consumer of IT products in Asia. According to IDC, China's total IT market size in 2012 is projected to reach 155 billion US dollars, with 20% growth rate YOY, and in 2013, this number will reach 170 billion dollars, 4% more than that of Japan. During China's Five Year Plan period (from 2011 to 2015), companies must invest more in their IT infrastructure to meet the demands of stable growth and innovations.

In the banking industry,  total IT spending (software and services) in 2011 exceeded 15 billion US dollars, with a 19% growth rate compared to 2010, and, according to IDC, China's banking IT spending will keep a 20% CAGR (Compound Average Growth Rate), hitting 39 billion dollars in 2016. We expect that the new generation of core banking systems, risk control, big data analysis and mobile payment will be the main driving forces behind the IT spend.  

The Banking on China report is now available on the Kapronasia website in the research reports section. The report from Oracle and Kapronasia looks at the key challenges and opportunities for international banks in China and is based on numerous interviews with both larger and smaller banks in China. The complimentary report is available for download after you have logged into your Kapronasia.com user account. If you do not have an account, register today for free. 

Recently Taiwan's Financial Supervisory Commission, the main financial regulator, said it had approved applications submitted by Bank of China and Bank of Communications to establish branches in Taipei. The banks will only be allowed to engage in limited business in the country, e.g. can only accept deposits higher than NT$3 million (US$100,350), only provide corporate loans. Further, the banks will need to receive approval from Taiwan's central bank if they wish to engage in f/x.

Reform in China’s Banking Sector: More to come?

Written by Jinna Wang || April 28 2012

In recent years, Chinese banking sector profits have skyrocketed to new levels, in part due to the Beijing imposed ceiling on the rates banks pay depositors, providing banks with a source of cheap funds, which banks then in turn lend out at much higher rates. Net profits for commercial banks grew 36 percent last year, reaching 1 trillion Renminbi. Chinese banks are enjoying year-on-year rises of more than 30 percent in their first-half net profits. In one example, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China’s fees and commission income for the year 2011 was close to 100 billion RMB, compared to 72 billion in 2010 and 55 billion in 2009.

The Technical Challenges for QDII funds in 2012

Written by Helen Lin || April 24 2012

Since the first QDII quota of US$500 million was allocated to the HuaAn fund in 2006, the quota allocated to security companies and fund companies has maintained steady growth. As of the end of February 2012, US$44.4 billion of investment quota was allocated to fund companies and security companies, compared to US$44.4 billion and US$40.6 billion for 2011 and 2010.

Disaster recovery systems for China’s banks

Written by Ken Ding || April 05 2012

In recent years, since Chinese banks have been working on data consolidation at the national level, the establishment of disaster recovery systems has become one of the key considerations for banks. Today, banks must ensure the stability and security of their national data center in the event of a disaster to ensure uninterrupted business operation through disaster recovery systems.

According to IDC’s report “China Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery Market Forecast, 2008-2013, data disaster recovery service and business continuity in China is expected to become the fastest growing segment in the local IT service market during 2008-2013, with a CAGR of 52%.

A standard recovery

The importance of disaster recovery systems has pushed the Chinese government to formulate a series of industry standards. In June 2009, the China Banking Regulatory Commission issued a new guideline on IT Risk Management of Commercial Banks, which has set a higher standard for the information security and business continuity of the entire life cycle of banking IT.

In 2011, China’s regulators also urged local banks to speed up the implementation of disaster recovery systems during the 12th Five-Year Period, by proposing a disaster recovery model named “Two Places and Three Centers”, which specifies a main data center, a remote disaster recovery center, and an intra-city emergency disaster recovery center.

In response to the legislation, recently, more local banks have started building their own “Two Places and Three Centers”. Large domestic banks have been seen allocating more resources to develop the disaster recovery model and already built large disaster recovery centers. The Agricultural Bank of China initiated its Shanghai remote disaster recovery center in 2012; China Construction Bank will complete the establishment of its Beijing data center in 2013. Even though they are somewhat behind the larger banks, small and medium banks have identified “Two Places and Three Centers” as one of their key IT investment priorities in the future.

Looking forward

In 2012, we expect that local small and medium sized banks will lead the demand for disaster recovery systems, particularly for joint stock commercial banks and city commercial banks, as they seek national expansions in their next phase of growth. With increased operating risks, banks have begun to put more value on the benefits brought by disaster recovery systems, which will be key to ensure uninterrupted business operation and improve risk management capability. This trend is also likely to be seen in local insurance and securities sector, where more small and medium sized insurers, securities firms and fund companies will invest in disaster recovery systems.

Compared to self-built disaster recovery centers, outsourcing services on disaster recovery will be much more popular among these companies, as the latter can provide lower investments, shorter construction period and higher service standards; the local market for disaster recovery system is still dominated by global players represented by IBM, HP, Symantec and EMC.

China's disparate Financial Standards

Written by Ken Ding || March 28 2012

As China’s financial institutions continue to invest more money in information technology innovation to help them maintain strong growth and a competitive edge, foreign vendors expect enormous opportunities and are scrambling to enter this dynamic market.

However, when a foreign vendor and its local partner want to implement a new solution, both of them may face a dilemma or, specifically speaking, a real problem, in that China’s financial standardization lags behind the relatively rapid development of the financial industry globally and has yet to meet the demands of technology innovation and business expansion. This can slow the pace of technology advancement as competing standards add layers of complexity and make it more difficult to come up with straightforward technology solutions to clients’ problems. The PBOC has realized that financial standardization does and will continue to play a pivotal role in financial informationization and regards standardization work as an important strategic measure to promote China’s financial industry.

The China Finance Standardization Technical Committee (CFSTC), established by the PBOC and other financial institutions, shoulders the responsibility to draft and revise financial standards relating to banking, insurance, security and printing, and it also promotes the adoption of new standards in China. As of the end of 2011, CFSTC had issued 151 financial standards covering fundamental data elements, code, interface standards, terminology, messages, data, financial instrument designs, and parameters in printing technology. These standards have been successfully implemented in various financial areas such as bankcard, Internet Banking, accounting, treasury, information security and financial IC card.

Take for example the ISO 20022 standard, a universal financial industry message format. Since China has become a member of WTO, the scope of China’s financial institutions’ business has become much more international than before. However, incompatible financial message formats increase the cost of international transactions and impede efficient global bank connectivity, so the PBOC has already urged China’s local banks to adopt the ISO 20022 financial message standard and, at the end of 2011, CFSTC also issued the ISO 20022 standards which will be officially implemented in May, 2012.

We can expect that local banks will obtain numerous benefits from the implementation of ISO 20022 in China including the reduction of transaction costs and improvement of risk control. Vendors, of course, will be happy to help banks upgrade their cash management, treasury and payment systems.

Although progress has been made, China’s financial standardardization still faces many problems and challenges:

  • Compared with the large number of services offered by China’s financial institutions including banks, security companies, and insurance companies, the number of standards is not enough and the variety of standards is limited. For example, even though electronic payment business, such as online banking and mobile payment is increasingly popular in China, China still lacks sound and comprehensive electronic payment standards which will standardize the end-to-end process of electronic payment and control payment risk.
  • 70-80% of total standards refer to information technology, and CFSTC needs to draft more standards related to business and management, such as operation, transaction and risk management standards
  • Experts with relevant industry experience and knowledge are scarce, hindering the draft of standards
  • Currently, China only follows international standards, instead of participating the drafting of international standards 

As China becomes further integrated into global financial markets and reformation of domestic financial markets continues during the 12th Five-Year Plan Period, the authorities realize that they should continue pushing financial standardization and, more importantly, participating more actively in the drafting of international standards. By submitting its own proposals for international financial standards, China wants to strengthen its competitive edge in global financial markets.

Although it seems difficult for China to exert influence on international financial standards over the relatively short period of time that China’s markets have been developing, CFSTC will keep tracking and learning international standards first and promote indigenous innovation at the same time. In the future, we will likely see some of China’s own financial standards become international standards.

A sizeable portion of Chinese customers are willing to try new methods that may offer them increased convenience over the current need to go to the branch for any problems. Due to the sluggish pace of personal banking in China, consumers have shown added interest in electronic services that will shorten the time they spend in any bank branch. Chinese consumers have also expressed interest in using the internet more in finding out about new products and services as well as using the internet more in addressing account problems.

Among the report’s insights, was the finding that in both the United States and China, a low level of trust in system security remains a considerable obstacle for the integration of social media in banking. Although Chinese consumers seem to be slightly less sceptical than their American counterparts, both groups are unconvinced that social media is a safe route through which banking transactions can be conducted. Although if consumer confidence can be instilled in the safety as well as the privacy factors in social media, both groups would welcome a more technologically advanced system since they believe social media can make their banking experience more expedient and convenient.

With hundreds of millions of individuals in both China and the United States partaking in social media activity each and every day, possibilities of combining social media with other aspects of life are constantly being discovered and experimented with. The key to a successful implementation is the correct assessment of the public’s level of readiness before taking swift action to modernize.

Kapronasia’s latest report “Social Media and Banking in China” takes a comprehensive look at how social media will change the personal banking landscape in China as well as the attitude both American and Chinese consumers hold toward the use of social media in the future. This report, the first of its kind in examining the realm of social media and banking in China, lends many key insights critical to understanding the thoughts and actions of Chinese consumers. These and other findings will be discussed in detail during a Kapronasia webinar on the Social Media and Banking in China” report in early April.

Prepaid card recycling in China

Written by Zennon Kapron || January 30 2012

One of the most interesting parts of doing market research in China is learning about the innovative ways of doing business. A few weekends ago the fracas over the China launch of the iPhone 4S at the Apple store in Beijing got me thinking. If you haven’t followed the story, basically, the store was meant to open in the morning and people had queued all night for a chance to buy one of the new phones. The store eventually never opened that day with Apple citing staff safety concerns much to the ire of the people who had braved the cold.

If you look at pictures and reports of the event, it’s clear that many of the people who were queuing and waiting were not necessarily the typical iPhone user. Many of them are in fact what are called huangnius (yellow cows) who are the scalpers who buy the iPhone 4S at retail for about US$790 (as compared to US$650 in the US for a 4S 16GB unlocked) and then sell it on the gray market for a 20%+ markup.

Huangnius are not just limited to electronics though. Actually the first that I had heard about them was when I arrived to shanghai a number of years ago and wanted to exchange RMB for USD. You can go through the banks, but as the currency is capital controlled, you are limited to how much you can convert. No limits to the amount of RMB the huangniu will buy though, of course you’ll have to take his rates, but if you need the USD, you need the USD. The award for best business model though, has to go to the huangniu that are involved in the pre-paid card industry.

As we discussed in previous commentaries, pre-paid cards in China are very popular and are often given by companies as part of an annual bonus to their employees. A key part of that equation are the ‘fapiao’ or official invoices that they receive for the cards. In order to account costs in China, you need to have an official fapiao that is submitted to the tax authorities to show that you actually did incur an expense and aren’t just faking invoices. There are of course ways that companies counterfeit fapiao or buy actual fapiao, but that is a whole separate subject.

Back to the prepaid cards and the huangniu, so in the west, there are of course a number of companies that will give you money today for your money tomorrow. Similarly, the huangniu openly purchase pre-paid cards. So let’s go through how this whole process works:

A large company, let’s call it ACME, will purchase a number of prepaid cards from a prepaid card issuer such as a large retail store chain for typically what is the actual face value of the card, let’s say 1000 rmb (renminbi or rmb for short is another name for Chinese Yuan; 1000rmb is about US$150). ACME will pay the issuer and receive the official receipts (fa piao) from the issuer and be able to claim either as a business or salary expense depending on ACME’s accounting and then will give the cards to their employees as part of their annual bonus or just as part of their regular compensation.

Now, say the prepaid card is only good at the issuer’s store and the ACME employee who received the card rarely shops at that store, or just really needs the money right away. They can then contact a huangniu who, if it is a popular kind of prepaid card, will buy it off the ACME employee for a certain percentage of the original value, let’s say 800 rmb in this case. The huangniu at that point has a number of options including reselling it to an individual consumer who might be interested in the card for say 900rmb, thus making a 100rmb profit. This makes a lot of sense, and when it was explained to me, wasn’t surprising.

What was surprising to me in this case is that the huangniu will sometimes sell it back to the issuer themselves. So think about this, the issuer has sold the card for 1000 rmb and immediately that becomes a liability for the company (similar to a loan for a bank) as the user can then use that card to purchase goods. Not trying to make things overly simple here, but what the issuer would love is that the users never in fact use the cards and they expire along with their complete value. That 1000rmb suddenly moves from being a liability to a cash asset. If that isn’t possible, the issuer would want to get the most value back from the card as possible.

So to do that, the issuer will actually buy the unused card from the huangniu at a slight discount. So in this case, say it was 900rmb. So the issuer has cleared off 1000rmb of liabilities for 900rmb and everyone in the ‘value chain’ is happy. The issuer is happy as they make a tidy profit and are then able to reissue the card at the same 1000rmb value which accelerates the ‘velocity’ of the card in the market so that it appears more popular. ACME is happy because they have compensated their employees and have received official receipts which they can then deduct from their tax bill. Employees are happy because they have 800rmb in cash. Huangniu are happy because typically the sellers are buyers of these cards are fixed which means steady regular and predictable profits.

The values used here are just examples. From others in the industry it seems that these arrangements happen for as little as a 1rmb discount on each card. So the huangniu will buy the card for 99rmb instead of 100rmb and then sell it for 99.5 rmb or similar. Even with such a small discount, they still manage to make huge profits through volume.

The key takeaway from all of this is that China is developing rapidly and many of the regulations in and around the finanancial services industry are somewhat vague and often allow for loopholes similar to the model I laid out above. These inevitably will be sorted out in the future, but for now, it is another example of the inventiveness of the market players and the lack of specific regulations preventing what is essentially a huge tax dodge and license to print money.

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