Anyone who has lived long enough has their own China banking story. Mine was when I first arrived many years ago. My landlord banked with Bank of China (BOC) and I banked with the Industrial Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). At that time (2004), personal bank to bank transfers weren’t possible without a tremendous amount of paperwork, so once per month I would have to directly pay my rent via withdrawal / deposit. As banks typically closed at around 5pm, this meant it was a weekend exercise and one not easily accomplished.
Frequently companies issue press releases talking about a new agreement or MOU with a Chinese financial institution or market player. As Chinese companies globalize and more foreign companies setup offices in China, announcements like these are becoming more common, it is worth taking a minute to reflect on what MOUs or agreements actually mean both inside and outside of China.
In recent years, with the development of information technology and the demand of innovation in the micropayment market, China’s commercial prepaid card industry has grown rapidly. By the end of 2009, the total funds of prepaid cards in circulation reached 1,093 billion Yuan, with 1.75 billion transaction volume and a stored value totaling nearly 40 billion Yuan, according to a report filed in July 2010 by China Union Loyalty Co Ltd, a Shanghai-based provider of prepaid cards.
Recently there seems to have been an increased focus on the presence of foreign banks in China and their domestic China businesses. There was an article in the WSJ last week that mentioned the number 86% which represents the increase in foreign banks' lending in China in 2010. A webinar from Celent talks about how JVs/partnerships are still the way to go in China for foreign banks.
Yesterday was the 7th Annual BFTF which was held at the Traders Hotel here in Singapore. The event featured around 20 international speakers, 8 sponsor/vendors and was attended by about 100 delegates. The event, although smaller than in previous years – and smaller than similar events, was excellent. I was expecting the conversations to be thought-provoking, but was genuinely impressed by some of the debates and discussions.
As the world economy recovers from the deep hole of the financial crisis, institutions in Chinese financial markets, like their counterparts in the west, are looking for ways to improve their efficiency through technology. This drive for efficiency is bringing Cloud computing into the spot-light and the idea that computing will increasingly be delivered as a service, over the internet, from the vast warehouses of shared machines – a new way to meet the demand for efficiency improvement.
In recent years, China’s banking sector has gone through rapid changes, driven by deepening financial reforms, growing presence of foreign banks and quickly evolving customer demand. With intensified competition, there is a new wave of investment in core banking systems among Chinese banks, in a hope to sharpen their technology edge and stay ahead of the competition.
Prior to joining the WTO, the knowledge and experience of bank staff in Chinese banks was not an issue. Most domestic banks were very inwardly focused on their core domestic business and staff had the capabilities to match. However, as more and more SOEs were either listed or entered into partnerships with foreign multi-nationals, the requirements of domestic companies changed and expanded. No longer was it a case of simply domestic business - China had gone global. The issue then became staff experience and capabilities and as most Chinese banks didn't have the experience in-house, so they looked west.
Beyond satisfying WTO requirements, one of the key rationales for allowing foreign multinational banks to buy into Chinese financial institutions was to leverage the investors’ experience to develop a more mature set of regulations and financial industry as a whole. With the slowdown going truly global, we are starting to see multi-national banks start to pull out of China; RBS and UBS have sold off stakes in their Chinese investments, it’s likely that many other banks will do the same in the coming months. This poses a big challenge for Chinese banks.
Non-performing loans (NPLs) have been the monkey on the back of Chinese banks for years. Previous to 2001, NPL rates weren’t as big of a concern for the banks as they were all fully state-owned and competition was weak. China entering the WTO changed that. As the industry started to open up, competition increased and banks considered public listings. Cleaning up their low-quality balance sheets was one of the first steps on the road to IPO.
According to a recent statistic published by China Union Pay, Chinese banks have issued more than 1.3 billion debit, credit and ‘quasi’-credit cards through the end of September. This means that, on average, every man, woman and child in China now carries a piece of plastic. Quite a staggering number and, at first glance, quite promising.
This past weekend Craig Barrett was in China for the ceremonial groundbreaking on the brand spanking new site for Intel’s latest US$2.5B factory or “fab”. Scheduled to start production in 2010, the fab is the largest investment by Intel in China to date and represents Intel’s “continued commitment to China."
This week Singapore Airlines (SIA) bought a ~16% stake in China Eastern, a domestic Chinese airline, which is in the worst financial condition of the big three Chinese carriers. This by itself is groundbreaking news as it’s the first foreign investment in a domestic Chinese airline, but when you consider the recent takeover bid for Qantas in Australia and indeed SIA’s own failed bid for takeoff slots in Australia, it becomes even more interesting as a comparison of markets and their openness to change.
A few days ago, the Beijing Municipal government (separate from the national government) issued a report promoting the capital city as a new back office operations centre for the financial sector. Using a raft of incentives such as discounts on registration payments, and subsidized housing and land, Beijing is looking to attract all types of back functions to four new specially designated zones in the capital. Apparently Goldman Sachs / Gao Hua Securities, “Swiss Bank” (?) and Deutsche Bank have been in discussions about shifting some of their back office work there; the People's Bank of China, Agricultural Bank of China and the R&D arm of China Life Insurance Company have already signed contracts to relocate to the financial zone.
The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has hiked the reserve requirement by 50bps, to 12%, effective from August 15. The reserve requirement rate is now approaching the threshold of 13%, common back in 1988-98. This is the fifth time that the PBOC has tightened the reserve requirement policy this year, the last being a hike on July 20th.