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China should straighten out its wealth managers, says central bank

A woman rides past the headquarters of the People's Bank of China, the Chinese central bank, in Beijing, April 3, 2014. REUTERS/Petar Kujund
A woman rides past the headquarters of the People's Bank of China, the Chinese central bank, in Beijing, April 3, 2014. REUTERS/Petar Kujund

BEIJING (Reuters) - China should reorganize its wealth management industry as it is unduly raising funding costs and encouraging savers to behave like gamblers by chasing after lucrative short-term returns, a deputy governor of China's central bank said on Saturday.

In an unusually sharp criticism of the rapidly growing wealth management business, Liu Shiyu said the sector has pushed up funding costs for Chinese companies, causing credit to be unpalatably expensive and distorting its economy.

"This type of practice where water is added at every layer and prices are raised in an exploitative way at every link directly increases costs in the real economy," Liu told a forum on Saturday at Beijing's Tsinghua University.

"There is no contribution to labor productivity and it will lead a nation, it will lead a country's financial system into a short-term behavior that is extreme in its gambling mentality."

He said wealth managers were lending money to companies at rates of around 14 percent, but often offering rates of only around 8 percent to individuals investing in their funds.

Fuelled by savers' and companies' thirst for higher returns, China's wealth management sector has exploded in recent years.

Standard Chartered Bank estimated in January the industry now manages around 11 trillion yuan ($1.8 trillion) and is growing at an annual rate of 65 percent.

However, while wealth management products have rocketed in popularity, the opaque nature of the sector has fed concerns about the industry's health.

Liu warned in his speech that non-financial companies were increasingly becoming involved in the wealth management industry, lured by the attractive returns on offer.

"This outcome is a very terrible outcome," he said.

EVADING REGULATION

With China's economy stuttering and growth expected to grind to a 24-year low of 7.3 percent this year, there are growing concerns about the level of risk associated with the country's financial sector.

Banks' non-performing loan ratios have edged up to a two-year high, though they are still at a modest 1 percent. The country also experienced its first-ever default of a publicly-traded domestic bond in March.

Acknowledging the build-up in financial risks, Liu said China's money supply as a percentage of its gross domestic product was high, and would better if the ratio were lower.

However, he said that no economic theory shows that a bigger ratio is concomitant with a higher level of risk.

China's M2 money supply - made up of cash and bank deposits - was worth 188 percent of its GDP between 2009-2013, World Bank data showed, over two times that of the United States' 88 percent.

Liu warned the methods companies use to raise cash were causing concern. He said attempts by authorities to reduce firms' reliance on banks for funds in favor of other financing methods such as initial public offers have been unsuccessful.

Brisk credit expansion coupled with a slowing economy have led some experts to worry that China may soon see another painful spike in bad loans.

Liu said official estimates suggest Chinese banks wrote off 120 billion yuan worth of bad debt last year, more than the 80 billion yuan in write-offs disclosed by listed banks.

He said the 120 billion yuan worth of write-offs would have erased all the profits that banks would have earned from issuing 4 trillion yuan worth of loans, assuming a net interest margin of 3 percentage points.

Chinese banks disbursed a total of 8.9 trillion yuan worth of new loans last year.

Referring to the flurry of wealth management products being sold online by Chinese firms, Liu warned firms against using products billed as being innovative, in a bid to dodge regulation.

"In some areas, the current financial innovation is really about avoiding regulation," he said.

($1 = 6.2280 Chinese Yuan)

(Reporting by Koh Gui Qing; Editing by Sophie Hares)

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