China vows oversight of fintech, financial holding firms

China's banking industry reported a 3 per cent decline in combined profit in 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (BLOOMBERG) - China plans to step up oversight of financial holding companies and the nation's booming fintech industry, Premier Li Keqiang said, setting the tone for closer scrutiny over the next five years of behemoths including Jack Ma's Ant Group Co.

The authorities will also expand an anti-monopoly crackdown and prevent the "unregulated" expansion of capital to create fair competition, Mr Li said on Friday (March 5) at the opening of the National People's Congress.

The fintech sector should be developed in a "prudent" manner and China aims to create a "deviation correction" mechanism to fix and suspend innovative financial products when needed, according to a separate plan covering policies for 2021 to 2025.

China's policymakers are walking a fine line of trying to curb risks at home while encouraging local champions as the economy opens wider to foreign capital.

Fintech has become the latest target of scrutiny since the nation's leaders pledged in 2017 to clean up threats to its US$53 trillion (S$71.9 trillion) financial industry, tackling property loans, opaque wealth management products and fraud-riddled peer-to-peer lending.

"We will improve the mechanism for managing financial risks, see responsibilities are fulfilled by all the stakeholders, and ensure that no systemic risks arise," Mr Li said. "Financial institutions must serve the real economy."

All three financial watchdogs have made it their primary goal this year to curb the push of technology firms into finance, taking aim at a sector where loose oversight fuelled breakneck growth for firms such as Ant and Tencent Holdings Ltd's Wechat Pay.

Regulators has introduced a raft of measures to curb fintech's growing influence over China's financial plumbing since late last year, targeting monopolistic practices and tightening scrutiny in areas from credit scoring to payments.

New rules on online microlending and financial holding companies have hit billionaire Ma's Ant particularly hard, derailing its US$35 billion initial public offering abruptly and forcing the firm to restructure its sprawling businesses.

Ant is in talks with regulators to restructure into a financial holding company, people familiar with the matter said earlier, a move that will subject it to more capital restrictions and ownership scrutiny.

Meanwhile, China will balance its derisking campaign with efforts to revive economic growth. The government plans to extend policies allowing small businesses to delay repayments and have financial institutions further reduce lending rates and forgo profits to help the economy. Big banks should boost their small business loans by 30 per cent this year, Mr Li said.

The lenders were put on the front-line in helping millions of struggling businesses during the pandemic and required to forgo a combined 1.5 trillion yuan (S$310 billion) in earnings by reducing borrowing costs and allowing delayed repayments. That helped China become the only major economy to achieve economic growth last year.

The banking industry reported a 3 per cent decline in combined profit in 2020, the worst performance in at least a decade, according to official data.

Lenders disposed of a record 3 trillion yuan of non-performing loans last year and are under pressure to carve out more soured credit in 2021 as a payment holiday ends at the end of March.

The pandemic's extraordinary relief measures hid the true state of asset quality in the banking sector, which reported an unexpected decline in its bad loan ratio last year.

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