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Filling the gap in Wenzhou's finance market

By Yu Ran | China Daily | Updated: 2013-01-24 06:01

 Filling the gap in Wenzhou's finance market

Huafon Small-Sum Loan Co Ltd is the largest of such companies in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province. Financial reform launched in China's private business hub is making progress amid challenges and skepticism from critics. Wang Dingchang / Xinhua

Reform of the country's private business hub in a bid to curb underground lending is making progress amid challenges and skepticism, Yu Ran reports.

Close-up shots of Zhang Zhenyu on television on Dec 20 showed large beads of sweat running down his face as he gave an account of his past year of work to a critical audience consisting of the city's Party leaders and prominent people.

If he was nervous, he had good reason to be.

As the director of Wenzhou's financial office and the official in charge of financial reform, Zhang oversees the much-touted financial reform that is stumbling in the city.

In the 10 months since the reform was kicked off with great fanfare, little progress has been made in bringing relief to the many thousands of cash-strapped small and medium-sized enterprises that it was meant to help.

Many Wenzhou factory owners, lenders and financial middlemen have all been asking the same question: "What's in it for us?"

Other than the officials responsible for the program, few have found the answer.

As Huang Fajing, vice-president of Wenzhou General Chamber of Commerce, and owner of one of the largest lighter manufacturers in the world, said: "I'm sure financial reform won't do us any harm. But it's not doing us any good either."

To be sure, financial officials in the city under Zhang's direction have established a host of facilities, including several lending platforms, to facilitate an orderly and well-supervised flow of capital to borrowers.

These facilities are supposed to replace the functions of the underground banking system that tipped over the brink early last year.

They include Wenzhou's private lending registration service center, Wenzhou SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) Financing Service Center, a financial reform plaza and two financial development zones.

But these facilities have largely been shunned by lenders and borrowers alike.

According to the latest statistics from Zhang's department, loans made through the private lending center established under the reform program amounted to just 390 million yuan ($62 million).

The majority of borrowers were owners of struggling SMEs with a successful borrowing rate of just 28.17 percent. The total amount of money that registered lenders offered exceeded 1.3 billion yuan but "there were few takers", said Xu Zhiqian, general manager of Wenzhou's private lending registration service center.

Frustrated officials and disinterested private lenders interviewed by China Daily openly complained about bureaucratic inertia, public apathy and widespread suspicion for holding up the progress of the reforms.

"Nobody seems to have a clear idea of the general direction, and nobody is in any hurry to make any commitment," Huang said.

But not everyone shared his mood.

Filling the gap in Wenzhou's finance market

Cen Li, general manager of the government-sponsored Wenzhou Financial Investment Group, said that he was feeling great pressure to show results.

After more than four months of tough negotiations, Cen managed to persuade the Zhejiang branch of China Development Bank and Wenzhou branch of Shanghai Pudong Development Bank to agree to provide up to 3 billion yuan in standby loans to qualified SMEs.

The first batch of loans, totaling 9.3 million yuan, has been offered to two local companies.

"The arrangement was something new to all of us," said Cen. "It took a long time for us to iron out all the issues. But I am glad to say that we are now ready to sign the formal agreement."

Bringing the established banks into play is seen as key to the success of the financial reform. Their participation can help ensure a proper and regulated source of funding to the many SMEs in Wenzhou, and that's what financial reform is all about, said Ma Jinlong, an economist and former director of the Wenzhou government's economic research center.

For years, Wenzhou's merchants and manufacturers, shunned by the established banks, had to rely on underground lenders for funding. The key players in that market, with an estimated worth of around 300 billion yuan, are the middlemen. Some of them are registered moneylenders supervised by the local industrial and commercial bureau. Many more are individuals with well-established connections within the business community.

This market, mainly based on trust and guanxi, or personal connections, worked well when almost every merchant or factory owner was raking in money from the flood of overseas orders. The tide turned in 2008 when the export trade was hit hard by the global recession.

With overseas orders shrinking, many of Wenzhou's entrepreneurs began siphoning off their funds to more profitable endeavors: speculating in properties in Shanghai, coal mines in Shanxi or farm produce around the country.

The government's tough measures to cool the overheated property market since 2010 have effectively pulled the rug from under the feet of this band of Wenzhou marauders, as they have come to be known.

In the past couple of years, there have been frequent reports of Wenzhou factory owners fleeing abroad, leaving behind piles of debt and scores of unpaid workers.

The wave of defaults practically wiped out the underground lending market and triggered the outbreak of a local financial crisis that prompted the government to act.

Despite official enthusiasm, the Wenzhou business community has remained skeptical about the financial reforms.

Efforts to convince registered moneylenders to convert into finance companies under the supervision of the China Banking Regulatory Commission have met with stubborn resistance.

"We have no plan to change because our partners don't see any benefit in becoming a finance company," said Zhuang Zhonghua, general manager of Wenzhou Yizhao Small-Sum Loan Corp.

Zhuang told China Daily that his company has been doing well through good times and bad because he and his employees know their clients well.

"Our partners, who are all local business people, have good connections in this city," Zhuang said. "We only lend to people we know and defaults are extremely rare."

Skepticism lingers

Wenzhou Yizhao can obtain funding from large banks for loans to its clients, and make a profit from the interest spread. Zhuang declined to disclose the exact figures, but said that his company is doing well enough.

"We don't like change," he said. "It's too complicated, and there are too many unknown factors."

Zhuang's concern is shared by other moneylenders. Only three of the city's nearly 100 small loan companies submitted applications to become finance companies or rural banks.

The most some did to contribute to the reform effort was to take up the official invitation to set up offices in the government-sponsored center for private lending registration services.

The center was established to match the needs of lenders and borrowers in an environment where transactions are properly documented and registered.

But this process is a waste of time for both lenders and borrowers.

Proper documentation at the center offers no additional security to the lender because it has just as much legal status as a simple IOU. Borrowers are trying to avoid the center because they dislike filling out forms that require them to disclose personal and business information they would prefer to keep private.

"We basically have nothing much to offer to lenders and borrowers," said Xu, the general manager of the center. He said it was a problem getting other government departments to cooperate to make the center work.

For instance, "it would help boost the status of the center if courts only accepted loan documents registered with us in litigation", Xu said.

That seems like wishful thinking. Getting the authorities to approve the securing of loans with second mortgages has been a monumental task involving protracted negotiations with various government departments, Xu said.

"We are solving one problem at a time," he said. "It's very time-consuming work."

Timing seems to be the crux of the issue. Financial experts said that the reform process must try to gain credibility by addressing the most pressing problem arising from the collapse of the underground lending market by creating effective and user-friendly channels of funding to the many cash-strapped SMEs.

"I believe that financial reform in Wenzhou is a short-term solution to overcome the impact of the sudden breakdown of the underground banking system before we try to establish its long-term effect," said Liu Shengjun, deputy director of Lujiazui International Finance Research Center at China Europe International Business School.

Liu suggested that allowing SMEs to enter the financial system with fewer restrictions and take part in more cooperation with banks for reasonable-interest loans is probably a better way to help get SMEs and private lenders out of trouble.

Huang is decidedly more practical. "Whatever you do, show us the benefits first," he said.

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(China Daily 01/24/2013 page13)

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