Investors Rage After 3 Billion Yuan Vanish From China's Largest Private Bank

Theoretical warnings about risks inherent in China's shadow banking system became all too for 150 customers of China's largest private bank, when Minsheng Banking Corp found itself involved in a 3 billion yuan (US$436 million) fraud case, after it emerged that a branch chief of the lender in Beijing allegedly issued false bank acceptance bills and later secured funds from individual investors to cover up the misdeed.

According to SCMP, an accidental inquiry from an investor exposed the fact that the WMPs sold by a Minsheng branch didn’t even exist. When shocked investors rushed to the bank, they found the head of the branch had been taken into police custody and the supposed due payment date had passed.

A little background: bank acceptance bills, one of the shadier funding pathways of China's shadow banking system, and a form of bank-backed IOU, are commonly used as a form of payment between Chinese companies. The holder of such bills is entitled to cash the bill at a bank under any circumstances... unless of course fraud is involved. It is different from commercial acceptance bills, which are issued by companies and do not guarantee repayment despite companies’ trustworthiness.

Well, in this case fraud was involved.

The branch head at the Beijing branch of Minsheng, Zhang Ying, allegedly helped a corporate client disguise commercial acceptance bills as bank acceptance bills by using a false seal of the bank. The bills were issued by the client to a number of companies, which later discovered the bills were fake, Caixin said.

Then, in order to cover up the fact that the fake bills were not able to be cashed by the bank, Zhang later sold 3 billion yuan of unauthorized wealth-management products to the bank’s private customers to get funds for the client to repay the bills. Caixin said a huge amount of funds may be transferred between the client and Zhang.

Zhang Ying, the branch head, has been detained by Beijing police, while Xiao Ye, vice head of the branch, is still missing, Caixin magazine reported on its website. Minsheng said it is assisting the police with an investigation into Zhang, according to its public announcement yesterday, and will “investigate thoroughly the incident and try to recover investors’ funds to the utmost.”

Meanwhile, the investors in the WMPs sold by Minsheng, realizing their money is now gone, are understandably furious.

“If we can’t even trust a big national bank, what other financial institutions can we trust?” Liu Min, who bought 12 million yuan worth of WMPs from Minsheng, said as he waited in the lobby of the Hangtianqiao branch of Minsheng Bank to hear news. Two million yuan of the WMP he invested in is was “due” April 17 but he can’t get the money back. Liu, 52, was one of 150 private banking customers of Minsheng who had bought the WMPs. In most cases, their ties with the lender go back 10 years when the Hangtianqiao branch joined them up in a “golf club”. Under the programme, they frequently invested in the products offered by the branch and in return, the bank paid for them to go on golfing trips domestically and overseas.

“We have bought the banks products for many years and none of the previous one had trouble,” said an investor surnamed Li. “Many other institutions peddle various products to me but I didn’t buy them because we trusted the [Minsheng] bank. We are not yield hunters.”

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While there have been numerous allegations and warnings that China's entire shadow banking facade, dominated by WMPs and other "investment products", is nothing but a giant ponzi scheme in which  recoveries - should there be a bank run (a topic recently discussed on Bloomberg) - would be non-existant if there is ever a bank run, defaults of WMPs issued by big banks – and this case an unapproved WMP – are rare. For now.

The Minsheng case involved an “innovative” WMP in which yields were amplified by purchasing a secondhand WMP. For a rough analogy, think CDO-squared products sold to retail investors.

According to investor contracts seen by the South China Morning Post, Minsheng’s private banking customers purchased transferred WMPs from the original investors. Bank employees told the buyers that the original investors urgently needed cash and were willing to cash out of the WMPs, which at the time were not yet due, and forego the supposed yields. As a result, the original WMPs that guaranteed principle and at least 4.2 per cent annual return “turned into” a product with more than 8 per cent annual return. Bank employees said the products were exclusively for longstanding private banking customers who owned at least 10 million yuan in financial assets.

How the fraud was uncovered: last week an investor happened to ask a friend who works at a bigger branch of Minsheng about the WMP at Hangtianqiao, but was told it didn’t exist. Officials at the Beijing branch of Minsheng subsequently reported Zhang Ying to the police, who then arrested her. By Thursday night all investors had become aware of the situation.

The 150 members of the so-called “golf club”gathered at the Hangtianqiao branch the next day demanding an explanation. They also visited the China Banking Regulatory Commission and its Beijing subsidiary, as well as the headquarters of Minsheng Bank, and the China Securities Regulatory Commission. However, no clear answers have been given to them to date.

Unfortunately for the 150 members of the "golf club", their money is long gone, and without any backstop or guarantee, their hope of recovering their funds is zero.

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Ironically. the Minsheng case comes at a time when the Chinese banking regulator, the CBRC, has launched a crackdown on banks’ transgressions, including bank employees’ colluding with clients to forge unapproved lending programmes and sell them to investors. Last Monday, the China Banking Regulatory Commission issued risk management guidelines for lenders that included a section on WMPs. The regulator said the products should be simple and transparent, avoid excessive leverage and invest in distinct assets - rather than pooling funds with other WMPs.

And yet this is precisely what happened. As a result, what the CBRC will find as part of its inquiry, is sure to shock it. Meanwhile, as Bloomberg recently wrote in "China Is Playing a $9 Trillion Game of Chicken With Savers" the biggest risk for China's financial system at this moment may be a wholesale run by investors on the "shadow banking" system, demanding their money back, as they would promptly find this money no longer exists. Indicatively, there is now over 30 trillion in total WMP assets in China, or over $4 trillion USD, nearly half of China's GDP.

A few more cases of big bank fraud such as this one at Mingsheng, and said bank run may be inevitable.