Giving watchdogs more bite
Jane Cai, Daniel Ren and Lulu Chen
As a new slate of top financial regulators settles in on the mainland, analysts and economists are calling for them to make bold moves.
The personnel changes were prompted by retirements at regulators of the nation's banks and insurance industry. Another regulator has simply moved from overseeing the securities industry to becoming the new bank regulator.
The transitions are part of a larger reshuffle of officials and cadres of the Communist Party due next year, and come at a challenging time given the shaky global economic outlook for the next few years.
'It is still too early to tell what China's next financial reforms will be,' said Michael Werner, a senior analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein.
But there are growing calls for a greater overhaul of China's financial system, including liberalising interest rates, opening up the capital account, injecting more competition into the market and reducing red tape for the approval of initial public offerings.
What matters now, Werner said, is who will head the People's Bank of China, the central bank.
Zhou Xiaochuan, the bank's current well-respected governor, will turn the official retirement age of 65 in 2013. His most likely successor appears to be Jiang Jianqing, 54, chairman of listed Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, who made his reputation helping ICBC become the world's most profitable bank and the largest by market capitalisation.
Like the other top financial regulators, the central bank governor holds ministerial rank. And, like the other regulatory watchdogs, the central bank reports to the State Council so is not an independent body. Still, Zhou's successor is widely expected to help policymakers push ahead with the long-delayed interest rate liberalisation, relax capital controls and voice China's concerns in the global financial arena.
Guo Shuqing, 55, who is assuming the mantle of head of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), is regarded as an open-minded and competent reformist. From 1993 to 1998, he was a key member of the State Commission for Restructuring the Economy, which was charged with designing China's transition from a planned to market economy.
Guo, an advocate of relaxing capital controls, chaired China Construction Bank - the country's second-largest lender by market capitalisation - from March 2005 until his appointment late last month.
On the mainland, senior bankers who have worked at any of China's largest banks are often candidates for leading top financial regulators. But as head of the securities watchdog, Guo will be in the hot seat.
Investors, pummelled by weak stock market performances - the main indicator is down 25 per cent over the past two years - loudly blame his predecessor, Shang Fulin. They are looking to Guo to curb the market's decline, partly by slowing the approval of IPOs, which are seen as draining liquidity out of the market.
Investors, who have come to expect profits from IPOs, are not the only ones angry that approvals have been fast-tracked but many of them have performed badly; the share prices of about half of the 200-plus IPOs this year now are trading below their offer prices.
Guo 'is a reputable reformer and he should have the clout to fix the problems', said Yongan Futures Brokerage analyst Huang Lei. 'After all, the CSRC chairman post requires a man with vision and boldness.'
Bankers said that Chinese companies that want to list but don't meet the requirements often bribe their way through the regulatory bureaucracy, or call on someone with the political connections to influence approvals.
Keeping the securities watchdog relatively scandal-free and restoring market confidence will be among Guo's main tasks, the bankers said. In his first few days on the job, Guo rejected three out of four IPO applications, sending a strong message of the importance of quality control during his tenure.
Shang, 60, will be the new head of the China Banking Regulatory Commission. Apart from a stint in the army, he has spent his career in finance, and was deputy central bank governor from 1996 to 2000.
Shang rarely gives interviews and has a reputation for being pragmatic. In his job at the securities watchdog, he proposed making non-tradeable, state-owned shares in listed companies tradeable, which solved a crucial problem dogging the mainland's stock markets in 2005.
Given the legacy of IPO-related problems at the securities regulator, however, some bank analysts worry privately about what kind of job Shang will do overseeing the nation's banks.
Others believe Shang has the necessary skills. He is 'a low-profile, pragmatic person whose prudence is needed for the banking sector', said Guo Tianyong, a professor at the Central University of Finance and Economics.
But, he added, Shang's job probably won't be easy.
Among other things, economists and analysts say Shang should inject more competition from foreign and private players into China's banking sector, which is dominated by big state-controlled lenders that benefit from government-imposed, low interest rates that allowed state banks to make easy money from making higher-yielding loans.
Moreover, they said, the new bank regulator should work to break the tradition of using state-controlled banks as instruments of government policy such as the lending spree the banks were encouraged to join in 2009 and 2010 to stimulate the Chinese economy.
As a result, the banks racked up 18 trillion yuan (HK$22 trillion) of new loans and many of those face the prospect of going bad.
Xiang Junbo, 54, takes over the helm of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission. A former soldier, auditor and writer of TV dramas, Xiang also served as a deputy governor of the central bank and was chairman of the Agricultural Bank of China until his new appointment.
At the Agricultural Bank, the country's third-biggest lender by market capitalisation, he earned a reputation as a tough guy after he fired almost the entire management of the bank's Liaoning branch for lax internal controls after it lost some 850 million yuan in a fraudulent loan in 2008.
Among his challenges as a regulator will be tackling rising losses of insurers stemming from poor investment returns and a slowdown in the growth of premiums following a decade of rapid development.
Insurers have also suffered in China's immature bond market, which makes it difficult to find suitable long-term investments to match their liabilities.
The regulator also has been tasked with examining how to encourage insurers to write policies against natural disasters such as typhoons and earthquakes, which they are currently reluctant to do because of the low returns.
Sixty-one of 146 insurers posted losses in the first half of this year amid the downturn in capital markets, raising fears of insolvencies.
Insurance industry insiders said iron-fisted Xiang faced a tougher job than he had in taking the Agricultural Bank public last year, raising US$22 billion in what still stands as the world's biggest IPO. The bank is the weakest of the state banks for non-performing loans.
In his new job, Xiang must balance his mission of introducing or amending guidelines that better protect policyholders' benefits and interests with the interests of powerful banks, state-owned enterprises, foreign investors and other parties in mainland insurance companies.
The profit, in yuan, generated by Chinese insurance companies in the first nine months of 2009, the most recent figures available