China Pushes Deposit Insurance in Bank Overhaul

China Pushes Deposit Insurance in Bank Overhaul

HONG KONG — China’s new leadership is preparing to introduce bank deposit insurance as the first step in financial reforms to be started soon at a top-level meeting in Beijing, a government official and banking policy advisers said.

A consensus has formed among China’s leaders that the country needs a formal system of bank deposit insurance as banks have rapidly ramped up lending and begun offering a wide variety of increasingly risky investment products that do not appear on their balance sheets, the official and advisers said.

Introducing deposit insurance could also help the government steer the financial system toward providing more credit for small and medium-size private enterprises. These now receive as little as 3 percent of bank lending even as they account for at least half the country’s economic activity.

Without a clear system until now for closing banks that lend unwisely, banks have been encouraged by regulators to lend overwhelmingly to state-owned enterprises that appear certain to repay loans. That has left smaller businesses and private companies starved for credit.

The first public indication of the government’s intense interest in deposit insurance is likely to come at the Central Economic Work Conference this month, said the official, who discussed internal government matters only on the condition of anonymity. Held each December since 1994, the conference is the most important economic policy-making event in the Chinese calendar and sets the agenda for the coming year.

This month’s conference, the exact dates of which are still secret but which could start as soon as this weekend, is being watched with particular scrutiny by economists and investors as a clue to the agenda for the next decade of Xi Jinping, the new general secretary of the Communist Party. The conference is jointly overseen by the cabinet and by the Central Committee of the Communist Party.

Mr. Xi startled many analysts by rushing down to Shenzhen in southern China last weekend for an inspection tour of the city, known within China for its embrace of free-market capitalism. He is following in the footsteps of Deng Xiaoping, who restarted China’s economic liberalization after the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 with a trip three years later to the same city.

Until now, the government has quietly paid off all depositors in full, regardless of the size of their deposits, when small banks and rural cooperatives have failed; no large banks have been allowed to fail. The government’s fear has been that allowing any depositors to sustain losses, even at the worst-run institutions, would undermine confidence in the financial system.

China’s banking industry is divided on the need for deposit insurance. As in other countries, including the United States, the biggest banks are the least enthusiastic. With a little more than half the country’s deposits, China’s Big Four banks are widely viewed as much too big to fail but are likely to owe hefty premiums for the deposit insurance plan being developed.

“The debate over the deposit insurance scheme is that the larger banks that would contribute more feel as though they would be subsidizing smaller banks,” said Andrew Sheng, a former head of Hong Kong’s securities regulator who for the last 10 years has been the convener of the international advisory council of the China Banking Regulatory Commission.

China’s current five-year plan calls for the government to study deposit insurance, but not necessarily to adopt it. Mr. Sheng expressed surprise when told that the subject was likely to be on the agenda of the Central Economic Work Conference and said that “it means that they are taking it more seriously.”

But Mr. Sheng cautioned that even once the leadership approves the concept of deposit insurance, it could take a full year just to draft the necessary legislation.

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