Clients from four rural banks in central Henan Province, and one in neighboring Anhui Province By the authorities starting Friday, according to Remarks late on Monday by the province’s financial regulators.
They added that the first payments will be sent to customers in a total amount of less than 50,000 yuan (7,445 US dollars) when depositing in one bank. The authorities added that separate arrangements will be announced in due course for customers who have more than that in their accounts.
The payments will be handled by two other banks, but regulators have not said where the money will come from.
A 45-year-old businessman from Wenzhou in eastern Zhejiang province told CNN Business last month that he was unable to access a penny of his family’s $6 million in savings.
Runs on small Chinese banks have become more frequent in recent years, and some have been accused of financial irregularities or corruption. But experts are concerned that a much bigger financial problem could loom, stemming from the fallout from the real estate crash and high bad debt related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This represents a decrease in the periphery of the massive Chinese banking system, but about a quarter of the industry’s total assets are owned by about 4,000 small lenders, who often have opaque structures of ownership and governance and are more vulnerable to corruption and severe economic slowdown.
Police in Henan said Sunday that they have arrested a number of suspects, accusing them of using rural banks to illegally obtain public funds since 2011.
Despite police action, and a move to repay some depositors in the coming days, analysts warn that the crisis may not be over yet.
“The situation is still evolving,” Betty Wang, ANZ’s chief China economist, said in a note to clients on Tuesday.
“Despite the small size of the assets involved, the social impact of the incident could be significant if not dealt with appropriately. It may also lead to another round of regulatory tightening,” she said. Adding that Beijing may start a new round of investigations into the online banking sector, village banks or “possible domestic corruption.”
Not everyone will be helped
Monday’s comments are the first promise by the Chinese authorities that they will return the frozen funds.
However, many customers with more than 50,000 yuan stuck in those banks, Wang said, are still ignorant about the future of their savings.
The plan also has other exceptions.
In China, only local banks are allowed to take deposits from their customer base back home, but in recent years it has become common for many smaller banks to partner with online platforms and attract funds across the country.
In early 2021, Beijing banned banks from selling deposit products via online platforms, fearing that the rapid expansion of the fintech sector would increase risks in the broader financial system.
But the savers CNN spoke with say banks have told them that deposit products are legal, and that they are protected under the deposit insurance system.
“If the incident is determined to be financial fraud or if the affected accounts do not strictly keep deposits, they may not be under the protection of the deposit insurance system,” Wang said.
In China, deposits of up to 500,000 yuan (about $75,000) are guaranteed if banks fail, but if a government investigation finds these cases involve “incompatible” transactions, people could lose everything.
The social discontent arising from the incident could be a major problem for the government.
The hardest hit, Wang said, were the low-income farmers, who deposited almost all of their life savings.
“They view banks as the safest place to be, backed by sovereign creditworthiness. Improper handling of the issue could lead to social unease and threaten stability,” Wang said.
“This may be particularly sensitive in the wake of local lockdowns and before the party’s 20th Congress,” she added.
The Beijing bureau of CNN, Jorge Engels in London, and Nectar Gan contributed to the report.
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