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China's first Internet bank opens amid cloudy regulations

2015-01-21 07:57 Xinhua Web Editor: Qin Dexing

Webank, China's first Internet-based bank opened on Sunday, fueling hopes that the new lender will shake up the banking sector.

Based in the southern city of Shenzhen, Webank, which has registered capital of 3 million yuan (482,276 U.S. dollars), is the first to launch after a pilot program to nurture private lenders in the state-dominated banking sector. Another four private lenders were also approved through the scheme.

Tencent, which operates the popular messaging apps WeChat and QQ, holds a 30 percent majority stake in the new lender, will drive the bank's efforts to enhance banking access.

Sunday's opening only marks the start of a "test run", said sources at the bank, as currently it can only open accounts for shareholders and employees. The official launch is slated for the end of the first quarter this year.


Analysts say the new bank will likely find itself increasingly at odds with existing rules used to regulate bricks-and-mortar lenders, underscoring an urgency for regulators to accommodate changes in a sector already grappling with the impact of the Internet age.

Over the past two years, wealth management products marketed by Internet firms have been chipping away at bank's deposit bases, with peer to peer (P2P) lending firms responding to the financing needs of individual and small firms long ignored by large banks.


As Webank is an online service, there is no need for traditional face-to-face interaction when opening an account, instead it will use facial recognition technology as an alternative way of verifying identification.

However, existing regulation states that bank accounts in China may only be opened with the traditional identification system. If Webank wants to use face recognition technology, it must garner approval from regulators.

The good news for Webank is that there are signs of approval, with the central bank already soliciting opinions on a draft rule on remote account opening.

Guo Tianyong, a finance professor with the Beijing-based Central University of Finance and Economics, said alternative identification verification could be used as long as they were secure.

While the central bank demonstrated willingness to accommodate internet-based financial services, it also has reservations. According to its draft ruling, the accounts would be limited to wealth management products only. Cash settlement, payment and reception would not be permitted.


Webank has said that it will issue loans based on credit rating scores from Tencent's social data, as the central bank last year allowed eight organizations, including Tencent and Alibaba, to establish their own credit-rating agencies.

This unorthodox approach goes against the established system used by traditional lenders, which rely mostly on the central bank's credit system and their own investigative work.

Some in the banking industry doubt whether Tencent's social data can accurately reflect Webank client's creditworthiness. Webank said its model will consider a slew of online activities, including log-on time on Tencent's messaging services, virtual assets, gaming, online purchases and transactions.

Tenpay, Tencent's payment subsidiary, also holds a 20 percent share of China's online payment market, according to iResearch. Its rival Alipay, the payment service owned by Alibaba, dominates with nearly 50 percent.

Yet skeptics argue that such data says more about a person's social qualities than solvency.

"Social data does not account for much even in the risk-control model of Internet finance companies." said Shi Pengfeng, CEO of Wangdaizhijia, a Shanghai-based P2P lending platform.

Shi added that the amount of data was not an important factor, rather, its relevance to a client's credit profile.

Despite doubts, analysts say these new agencies, using their own resources for credit-profiling, will complement the central bank's credit reporting service. Some banks would not issue loans to some small firms and individuals as the central bank's system lacks adequate information on their credit worthiness.

Thus, these new rating agencies are expected to facilitate access to financing.

Acknowledging such problems, in the past the central bank has incorporated credit information from local micro-loan firms to boost its own system's credit profile.

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