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Banking barriers turn away overseas investors

2015-01-27 10:42 Global Times Web Editor: Qin Dexing

Reform efforts should consider expertise, interests of foreign enterprises

Spain's Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBVA) became the latest major foreign bank to check out of China last week, when it sold off half of its stake in China Citic Bank, a unit of one of the nation's leading financial services groups. The move follows a similar series of sales by other major foreign financial firms over the last five years, depriving China's State-run banks of valuable expertise they could have used as they make the transition from their past as policy lenders to more commercially oriented institutions.

A number of reasons led to the sales, a big one being the foreign firms' disappointment at their failure to gain any strategic entry to China's lucrative banking market through the tie-ups. As China heads into its next stage of reform that includes bringing more private money into traditional sectors, central authorities should seriously consider loosening the many restrictions that now make banking in China difficult and costly for both foreign and domestic firms.

It could even consider letting private companies take control of some smaller regional State-run banks. Such steps could bring much needed private capital and outside expertise into the financial sector, creating a more competitive field of players that can better serve China's booming private sector and compete on the global stage.

BBVA's story with Citic Bank reflects the broader experience in a decade-long courtship between Chinese and foreign banks that has largely ended in divorce. Many major global banks, including RBS, Bank of America and HSBC, purchased major stakes in Chinese lenders back in the mid-2000s, following a central government-led overhaul that cleared away much of their bad debt and prepared them for public listings.

BBVA was one of those, initially buying about 15 percent of Citic Bank. But it pared that to about 10 percent in 2013 by selling part of the stake to Citic Bank's parent, partly to raise capital to replenish its balance sheet as its home market in Spain faced a prolonged recession.

Now BBVA has just sold down a further 4.9 percent of its Citic Bank holdings to Xinhu Zhongbao, one of China's largest real estate firms, for 1.46 billion euros ($1.64 billion). That will leave BBVA with a remaining 4.7 percent in Citic Bank.

The sell-down looks similar to another one by Spanish telecoms giant Telefonica, which had a similarly frustrating relationship with China Unicom, China's second-largest wireless carrier. Telefonica initially bought a small stake in Unicom in 2005, and boosted it to 10 percent in 2011 with high hopes that the alliance could help it enter China's lucrative telecoms services market.

But then it sold off half of the stake in 2012, again partly to raise cash at the height of the European debt crisis. It sold off another 2.5 percent in November, bringing its current holdings to just 2.5 percent.

China's telecoms and financial services markets are dominated by State-run companies, and BBVA, Telefonica and the other global banks learned that big names like Citic Bank and Unicom take their orders largely from the central government, which is often also their largest stakeholder.

Even when foreign banks tried to tie with smaller more entrepreneurial local partners, China's strict limits provided frustrations that greatly limited their success. A typical case was US-based technology lender Silicon Valley Bank, which in 2012 formed a joint venture with Shanghai's entrepreneurial Shanghai Pudong Development Bank. The pair had big hopes for lending to China's vibrant field of private high-tech start-ups, only to hit an instant roadblock due to Chinese law that forbade such ventures from doing business in the yuan, China's local currency, at that time.

The central government has indicated it wants to liberalize State-dominated sectors like banking and telecoms, and has started taking some steps in that direction. It recently awarded its first in a new series of private banking licenses to a group led by Internet giant Tencent, and opened the telecoms services market to private competition last year through a virtual network operator program.

Central leaders should be commended for renewing their drive to bring outside money and expertise into these sectors, a move that will create win-win partnerships for everyone, including private business that often find it difficult to get loans from State-run banks. Central authorities should seize the recent momentum to accelerate reforms, showing big global companies like BBVA, Telefonica that their business and expertise - and not just their investment dollars - are welcome in China.

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