What’s in the short leash on China’s insurers – risk or politics?

Shirley Yam
Men look an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Beijing, China, January 5, 2016.
Kim Kyung-Hoon | Reuters

These days in China, the disappearance of a senior Communist Party cadre barely raises an eyebrow.

Talk that China's insurance regulator Xiang Junbo may be under investigation is, however, different.

It's not only because he decides who gets to sell life insurance in China – the most juicy business in the country – but also because of the deep involvement of political heavyweights in the industry.

The rumour, which appeared on Friday in Ming Jing News – a Chinese-language magazine and website that trades in salacious gossip and rumours about Communist Party cadres – has not received official comment by the insurance regulator. Questions faxed to the regulator's Beijing office have received no reply.

Xiang has not appeared in public since the annual insurance conference in mid January where he pledged to rein in the wild behaviour of China's insurance money.

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With the blessing of former premier Wen Jiabao, the ex-auditor and central banker landed the top job at the China Insurance Regulatory Commission in 2011.

He is in charge of granting life insurance licences, or virtual cash machines, or money printers as insiders call them.

In the first 11 months of 2016, China's life insurers sucked in more than 1.1 trillion yuan of insurance premium, with investment schemes containing minimal insurance elements.

That is growth of 2.7 times from the 2013 record, while the premiums collected from old-fashioned insurance policies only doubled to two trillion yuan.

Front line salespeople typically promise their policyholders a guaranteed rate of return of over 6 per cent, double the prevailing bank deposit rate. Insurance companies are taking deposits from the public, without submitting to the regulatory restrictions and operating costs of a bank.

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Much of the money will be used to serve the insurers' owners, for buying equities that owners are hoping to jack up, or investing in the owners themselves as trust products.

Not surprisingly, the queue for an insurer's licence is long, growing to more than 100.

Yet, the supply is scarce. Three insurers were approved in 2015, none last year and so far one this year, making a total of 69.

The decision making has always been opaque. Compared to insurance companies, the much-criticised vetting of stock market listing applications are akin to navigating a maze with a map.

Xiang once listed four qualifying criteria for obtaining an insurance licence – a major shareholder with good financial, social and professional credentials; support for such state programmes as the "One Belt, One Road" project; registration in an area that does not have a local insurer; and innovation.

A cursory look into the background of any of the lucky holders of insurance licences will tell you these criteria are a collective joke; most don't reveal who their owners are.

Among them are the seven "bad boys" of the insurance industry, according to China's state news agency Xinhua in December, for their contributions to speculation in the stock market.

These seven accounted for more than half of the deposits taken by the entire industry between January and November 2016.

In the first quarter of last year alone, Anbang Life and Huaxia Life took in 131 billion yuan and 118 billion yuan of deposits from policyholders. Foresea Life, a four-year old insurer, took in 40 billion yuan.

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The seven insurers own stocks or control in close to 100 listed companies in the mainland and Hong Kong. Foresea's owner Baoneng Group spent 43 billion yuan to try to mount a hostile takeover of China Vanke, the country's largest real estate developer.

Yet, the root of their ownership remain mysteries. Four are owned by nominee companies and three are controlled bynouveau richefrom out of nowhere.

Foresea's boss Yao Zhenhua was a small property developer before his attempt at the prime time with Vanke. What strong credentials did the insurance regulator see in him, enough to hand him the licence in 2012?

When a licence opens doors to many billions of yuan in cash, money alone cannot be the explanation. Power is.

Many of the privately owned life insurers are in reality the cash machines of various top families and their so-called majority shareholders are only front men for the fat cats.

President Xi Jiping's intent to rein them in is obvious.

In a public meeting last week, the country's top securities regulator Liu Shiyu called the non-state-owned life insurers "demons" that "skin and suck blood of ordinary people". He vowed to bring more of these "financial crocs" to justice.

Interestingly, when it was the CIRC's chance to speak, it was left to the regulator's vice-chairman, Chen Wenhui, to speak on behalf of his chairman, calling on insurers to "reflect on their faults", manage their policyholders' funds with care, invest for the long term and well, behave like insurance companies.

The insurance regulator, which has been talking about widening the usage of insurance money in early 2016, has done a U-turn by issuing new restrictions.

The rumour of investigations into Xiang is just another sign of the reining in.

Whether it is motivated by risk concerns, or political calculation, is not for us to judge.

Commentary by Shirley Yam from the South China Morning Post.

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