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China online funds’ yield hunt piles on risk

07-29 14:46 Breakingviews
China’s online money market funds deserve credit for offering savers the decent returns that banks cannot. But it is getting harder for the upstart industry to do so without piling on risk.

Online funds sprang up because of a simple arbitrage. Regulators cap bank deposit rates – the most consumers can get is 3.3 percent, for savings locked up for one year. But interbank rates, determined by supply and demand, are higher. Funds like Zeng Libao, an affiliate of e-commerce giant Alibaba, buy low-risk interbank assets and bonds and pass on the higher returns to retail customers. Money market products had 1.9 trillion yuan ($310 billion) under management in June, according to China’s securities regulator. Offerings from Alibaba and rivals Tencent, Netease, Baidu, Sina and Suning made up 38 percent of that.

The rates that funds can muster are falling as competition becomes fiercer. The one-week repo rate, a benchmark for China’s interbank market, has more than halved from a high of nearly ten percent in December. Funds have responded by buying longer-dated assets, which tend to have higher yields. A third of Zeng Libao’s total investments, as a share of net assets, had maturities between 90 and 180 days at the end of June. The figure was just 3 percent in March.

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Latecomers like the funds marketed by search engine Baidu and gaming group Tencent are reaching even further along the yield curve. Three of Zeng Libao’s four main online competitors have more than 20 percent of their net assets in paper dated over six months.

The problem is that money market funds let customers withdraw cash almost instantly. If customers ever demand their money back en masse, the funds would have to dump assets, which would depress prices, or restrict redemptions. Longer asset maturities increase that vulnerability. Fear could quickly spread to the rest of China’s financial system.

It’s not too late to head off that risk. One way is to regulate funds like banks, and make sure they have liquidity on hand to meet redemptions. Better yet, remove the arbitrage by liberalising bank deposit rates. If savers could get a decent return within the official banking system, they would be less tempted to fuel risk-taking outside it.

Context News

China’s online money market funds are venturing into assets with longer-dated maturities, their financial disclosures for the quarter ending June 30 showed.

Zeng Libao, the country’s biggest online money market fund and an affiliate of e-commerce group Alibaba, had 589 billion yuan ($95 billion) of total assets at the end of the period. Users of Alibaba’s payment service, Alipay, can access the fund through a platform called Yu E Bao.

One-third of Zeng Libao’s investments, as a share of net assets, had a maturity of 90 to 180 days at the end of June, compared with just 3.2 percent at the end of March. Meanwhile, investments maturing between 30 and 90 days fell to 40 percent of net assets, from 69 percent.

Chinese money market funds offer near-immediate withdrawal, and have been seen by customers of online consumer brands as a more attractive alternative to bank deposits, whose rates are capped at 3.3 percent for funds that are locked up for a year.

Internet groups Tencent, Baidu, Sina, Netease and electrical retailer Suning all offer third-party online funds through their internet platforms. Their average annualized yield was 4.5 percent based on information from the companies’ websites on July 28.

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