(MENAFN - Gulf Times) Executives from Chinese companies specialising in offering consumers small, easy-to-get loans became something of a fixture on Wall Street this year.
Led by companies like Qudian and PPDAI Group, the Chinese micro-lenders raised $1.2bn with splashy US listings, cashing in on a boom in borrowing by consumers in China with little access to traditional banks.
However, the fortunes — and share prices — of the micro-lenders have slumped in the past week as Beijing clamped down on risks in the financial system, zeroing in on the fast-growing and loosely-regulated market for unsecured 'cash loans.
A notice last week announcing the suspension of approvals for new micro-lenders and restrictions on business across regions highlighted the growing risks Beijing sees in the industry, estimated to be worth 1tn yuan ($151.5bn), according to state media.
China has long been known as a nation of savers, but consumers are rapidly embracing debt from non-bank online platforms.
And the numbers of those taking out cash loans from the lenders is growing at an unprecedented rate, according to the companies and the government.
For borrowers, the easy loans can be a risky proposition — especially if they fall behind on payments.
The loans are usually in the range of 1,000 yuan; interest is typically about 36% annually, and penalty charges and compound interest can quickly add up, according to borrowers.
The number of repeat borrowers is rising, which could signal financial stress on borrowers, analysts say.
The companies, however, say the repeat lending is just a sign of the attractiveness of their platforms.
Sources close to the central bank say more unspecified measures aimed at restricting the industry are on the way.
The People's Bank of China and the China Banking Regulatory Commission did not respond to faxed requests for comment.
Angel Xiao, 23, who lives in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen and does not own a credit card, said she borrowed 10,000 yuan last year from two online lenders, PPDAI and Flower Wallet, to attend a jewellery design class.
But after she lost her job as a tutor, she found herself unable to pay back the initial loans. With interest piling up, Xiao eventually took out a series of new loans, with an average maturity of 14 days, from more than 30 other lenders.
'I didn't have money to repay loans coming due, she said in an exchange on WeChat, a messaging service. 'So I took out more loans.
Every time when I didn't have money, I used new loans to repay old loans.
That's how I got trapped deeper and deeper. China Rapid Finance Ltd, an online micro-lender that raised $60mn in an April listing on the New York Stock Exchange, defended its cash loan business. In a statement, it said that its target customers have little or no history with China's credit bureau, but that they 'are prime and near-prime borrowers, and that the rates the company charges are affordable.
Online consumer lending in China, of which cash loans are a significant portion, dwarfs similar activity in the rest of the world combined, accounting for over 85% of all such activity globally last year, according to a recent report by the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance.
The boom in micro-lending comes as lenders seek to cash in on rising incomes in a country where credit card penetration remains at about one-third of the population, according to data from the central bank, which says about half a billion consumers don't have a credit score.
And the online cash loan sector is projected to reach 2.3tn yuan by 2020, according to the research firm iResearch. China Rapid Finance in November reported a 514% year-on-year increase in short-term consumer lending in the third quarter to $908mn.
PPDAI'S 'handy cash loans, with maturities of one to six weeks, increased more than 10 fold year-on-year to 1.98bn yuan in the second quarter, it said.
Qudian recorded a 695% increase in net income for the first six months this year, it said in its listing prospectus.
Qudian and PPDAI declined to comment. In addition to the companies that have already listed on US markets, another Chinese lender, LexinFintech Holdings, filed for a Nasdaq listing in mid-November hoping to raise $500mn.
A man pulls luggage while walking past PPDAI Group signage displayed in front of the New York Stock Exchange. Led by companies like PPDAI Group and Qudian, the Chinese micro-lenders raised $1.2bn with splashy US listings, cashing in on a boom in borrowing by consumers in China with little access to traditional banks.