China’s anti-graft agency is probing the nation’s top insurance official Xiang Junbo as the government steps up a bid to rein in financial risks amid an economic slowdown.
Xiang, chairman of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission, is under investigation on suspicion of “severe” disciplinary violations, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said in a statement on its website on Sunday without providing details.
The probe of Xiang, 60, the highest-ranking financial regulator to come under investigation, comes days after Premier Li Keqiang vowed in late March to “harshly punish” corruption in the financial sector and prevent the eruption of any systemic financial risks amid rising hazards in bond defaults, shadow banking and non-performing bank loans. The leadership gap at the insurance watchdog comes just as regulators have stepped up efforts to curb aggressive investments by some insurers following surging sales of investment-type products.
“The government’s anti-corruption drive in the financial sector has now netted a big tiger,” Zhou Min, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., said by phone. “The crackdown on the most aggressive insurers may get tougher” since the CIRC’s previous moves haven’t been tough enough, he said.
Agricultural Bank of China Ltd.’s Chairman Zhou Mubing may be reappointed to the CIRC, QQ.com reported on Sunday without saying where it got the information or providing details on Zhou’s new position. The CIRC’s press office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
As customer demand for insurance products has grown, China’s largest insurers have been awash with liquidity, helping to spur an acquisition spree both at home and abroad. Anbang Insurance Group Co. and Ping An Insurance (Group) Co. were among active acquirers last year, snapping up assets from a U.S. hotel chain to an auto website operator.
Over the past year, speculative investments in listed mainland companies by insurers have also surged, prompting a pledge from Xiang that he would prevent systemic risks in the industry. Earlier this year, Xiang urged insurers to play their part in controlling risks as the regulator stepped up curbs to deter aggressive investments and stock trading by insurers.
The CIRC ousted Yao Zhenhua of Foresea Life Insurance Co., the company at the forefront of a tussle for control of developer China Vanke Co., from the industry. In February, it banned Evergrande Life Insurance Co from stock investments for one year.
Earlier high-profile probes at China’s three financial regulators have included Yao Gang, former vice chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, and Zhang Yujun, an assistant chairman at the securities watchdog, in 2015. The anti-graft commission said in February that People’s Insurance Co. (Group) of China Ltd. President Wang Yincheng was under investigation on suspicion of severe disciplinary violations.
Xiang, the former chairman of Agbank, in 2011 resigned from that role to take the top job at China’s insurance regulator. Xiang led the regulator’s move in 2012 to broaden the investment scope of insurers, boosting the industry’s support of the nation’s economic growth. He was also appointed as head of a group set up by the CIRC in 2014 to help modernize the insurance industry, according to a statement at the time.
Xiang started his political career at the National Audit Office, where he rose to the position of deputy auditor general. The Chongqing-born official was a state auditor and deputy central bank governor before joining Agbank, the nation’s biggest by number of branches, in 2007, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Xiang, while working as chairman of Agbank in 2010, helped a company obtain a 3.2 billion yuan ($463 million) loan from a unit of the lender, Caixin reported earlier. The borrower was found to have fabricated documents when borrowing the loan and later misused the money, according to the report.