Chine is cracking down on online lending platforms. Photo: iStock

The numbers were mind-boggling. The fallout was mind-blowing. During an 18-month period, Ezubo swindled up to 900,000 investors out of 50 billion yuan (US$7.7 billion).

In one of the country’s highest-profile court cases, the founders of what was once China’s largest peer-to-peer lending platform, Ding Ning and his younger brother Ding Dian, were jailed for life last September.

Another 24 executives were sentenced to prison terms, ranging from three to 15 years, after disbelieving depositors mounted unprecedented protests in fintech’s biggest scandal.

Incredibly, the danger signs were flashing back in February 2017 after the Beijing Bureau of Financial Work released a hard-hitting report which warned that “nine out of 10” P2P platforms would struggle to survive.

“The wild growth of online lending in recent years [has] exposed a multitude of problems,” the report stated. “P2P operators and regulators will face stern challenges to ensure a healthy growth of the P2P sector.

“[Just] 500 P2P companies, out of the total 4,856, are likely to maintain their operations this year,” it added.

Back in 2015, peer-to-peer lending in China was riding an unprecedented wave fueled by an insatiable appetite for fintech products. Heavily promoted in the state-run media, P2P was seen by many as a golden opportunity for individual investors to help bankroll fledgeling startups.

But as the online phenomena careered out of control, it quickly became clear that thousands of mainland peer-to-peer companies were exploiting thousands of investors by promising exaggerated returns in unsavory business ventures, which verged on the fraudulent.

After reaching a crescendo in the dying days of 2015, the bubble burst. Business failures increased and the cases of chicanery rocketed before Chinese government regulators stepped in to tighten up oversight on thousands of online P2P platforms.

Last week, a working group from the People’s Bank of China, or central bank, revealed in a document that there were fewer illegal fundraising cases in 2017, but warned that investors remain at risk from Ponzi schemes and other scams.

“Last year [2016], the country’s $60 billion peer-to-peer lending sector was dogged by scandals and fraud due to loose oversight. This resulted in China’s authorities’ imposing new rules due to concerns about defaults and fraud among the nation’s online lenders,” Technode, a Chinese website, which specializes in the technology and startup ecosystem, reported. The jury is still out on whether the crackdown has produced the desired effect.

Last week, a working group from the People’s Bank of China, or central bank, revealed in a document that there were fewer illegal fundraising cases in 2017, but warned that investors remain at risk from Ponzi schemes and other scams.

There were 5,052 new cases of illegal fundraising last year, down by 2.8% from 2016, involving 179.6 billion yuan ($28.46 billion), which was a drop of 28.5%, the cross-department working group disclosed.

The figures were released to Caixin, the Chinese media website, which confirmed:

“Although the number of new cases and the total amount of funds involved edged down in 2017, the government is under growing pressure to deal with illegal fundraising due to the complexity of the new cases, according to Yang Yuzhu, [the] director of the working group.

“He pointed out that illegal fundraising cases have appeared in nearly every industry in the country, including key areas such as financing platforms, real estate and agriculture. He noted that many illegal fundraising activities have become intertwined with pyramid schemes and other types of fraud, especially in rural areas.”

Since the start of 2016, P2P lending has been dramatically overhauled after a range of regulations were brought in to curb risk in what was a mushrooming online market.

Still, many of these portals morphed into apps offering “microlending facilities,” which resembled old-fashioned “loan sharks.” They tended to offer consumers short-term loans at exuberant rates, which could exceed 1,000%.

“Amid the rapid development of cash loans – while they have played a role in meeting the normal credit needs of some groups – problems such as over-lending, repeat borrowing, improper collection, abnormally high interest rates, and privacy violations have become prominent,” a multi-ministry government group set up by Beijing reported in a statement.

“This has led to relatively big hidden financial and social risks,” it added.

Mind-boggling and mind-blowing immediately spring to mind.

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