BEIJING, Jan. 25 --The head of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd said on Friday that the institution isn't obligated to help repay investors if there's a default on some 3.3 billion yuan (546 million U.S. dollars) in payments on a financial product it sold in 2010.
Chairman Jiang Jianqing, speaking to CNBC during the World Economic Forum in Davos, said: "ICBC will not necessarily pay the funds to investors.
"I believe this incident is a very good opportunity to educate the investors, to educate the trust companies and to educate ICBC," Jiang said.
In the future, he added, if customers buy "wealth management products or other products, they must see clearly the risks."
ICBC's press representative office in China did not answer calls by China Daily seeking comment on Friday. But at least one domestic media outlet cited a bank official as saying that ICBC "will bear responsibility".
ICBC, the nation's biggest lender by assets, sold the "Credit Equals Gold #1" product to investors on behalf of a trust company called China Credit Trust Co Ltd.
Money raised from investors in 2010 was lent to a struggling unlisted coal company, Shanxi Zhenfu Energy Group Ltd. But the company collapsed after its vice-chairman was arrested in 2012 for illegally raising funds.
Product disclosures released on Jan 16 show that only 670 million yuan of the 4.35 billion yuan due has been repaid to investors. The remaining 3.3 billion yuan is due on Jan 31, but there isn't enough money to make those payments.
ICBC has previously denied media reports that the Shanxi provincial government, ICBC and China Credit Trust will jointly cover the payments to investors.
Though not required by law, it's a common practice that trust products repay investors in full in China.
On Friday, China Business News quoted an investor in the product as saying that "my 3.25 million yuan has to be repaid in full, not short even a penny".
Trust products fall into the controversial area of shadow banking in China. Domestic and foreign investors alike are watching the case closely, because it could serve as an example of how China will deal with defaults in the shadow banking sector, estimated to exceed 3 trillion U.S. dollars.
The lack of regulation and disclosure in the sector makes investors worry that a large default will trigger a financial meltdown.
"For the sake of its reputation, ICBC won't allow a default to happen," said Zhang Qi, a Shanghai-based analyst with Haitong Securities Co Ltd.
The Shanghai Securities News quoted a Shanghai-based official of ICBC as saying on Friday that "ICBC won't ignore the issue of its reputation.
"ICBC hasn't shirked its responsibility and pushed investors to chase China Credit Trust Co Ltd for payment. On this point, ICBC will bear responsibility," the newspaper quoted the official as saying.