npr | Zhongjin is one of three Chinese financial firms to collapse in the past year. In February, Ezubao, a peer-to-peer lending company, was exposed as a $7 billion Ponzi scheme. Police took over the headquarters of the Fanya Metal Exchange, a trading platform for nonferrous metals, late in 2015 and are investigating an alleged multibillion dollar Ponzi scheme involving more than 200,000 investors.
Wealth management firms like Zhongjin emerged in China in the mid-2000s to provide more financing to private businesses and better returns for Chinese investors frustrated by low interest rates at government banks. But as China's economy has weakened in recent years, lending has continued to boom.
Logan Wright, who oversees China markets research for the Rhodium Group in New York, says that's a recipe for trouble.
"You have a slowing real economy, growing financial services sector and as a result, there's an increasing use of speculative strategies and riskier and riskier instruments and in some cases, outright Ponzi" schemes, Wright says.
Shanghai now has more than 100,000 wealth management companies and the country has more than a million, says Iris Pang, a senior economist for greater China with Natixis, a French investment bank. She says China's government hasn't been able to keep up with the explosion in the number of firms.
"The wealth management sector is very new in China," she says. "The regulations are loose and not very well defined."
Customers say they invested in Zhongjin because there weren't better options, given last year's collapse of China's stock markets, a real estate property bubble and capital controls that severely limit how much money Chinese can move overseas.
Zhongjin's investors say police have told them that only 10 percent of their deposits remain. The company's collapse has wrought havoc on families who benefited from China's three decades of extraordinary growth, but now are at risk of losing most of their savings.
One investor, who asked not to be named, said her family is furious with her for persuading them to invest. She has since offered to divorce her husband. She has no money and is down to eating one meal a day.
"I have a family problem, a financial problem and survival problem," she says, weeping. "Every time I take a bite of food, I feel very guilty. I feel I am wasting money."