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Best Credit Cards for Excellent Credit in 2020

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An excellent credit score (800 to 850) allows you to qualify for the very best credit card offers. Most of the top cards require good or excellent credit if you want to earn lucrative rewards, benefit from 0% APR periods and enjoy a bunch of luxury perks. The higher your credit score, the better chances you have at qualifying for these offers.

Excellent credit also gives you access to better terms on other financial products, such as auto loans and mortgages. It’s in your best interest to work toward excellent credit so you can benefit from lower interest rates and more generous loan terms.

Don’t know your credit score? Check your credit score for free now.

If you don’t fall within the excellent credit range, check out our roundup of the best cards for bad credit (scores below 580), fair/average credit (580 to 669) or good credit (670 to 739).

CNBC Select breaks down the best credit cards for people with excellent credit, so you can choose a card that fits your needs.

Best credit cards for good credit

Best for Travel

American Express® Gold Card

American Express® Gold Card
  • Rewards

    4X Membership Rewards® points when you dine at restaurants worldwide and shop at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $25,000 per year in purchases, then 1X), 3X points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com, 1X points on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    35,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases within the first 3 months from account opening

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • Strong rewards program with 4X points earned on dining worldwide and 3X points earned on flights booked directly with airlines or amextravel.com
  • Up to $100 credit in airline fees, up to $120 in dining credits at participating partners and up to $100 hotel credit
  • 35,000 Membership Rewards® points welcome bonus after you spend $4,000 within first 3 months
  • Baggage insurance plan covers up to $1,250 for carry-on baggage and up to $500 for checked baggage that is damaged, lost or stolen
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • No introductory APR period
  • $250 annual fee
  • American Express isn’t as widely accepted as Visa or Mastercard
  • This is a charge card, which means you have to pay off your balance in full each billing cycle
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $824
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,719

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

read more

On American Express’s secure website.

Who’s this for? The American Express® Gold Card is a smart choice for consumers who love travel and dining out. While the card comes with a $250 annual fee, it offers a number of luxury rewards that help offset the cost.

One big perk travelers can take advantage of is the annual statement credits. Cardholders get up to $100 to cover airline fees (such as seat upgrades and baggage fees with participating airlines), $120 to cover restaurant charges ($10 per month at Seamless, Grubhub and other participating restaurants) and $100 in hotel credits when you book rooms through The Hotel Collection with American Express Travel.

When using the American Express Gold Card, users earn 3X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or on amextravel.com, 4X Membership Rewards® points on dining worldwide and purchases made at U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year, then 1X) and 1X Membership Rewards® points earned on everything else.

There are also special travel perks, such as room upgrades at specific hotels, as well as special travel discounts and amenities for those who enroll with The Travel Collection by Travel Leaders Group at no extra cost.

Check out CNBC Select’s best travel credit cards.

Best for Cash Back

Citi® Double Cash Card

Citi® Double Cash Card
  • Rewards

    2% cash back: 1% on all purchases and an additional 1% after you pay your credit card bill

  • Welcome bonus

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

    0% for the first 18 months on balance transfers; N/A for purchases

  • Regular APR

    15.49% to 25.49% variable on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • 2% cash back on all purchases
  • Simple cash-back program that doesn’t require activation or spending caps
  • One of the longest intro periods for balance transfers at 18 months

Cons

  • No welcome bonus, so you can’t maximize rewards during the first few months of card opening
  • Minimum cash-back redemption of $25
  • 3% fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $437
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,185

read more

On Citi’s secure site

Who’s this for? The Citi® Double Cash Card is a straightforward rewards card that offers one of the best flat-rate cash-back programs. Cardholders earn 2% cash back on all purchases — 1% when you make a purchase and an additional 1% when you pay your credit card bill.

There is no limit to the amount of cash back you can earn, and you don’t have to worry about activating bonus categories. Cash back can be redeemed for a statement credit or direct deposit.

This card is also a good choice for debt consolidation: There’s a 0% APR for the first 18 months on balance transfers (then 15.49% to 25.49% variable APR). Just make sure you transfer balances within four months from account opening. There is a 3% balance transfer fee (minimum $5), which can be outweighed by the amount you save on interest if you make a plan to pay off the balance transfer during the intro period.

Check out CNBC Select’s best cash-back credit cards.

Best Welcome Bonus

Chase Sapphire Preferred®

Chase Sapphire Preferred®
  • Rewards

    5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022, 2X points on travel and dining worldwide, 1X points on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening — worth up to $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

    17.49% to 24.49% variable on purchases and balance transfers

  • Balance transfer fee

    Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • Points are worth 25% more when redeemed for travel via Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Transfer points to leading frequent travel programs at a 1:1 rate, including: IHG® Rewards Club, Marriott Bonvoy™ and World of Hyatt®
  • Free DashPass subscription for a minimum of a year when you activate by December 31, 2021
  • Travel protections include: auto rental collision damage waiver, baggage delay insurance and trip delay reimbursement
  • No fee charged on purchases made outside the U.S.

Cons

  • $95 annual fee
  • No hotel-specific perks or credits
  • No introductory 0% APR
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $1,006
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,028

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

read more

On Chase’s secure site

Who’s this for? The Chase Sapphire Preferred® is one of the best travel cards available with a competitive rewards program and generous welcome bonus. Cardholders earn 2X points on travel and dining worldwide and 1X points on all other purchases. Plus earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022.

New cardholders earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.

This card stands out from the pack thanks to the strong rewards rate when you redeem points for travel via Chase Ultimate Rewards®. Points are worth 25% more, so 60,000 points are worth $750 towards travel. This is a great way to maximize the value of points and the welcome bonus.

Beyond rewards, cardholders can benefit from helpful travel perks, such as no foreign transaction fees, trip cancellation/interruption insurance, auto rental collision damage waiver, travel and emergency assistance services, baggage delay insurance and trip delay reimbursement.

Check out CNBC Select’s best credit card welcome bonuses.

Best 0% APR Period

Amex EveryDay® Credit Card

Amex EveryDay® Credit Card
  • Rewards

    2X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1X), 1X Membership Rewards® points per dollar spent on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    Earn 10,000 Membership Rewards® points after you make $1,000 in purchases in your first 3 months

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

    0% for the first 15 months on purchases and balance transfers

  • Regular APR

    14.49% to 25.49% variable APR

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • 15 months of no interest on balance transfers
  • No balance transfer fee
  • No annual fee
  • Rewards program and welcome bonus, which is rare among no-fee balance transfer cards
  • 20% extra point bonus when you make 20 or more purchases in a billing period

Cons

  • 2.7% foreign transaction fee
  • Balances must be transferred within 60 days from account opening
  • Transfer timeline: Balances must be transferred within 60 days from account opening
  • Estimated total fees and interest on debt repayment: $452

read more

Information about the Amex EveryDay® Credit Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the card prior to publication.

Who’s this for? If you want to maximize savings with a balance transfer or pay for new purchases over time, consider the Amex EveryDay® Credit Card, which offers a 0% APR for the first 15 months on purchases and balance transfers (then 14.49% to 25.49% variable APR).

This is a longer-than-average intro period, providing extra time for you to pay off debt when you make sizable monthly payments toward your balance. All balance transfers must take place within the first 60 days from account opening to qualify for the introductory period.

Unlike many balance transfer cards that charge a 3% to 5% fee per transfer, this card has no balance transfer fee. If you transfer $5,000 to this card, you’d avoid the $150 fee that you’d pay if you had a card with a 3% balance transfer fee. (See more on how to make the most of a balance transfer.)

This card also has no annual fee and a strong rewards program: Earn 2X Membership Rewards® points at U.S. supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1X) and 1X Membership Rewards® points per dollar spent on all other purchases. And when you make 20 or more purchases in a billing period you receive 20% extra points.

Cardholders can also take advantage of premium Amex perks, including discounts at select merchants via Amex Offers, car rental loss and damage insurance, free two-day shipping at select online retailers with ShopRunner and cell phone protection.

Check out CNBC Select’s best 0% APR credit cards.

Best for Luxury Perks

Chase Sapphire Reserve®

Chase Sapphire Reserve®
  • Rewards

    10X points on Lyft rides through March 2022, 3X points on travel worldwide (immediately after earning your $300 annual travel credit), 3X points on dining at restaurants worldwide, 1X point per $1 on all other purchases

  • Welcome bonus

    50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening — worth up to $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

  • Annual fee

  • Intro APR

  • Regular APR

    18.49% to 25.49% variable

  • Balance transfer fee

  • Foreign transaction fee

  • Credit needed

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit for travel purchases
  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit up to $100 every four years
  • Priority Pass™ Select lounge access at 1,000+ VIP lounges in over 500 cities worldwide
  • Special benefits at The Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection
  • Free DashPass subscription for a minimum of a year when you activate by December 31, 2021
  • $60 DoorDash credit in 2020 and 2021
  • Complimentary year of Lyft Pink membership

Cons

  • High $550 annual fee, but it can be offset by taking advantage of all the card’s perks
  • No introductory APR
  • Relatively high balance transfer fee
  • Estimated rewards earned after 1 year: $1,231
  • Estimated rewards earned after 5 years: $2,755

Rewards totals incorporate the points earned from the welcome bonus

read more

On Chase’s secure site

Who’s this for? Chase Sapphire Reserve® is enormously popular among travelers for its luxe perks and strong rewards program. In addition to offering 10X points on Lyft rides through March 2022 and 3X points on dining and travel purchases, cardholders get a $300 annual statement credit to apply to qualifying travel expenses.

But it’s the perks that really make this card stand out for globetrotters. You can get a statement credit of up to $100 (every four years) to help cover Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fees as well as enroll in Priority Pass Select, which gives you access to more than 1,000 airport lounges worldwide with free amenities, such as Wi-Fi, snacks, beverages and more.

The Chase Ultimate Rewards® portal has everything you need to plan a vacation from booking rental cars to cruises. You can also use the Luxury Hotel & Resort Collection to book rooms and take advantage of upgrades upon arrival, complimentary meals, flexible check-in times, extra amenities and special discounts.

The value of points increases 50% when you redeem for travel on Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 50,000 points are worth $750 toward airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruise reservations when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. This is a great way to maximize the value of your rewards and makes this card stand out from the pack.

While this card does come with a substantial annual fee of $550, the many statement credits help to offset the costs. Cardmembers traveling internationally also don’t need to worry about foreign transaction fees.

Chase Sapphire Reserve increases annual fee to $550—is the card still worth the cost?

Best credit cards for excellent credit

Best for… Credit card
TravelAmerican Express® Gold Card
Cash backCiti® Double Cash Card
Welcome bonusChase Sapphire Preferred® Card
0% APRAmex EveryDay® Credit Card
Luxury perksChase Sapphire Reserve®

Our methodology

To determine which credit cards offer the best value, CNBC Select analyzed 234 of the most popular credit cards available in the U.S. We compared each card on a range of features, including rewards, welcome bonus, introductory and standard APR, balance transfer fee and foreign transaction fees, as well as factors such as required credit and customer reviews when available. We also considered additional perks, the application process and how easy it is for the consumer to redeem points.

CNBC Select teamed up with location intelligence firm Esri. The company’s data development team provided the most up-to-date and comprehensive consumer spending data based on the 2018 Consumer Expenditure Surveys from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can read more about their methodology here.

Esri’s data team created a sample annual budget of approximately $22,126 in retail spending. The budget includes six main categories: groceries ($5,174), gas ($2,218), dining out ($3,675), travel ($2,244), utilities ($4,862) and general purchases ($3,953). General purchases include items such as housekeeping supplies, clothing, personal care products, prescription drugs, vitamins and other vehicle expenses.

CNBC Select used this budget to estimate how much the average consumer would save over the course of a year, two years and five years, assuming they would attempt to maximize their rewards potential by earning all welcome bonuses offered and using the card for all applicable purchases. All rewards total estimations are net the annual fee.

While the five-year estimates we’ve included are derived from a budget similar to the average American’s spending, you may earn a higher or lower return depending on your shopping habits.

For rates and fees of the Amex EveryDay® Credit Card, click here.

Information about the Amex EveryDay® Credit Card has been collected independently by CNBC and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of the cards prior to publication.

Editorial Note: Opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the CNBC Select editorial staff’s alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any third party.

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Why Are Certified Pre-Owned Cars More Expensive?

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The used car vs. certified pre-owned (CPO) argument can typically be summed up with the phrase “you get what you pay for.” Both are technically used vehicles, but CPO cars have a few advantages that may be worth their price tag.

Why CPOs Cost More Than Regular Used Cars

A CPO vehicle is commonly called the cream of the crop of used cars, and its price tag often reflects this. CPO vehicles tend to be more expensive than standard used ones.

But, why?

One of the biggest reasons why CPO cars are more expensive than their used counterparts is that CPOs are inspected by a manufacturer-certified mechanic. This means that every CPO vehicle must meet certain standards before it’s labeled as such. A true CPO is sold at a franchised dealership. Mom-and-pop dealers don’t have these vehicle options (and “dealer-certified” is not the same thing as a manufacturer-certified car).

Another reason for the higher price tag is that many CPO vehicles have just come off-lease. When a lessee returns a lease, the manufacturer’s likely to inspect to see if it qualifies for their CPO program. Since most auto lease terms are around two to three years, many off-lease cars make the cut when they’re returned clean and meet the low-mileage requirements. CPO cars are also refurbished, unlike regular used vehicles.

Each auto manufacturer has its own set of standards for their CPO cars, but the guidelines are usually in this ballpark:

  • Vehicles typically must have less than 80,000 miles
  • Some luxury brands require less than 50,000 miles
  • Typically must be less than ten years old, sometimes newer
  • Only one previous owner

Regular used cars don’t go through these rigorous manufacturer inspections before they’re sold. A used vehicle may be inspected in-house at the dealership before it’s sold, but likely not through the manufacturer like a CPO.

CPOs Are Covered

All CPO vehicles come with some sort of warranty, which adds to the overall cost, but offers peace of mind. Being on the newer side, many CPO cars may still be covered under their original manufacturer’s warranty and often include an extended warranty once that expires.

Some perks manufacturers may include in their CPO warranties include:

  • Why Are Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles More Expensive?12-months of 24-hour roadside assistance
  • A 12-month warranty after the manufacturer’s warranty expires
  • A vehicle history report
  • Powertrain coverage
  • Car rental coverage
  • Trip interruption benefits

Of course, manufacturers vary in what their warranties include when you purchase a CPO vehicle. Be sure to read through the exclusions of the warranty so you know what the terms are, how long you’re covered, and if there are any limitations.

Can Bad Credit Borrowers Finance a CPO?

Generally, bad credit borrowers are told to finance a used vehicle over a brand new one because used cars come with a lower sticker price, usually. However, while CPO vehicles tend to be a little more expensive than regular used vehicles, a CPO’s selling price is still likely less than a new car due to initial depreciation. Depreciation is loss of value over time due to mileage, age, and normal wear and tear.

Brand new vehicles lose a lot of value in the first two or three years of ownership, possibly up to 20% in that time, and it’s usually the steepest drop in value over the life of the vehicle. However, after those first couple of years, depreciation tends to slow down. If you opt for a CPO car, it’s usually much less expensive than its brand new equivalent, and very likely has already seen its steepest drop in value.

A CPO car is likely a more attainable option for bad credit borrowers than a brand new one. And if a borrower with credit challenges works with a special finance dealership that’s signed up with subprime lenders, CPO vehicles can be an option if they meet lender requirements.

Ready to Stop Looking and Start Shopping?

Sometimes the toughest part of car shopping is figuring out which dealership you can work with. There are so many dealers out there, and it can be tough for bad credit borrowers to tell which ones are signed up with subprime lenders that can assist with credit challenges.

At Auto Credit Express, we’ve crafted a nationwide network of special finance dealerships that are able and willing to help bad credit borrowers get the vehicle they need. Skip the search for a dealer with bad credit resources and let us do the legwork for you.

Starting is simple: complete our free auto loan request form and we’ll look for a dealership in your local area with no obligation.

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My husband signed for a car for a friend — against my wishes. Now we get notices for unpaid tolls and parking tickets. What if there’s an accident?

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My husband signed a car lease for a friend. He told me he was co-signing because his friend had bad credit even though I objected to that and asked why his friend can’t just buy a used car. Then at the last second, my husband told me that his friend’s credit “was so bad he had to take out the whole loan” in my husband’s name only.

Aside from the fact this story doesn’t add up, he is now getting second notices for unpaid tolls and parking tickets, and just sends them to his friend and trusts him to pay. He ensures the lease payments are made every month, and tells me that tolls will send collections notices before reporting to credit-collection agencies.

He also claims that his friend has insurance, but that doesn’t add up. The state we are in requires the owner to have insurance. He tells me that none of this is my business, and I have no right to be upset. Yet every time another “past due” envelope arrives I panic at the thought of the savings I worked so hard to put away might be gone in one accident, and that the home I wanted to buy with our excellent credit won’t be possible anymore.

Can you help me explain to him why this was a very bad idea, and why it’s not “none of my business,” as he says? What options do I have to get us out of this mess before we lose everything?

Panicking Wife

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at [email protected]

Dear Panicking,

Yes, your husband is responsible for the vehicle insurance, especially if someone else is driving this car on a regular basis. If the documents say the borrower should be the primary driver, your husband’s arrangement with this friend is a “straw deal” and is likely also illegal.

But your problems go way beyond this car. Your husband’s willingness to take out a lease on behalf of a friend, and endure these collection notices, raises many red flags. What does your husband owe this person? Why would he go above and beyond any reasonable expectation of a friendship to risk his finances and credit rating in this way? The fact that he did this against your express wishes and good sense adds insult to injury. Something is wrong with the bigger picture.

As for your husband’s legal liability. According to Maggiano, DiGirolamo & Lizzi, a law firm based in Fort Lee, N.J., “As strange as it may sound, you can be held liable for a car accident that involves your vehicle — even if you weren’t present at the time. In most motor vehicle accidents, the negligent driver is the one held liable for any injuries or harm caused. However, in certain situations, the law can attribute fault to the owner of the car instead.”

The firm cites the legal principles of negligent entrustment and negligent maintenance. The first involves “entrusting your vehicle to someone who was unfit to drive.” Negligent maintenance “is the failure to properly maintain your vehicle, presenting a safety risk for anyone driving the car. This term ‘negligent maintenance’ is used because you have a duty to other drivers to keep your car in safe, working condition as to minimize the risk of an accident.”

Given that your husband owns the car and it is being driven by someone who is not paying its bills, and creating more costs through careless driving and bad parking, your husband is already fully aware that this is a bad situation. You are left without a “why” or action by your husband to address this. Take a closer look — with the help of an attorney — at your joint/separate finances, and explore ways to protect your savings. You also need to take action to restore your peace of mind.

Otherwise, you will be driving around in proverbial circles without knowing your legal and financial options. Whatever that potential action entails should be decided between you and your attorney in the first instance. I am willing to guess that this is not the first time your husband has made a decision in your marriage that has left you baffled. A lawyer should explain to you why it’s a bad idea to endure these kinds of unilateral decisions, and what you can do about them.

The Moneyist: ‘I cut his hair because he won’t pay for a haircut’: My multimillionaire husband is 90. I’ve looked after him for 41 years, but he won’t help my son

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Loans Bad Credit Online – China’s Very Bad Bank: Inside the Huarong Debt Debacle | Fintech Zoom

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Loans Bad Credit Online – China’s Very Bad Bank: Inside the Huarong Debt Debacle

It’s been 11 weeks since Lai Xiaomin, the man once known as the God of Wealth, was executed on a cold Friday morning in the Chinese city of Tianjin.

But his shadow still hangs over one of the most dramatic corruption stories ever to come out of China – a tale that has now set nerves on edge around the financial world.

Photographer: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg

At its center isChina Huarong Asset Management Co., the state financial company that Lai lorded over until getting ensnared in a sweeping crackdown on corruption by China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

From Hong Kong to London to New York, questions burn. Will the Chinese government stand behind $23.2 billion that Lai borrowed on overseas markets — or will international bond investors have to swallow losses? Are key state-owned enterprises like Huarong still too big to fail, as global finance has long assumed – or will these companies be allowed to stumble, just like anyone else?

The answers will have huge implications for China and markets across Asia. Should Huarong fail to pay back its debts in full, the development would cast doubt over a core tenet of Chinese investment: the assumed government backing for important state-owned enterprises, or SOEs.

“A default at a central state-owned company like Huarong is unprecedented,” said Owen Gallimore, head of credit strategy at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group. Should one occur, he said, it would mark “a watershed moment” for Chinese and Asian credit markets.

Not since the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s has the issue weighed so heavily. Huarong bonds — among the most widely held SOE debt worldwide — recently fell to a record low of about 52 cents on the dollar. That’s not the pennies on a dollar normally associated with deeply troubled companies elsewhere, but it’s practically unheard of for an SOE.

Time is short. All told, Huarong owes bondholders at home and abroad the equivalent of $42 billion. Some $17.1 billion of that falls due by the end of 2022, according to Bloomberg-compiled data.

Huarong Bonds Tank

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Huarong was created in the aftermath of the ‘90s Asian collapse to avert another crisis, not cause one. The idea was to contain a swelling wave of bad loans threatening Chinese banks. Huarong was to serve as a “bad bank,” a safe repository for the billions in souring loans made to state companies.

Along with three other bad banks, Huarong swapped delinquent debts for stakes in hundreds of big SOEs and, in the process, helped turn around chronic money-losers like the giant China Petroleum & Chemical Corp.

After Lai took over in 2012, Huarong reached for more, pushing into investment banking, trusts, real estate and positioning itself as a key player in China’s $54 trillion financial industry.

Before long, global banks came knocking. In 2013, for instance, Shane Zhang, co-head of Asia-Pacific investment banking at Morgan Stanley, met with Lai. Zhang said his company was “very optimistic” about the future of Huarong, according to a statement posted on Huarong’s website at the time.

Before Huarong went public in Hong Kong in 2015, it sold a $2.4 billion stake to a group of investors including Warburg Pincus, Goldman Sachs Group Inc., and Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund. BlackRock Inc. and Vanguard Group acquired lots of stock too, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The stock has collapsed 67% since its listing.

Lai had no trouble financing his grand ambitions. A big reason: Everyone thought Beijing would always stand behind a key company like Huarong. It easily borrowed money in the offshore market at rates as low as 2.1%. It borrowed still more in the domestic interbank market. Along the way Lai transformed Huarong into a powerful shadow lender, extending credit to companies that banks turned away.

The truth was darker. Lai, a former senior official at the nation’s banking regulator, doled out loans with little oversight from his board or risk management committee.

One Huarong credit officer said Lai personally called the shots on most of the offshore corporate loans underwritten by her division.

Money also flowed to projects disguised as parts of China’s push to build railroads, ports and more around the world – the so-called Belt and Road Initiative, according to an executive at a state bank. Huarong didn’t immediately reply to questions on its lending practices.

Given Lai’s fate, both people spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Huarong snapped up more than half of the 510 billion yuan in distressed debts disposed of by Chinese banks in 2016. At its peak, Lai’s sprawling empire had almost 200 units at home and abroad. Heboasted in 2017 that Huarong, having reached the Hong Kong stock exchange, would soon go public in mainland China, too.

The IPO never happened. Lai was arrested in 2018 and subsequently confessed to a range of economic crimes in a state TV show. He spoke of trunk-loads of cash being spirited into a Beijing apartment he’d dubbed “the supermarket.” Authorities said they discovered 200 million yuan there. Expensive real estate, luxury watches, art, gold – the list of Lai’s treasure ran on.

This past January, Lai wasfound guilty by the Secondary Intermediate People’s Court in Tianjin of accepting of $277 million in bribes between 2008 and 2018. He was put to death three weeks later – a rare use of capital punishment for economic crimes. Some took the execution as a message from China’s leader, Xi Jinping: my crackdown on corruption will roll on.

At Huarong, the bottom has fallen out. Net income plummeted 95% from 2017 to 2019, to 1.4 billion yuan, and then sank 92% during the first half of 2020. Assets have shriveled by 165 billion yuan.

The company on April 1 announced that it would delay its 2020 results, saying its auditor needed more time. The influential Caixin magazine this week openly speculated about Huarong’s fate, including the possibility of bankruptcy.

According to people familiar with the matter, Huarong has proposed a sweepingrestructuring. The plan would involve offloading its money-losing, non-core businesses. Huarong is still trying to get a handle on what those businesses might be worth. The proposal, which the government would have to approve, helps explain why the company delayed its 2020 results, the people said.

Company executives have been meeting with peers at state banks to assuage their concerns over the past two weeks, a Huarong official said.

The Chinese finance ministry has raised anotherpossibility: transferring its stake in Huarong to a unit of the nation’s sovereign wealth fund that could then sort out the assorted debt problems. Regulators have held several meetings to discuss the company’s plight, according to people familiar with the matter.

In an emailed response to questions from Bloomberg, Huarong said it has “adequate liquidity” and plans to announce the expected date of its 2020 earnings release after consulting with auditors. China’s banking and insurance regulator didn’t immediately respond to a request seeking comment on Huarong’s situation.

Rising Stress

Onshore bond defaults by China’s state firms hit a record in 2020

Source: Fitch Ratings; 2021 data are for the first quarter

One thing is sure: Huarong is part of a much bigger problem in China. State-owned enterprises are shouldering the equivalent of $4.1 trillion in debt, and a growing number of them are struggling to keep current with creditors. In all, SOEs reneged on a record 79.5 billion yuan of local bonds in 2020, lifting their share of onshore payment failures to 57% from just 8.5% a year earlier, according to Fitch Ratings. The figure jumped to 72% in the first quarter of 2021.

The shockwaves from Huarong and these broader debt problems have only begun to reverberate through Chinese finance. Dismantling all or part of Lai’s old empire would show Beijing is willing to accept short-term pain to instill financial discipline among state-owned enterprises.

The irony is that Huarong was supposed to fix China’s big debt problem, not cause a new one.

“Allowing a state-owned financial institution that undertook the task of resolving troubles of China’s financial system to fail is the worst way to handle risks,” said Feng Jianlin, a Beijing-based chief analyst at research institute FOST. “The authorities must consider the massive risk spillover effects.”

— With assistance by Charlie Zhu, Jun Luo, Zheng Li, Dingmin Zhang, Evelyn Yu, Rebecca Choong Wilkins, and Tongjian Dong

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