By Ho Binh Minh
HANOI (Reuters) - A major Vietnamese bank founded by arrested tycoon Nguyen Duc Kien faced a run on deposits on Thursday, witnesses said, but the central bank has injected funds into the banking system and assured jittery residents their money is safe.
Monday's arrest of Kien, 48, sent shockwaves through the Communist-run country, triggering a 9.2 percent slide in the stock market this week and causing depositors to pull funds from Asia Commercial Bank (ACB), one of Vietnam's biggest lenders, which Kien helped found in 1994.
Withdrawals began on Tuesday when the arrest was made public. By Thursday, large crowds had formed at ACB's branches in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's business center, residents said. At one branch, depositors shoved tables aside to try to reach bank tellers, a witness said.
The central bank said the entire banking sector "will commit to standing ready to provide, funding support to ACB to ensure it meets its obligations for repaying deposits".
It pumped 13 trillion dong ($624 million) into the banking system on Wednesday and another 4 trillion on Thursday.
Outside ACB's headquarters, two dozen cars lined up and about 70 depositors crowded the transaction office, a witness said, as confidence dwindled in the financial system of what a few years ago was one of world's hottest emerging markets.
"I have some cash in ACB but since the bank belongs to the same system controlled by the central bank, it does not mean much to withdraw cash from one bank to put it in another, as all in the system face the same risk," one ACB depositor said in a telephone interview from Ho Chi Minh City.
ACB Deputy Chief Executive Officer Do Minh Toan told state media depositors took out 5 trillion dong from ACB on Wednesday. As of June 30, the bank's deposits totaled 145.62 trillion dong, up 2.4 percent from a year earlier, according to ACB.
Kien, a well-connected tycoon, held less than 5 percent of ACB's stock. The government said he played no part in managing the bank, which is 15 percent owned by British bank Standard Chartered Plc.
But Chief Executive Officer Ly Xuan Hai is absent and widely believed to be under detention, stoking concerns over ACB, which had faced a run on deposits in 2003 on rumors, later proved false, of the arrest of an executive.
Kien, one of Vietnam's highest-profile bankers, is chairman of B&B Investment and Trade Joint Stock Co, ACB Hanoi Investment Joint Stock Co and Asia Hanoi Financial Investment Co, and the alleged violations concerned these firms, the police ministry said.
He was accused of running unlicensed businesses. His three companies were established to invest in real-estate projects while they raised funds and invested the proceeds in bank shares instead, state media said.
GOLD PRICES JUMP, CURRENCY FALLS
Economists were already worried about the fragility of Vietnam's banking system and some Vietnamese have quickly turned to the traditional safe haven of gold: bankers said demand had jumped from Monday, pushing up the retail price by about 5 percent.
Vietnam's currency, the dong, has fallen 0.3 percent since Monday against the dollar.
The main stock market has slid for three consecutive days, trading at a six-month low on Thursday when it lost 4.5 percent. On Tuesday, it posted its biggest daily loss since October 2008. ACB's stock price has slumped 18.6 percent this week, losing 6.7 percent on Thursday. The bank is valued at about $1 billion.
But some experts doubted the panic would spread.
"I wouldn't think we are going to see a lot of contagion," said Jonathan Pincus, dean of the Fulbright Economics Teaching Program in Ho Chi Minh City and a former Vietnam economic specialist at the United Nations.
"The State Bank acted quickly and provided liquidity immediately," he added.
The banking sector has been hit by high inflation and rising bad debt stemming from losses at big state firms in particular. At the end of March, 8.6 percent of all loans in Vietnam were bad, the highest in Southeast Asia, central bank data showed.
Pincus and other experts said ACB should weather the crisis but that plenty of other Vietnamese banks remain in difficulty.
"The immediate problems are for those banks that are heavily overextended in the property market and which are owned by one or two families or groups. Those banks, of which there are many, are very vulnerable. But ACB is not one of those," said Pincus.
Bankers said ACB and several small banks had been borrowing short-term funds on the interbank market to ensure liquidity. The fixing on overnight dong loans eased to 7.14 percent on Thursday after surging to 7.5 percent the previous day from 4 percent at the start of the week, Reuters data showed.
Deputy CEO Toan was quoted in state media as saying the volume of cash withdrawn from ACB was higher on Wednesday than Tuesday. Toan, who is in charge of the bank in the absence of the CEO, said ACB could access up to 46 trillion dong ($2.2 billion) if needed.
It had borrowed 10 trillion dong from the central bank on August 21-22 and could also gradually withdraw 36 trillion dong from the interbank market, Toan said. That is around a third of the total weekly transactions on the interbank dong market of between 110 trillion and 130 trillion dong over the past month.
Kien's family is ranked fifth among Vietnam's 30 richest families in terms of stock market holdings, based on a list compiled by online news website VNExpress. He is also deputy chairman of the Vietnam Professional Football Joint Stock Co, which runs Vietnam's top-tier professional soccer league.
(Additional reporting by Ngo Thi Ngoc Chau in Hanoi, and Jason Szep and Khettiya Jittapong in Bangkok; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Alan Raybould and Alex Richardson)