China’s banks, running hard to stand still
Chinese banks are like enthusiastic runners on an accelerating treadmill. The weakening economy means poor lending decisions are threatening to catch up with them, but the banks are sprinting ahead by expanding their loan books ever faster. They cannot keep this up for ever.
For now things still look fine. China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) this week claimed that Chinese banks were managing credit risk sagely, pointing to record low non-performing loan ratios. Given the massive increase in the number of loans outstanding — up 24 percent since the start of the year — it’s not surprising that the proportion of them that are non-performing at large commercial banks, which accounts for 60 percent of the lending, has declined from 2.4 percent to 1.8 percent in the past six months.
Chinese banks appear to be focusing their lending on regions which have suffered the most in the crisis. The five regions that have shown the largest increase in new loans are the ones that were hit hardest by the downturn, namely coastal cities such as Guangdong, Jiangsu, Zhejiang, and Shandong, plus Beijing. These are also the regions that have experienced among the slowest growth this year. This suggests that loan growth is being driven by official policy rather than the product of bankers seeking the most attractive investment opportunities.
Chinese banks had double-digit NPL ratios before Beijing cleaned them up in preparation for their listing on foreign exchanges. Foreign banks with risk management expertise were brought in, and offered cheap stakes in Chinese institutions to encourage them to share their knowledge. This led to an improvement in lending standards as Chinese banks installed expensive computer databases and formed central credit offices.
It is not clear however how deeply these reforms have been entrenched. The banks remain very decentralized and lending standards are generally lower than their foreign counterparts.
In the past few years, Chinese bankers were restrained by the regulator from going on lending sprees. Banks were given lending quotas to prevent the economy from overheating. This year, with growth the main concern, there were no ceilings.
Chinese banks have clearly now opened the flood gates and are taking on more credit risk. The chief banking regulator Liu Mingkang said at a closed-door meeting in Tianjiin this April that the maximum Chinese banks should lend out a year is 6 trillion yuan ($878 billion), anything above that would be deemed as risky. During the first half alone, they lent out a whopping 7.37 trillion yuan ($1.08 trillion).
The current NPL statistics are irrelevant. The test for Chinese banks will come in the next 2 to 5 years, as the latest wave of lending shows its worth. True, many infrastructure loans seem to have implicit government backing, but less come with strong underlying cashflows. Instead of celebrating the record-low NPLs, the regulator should take it as a worrying sign that Chinese banks are now running hard to stand still.
— At the time of publication Wei Gu did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. She may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund —