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.