This year, China's banks have opened the floodgates of credit: between January and the end of April, $757 billion worth of new loans were dished out, equivalent to 17% of the GDP in 2008. As such, China's banks are enjoying a rate of growth that their Western peers would kill for. The increase in lending is the government's doing, since it has given banks the task of financing the infrastructure spending that forms a large part of China's stimulus package.
Looking to the medium- to long-term, however, analysts are beginning to air concerns about what effect such a rapid increase in lending could have on the quality of the banks' loan portfolios.
A report released yesterday by Fitch Ratings highlights issues with the banking sector's $4.2 trillion corporate loan portfolio. The worry arises from the fact that China's banks are increasing their corporate exposure at a time when corporate profits are declining.
"Ordinarily, falling corporate earnings are met with tightened lending, but in China precisely the reverse is happening," said the report. This illustrates that "despite years of reform Chinese banks still retain an important policy function in upholding local enterprises".
Infrastructure spending is not the only thing underlying the loan growth, according to the report. All the banks set a profit growth target. Since interest rates are down, the only way that banks can possibly meet their targets is by focusing purely on volumes. In the process of increasing the number of loans, it is more likely that money will be lent to commercially unviable projects. However, the banks don't see this as a problem, since there is an implicit assumption that any coming losses will be paid for by the government.
Although bank earnings have held up well so far, Fitch points to what it calls "early warning signals" that indicate asset quality could be deteriorating.
One sign is that the banks are increasing the assessment rate for how much money should be kept aside for losses against unimpaired loans, which suggests that they expect greater losses to come from the loans that are currently considered performing. The banks are also reclassifying more special mention loans, a category of weak loans just one step from being a non-performing loan (NPL), into NPLs. Finally, the foreign banks, which have better risk management systems than the local banks, saw a rise in their NPLs in the first quarter.
But the full extent of the problem of future credit losses may not come to light for some time, for several reasons, said the report. The structure of corporate debt is such that the inability of the borrower to pay will not become apparent until the principal is due, which will often be years after the loan was made. Furthermore, it is a common practice in China to roll over loans by extending the maturity, which in effect postpones the bad news and allows the loan to remain classified as adequate.