Chinas top banking regulators and the chairmen of the four largest banks tried to allay concerns on Sunday that the country was allowing its banking system to grow at a reckless pace as a way to sustain short-term economic growth. The regulators and bank chairmen said during a rare joint news conference that they were managing the industry prudently and that effective measures had been taken to limit risk even as lending expands briskly. The risks are within control, Shang Fulin, the chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, said on two separate occasions.
Loans have been climbing steeply as a share of the economy for four years, prompting foreign bank analysts to question the sustainability of an economic model based on ever more debt invested in a wide range of industries that are already facing overcapacity.
Chinese households and businesses have also begun shunning the very low, regulated interest rates offered by the giant state banks in favour of more speculative financial products. The central bank has been helping commercial banks sustain extremely heavy lending this autumn by pumping record sums of money into the financial system.
Commercial banks have also shifted toward a heavy emphasis on one-year loans to corporate borrowers instead of multi-year loans, even for construction projects that may take years to complete. The one-year loans make bank loan portfolios appear less risky on paper, but their use in financing multiyear projects means that it might be almost impossible to actually collect the money after one year, because that would prevent the project from being completed.
Chinese banks have spread their loans across a wide range of sectors, like autos, steel and solar panels, to limit risk, Mr Shang said. Non-performing loans represent a smaller percentage of assets at Chinese banks than is typical for large banks around the world. But foreign analysts have warned that borrowers in many industrial sectors have used bank loans to speculate in real estate, so that the banking sector may have an unintentionally large exposure to the countrys real estate market.
Foreign analysts have also been sceptical of the low proportion of non-performing loans. They say that a torrent of loans issued in 2009 and 2010 to bail the country out of the global financial crisis has not had time to produce a lot of bad loans. They also suggest that a renewed burst of lending this autumn is helping troubled borrowers, at the risk of racking up even larger debt on which they may default later.
The rapid increase in corporate lending has helped pull the economy out of a downturn that occurred over the spring and summer, but it has also increased debt burdens considerably in the corporate sector. We need reform-inducing productivity growth, not more leverage, in 2013, said a research note on Saturday from Stephen Green, the China economist in the Hong Kong office of Standard Chartered.
The joint news conference was not held because of any imminent concerns about the Chinese financial system, but was arranged by the spokesmen for the 18th Party Congress after domestic and foreign journalists submitted a flood of requests in the last week for interviews with the countrys banking sector leaders.
Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor of Chinas central bank, the Peoples Bank of China, briefly acknowledged on Sunday night that the rise of a less-regulated shadow banking system would result in risks being transferred from banks to other entities in China. But he said that most non-banks engaged in lending were subject in various ways to government regulation. Mr Zhou made several comments about less-regulated financial activities in other countries that could be construed as criticisms of the US and Europe after the global financial crisis, although he was careful not to identify specific countries. In China, he said, It is not like what is happening in some other countries, whose nonbank sectors are out of control.
Mr Shang said he wanted Chinese banks to offer a more diverse array of financial products, although such a move might lead to the need for greater risk controls and credit assessment procedures. Wang Hongzhang, the chairman of the China Construction Bank, which is one of the Big Four, said at the joint news conference that his bank had too many of its assets in loans and that it was looking for ways to expand in trusts, insurance, leasing, precious metals and international operations. The other Big Four institutions are the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the Agricultural Bank of China. Charlene Chu, a China banks analyst at Fitch Ratings, said later in a telephone interview that the shift by Chinese banks toward one-year loans could have some advantages. That has to do with the banks becoming more conservative, she said. It allows them to reassess borrowers and decide if they want to cut them off.
Patrick Zuo contributed research.