Four of China's five largest state-owned banks prepare for bad debt from COVID-19

Borrowers struggling to repay debt months after lockdowns

BEIJING/SHANGHAI - Four of China’s five largest state-owned banks said they have increased their provisions against bad debt to brace for future losses due to the impact of the global coronavirus pandemic.

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All five reported their biggest profit falls in at least a decade and an increase in soured loans when announcing their half-year results on Sunday and last week.

The results highlight the impact of the pandemic and the economic slowdown on Chinese banks as borrowers struggle to repay debt after months of lockdown and some sectors, such as those in the travel industry, labour to survive on lingering COVID-19 fears.

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Amid the grind, China’s banks have been asked to step up and lend to flagging sectors while sacrificing profits in a bid to revive the country’s fortunes.

Agricultural Bank of China Ltd (AgBank) (601288.SS) (1288.HK) said “the lagging impact of the epidemic and the risk of uncertainty are expected to be further transmitted to the banking industry,” in its half-year results on Sunday.

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China Construction Bank Corp (CCB) (601939.SS) (0939.HK), the country’s second-largest lender by assets, said it plans to assess credit risks and up provisions, just as Bank of China Ltd (BoC) (601988.SS) (3988.HK) said the same.

Even more directly, Bank of Communications Co Ltd (BoCom) (601328.SS) (3328.HK) said on Friday it had boosted “provisions to counter the future impact of the pandemic.”

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Second-quarter loan-loss provisions were up 61% to 436% compared to the same period last year at ICBC, CCB, AgBank and BoC, showed data from China International Capital Corp (CICC).

The crater in first-half profit was mostly down to provisioning ordered by regulators, said CICC on Monday, noting that second-quarter profit would otherwise have been 1.5% to 5.1% for those four lenders.

“In the foreseeable future, downward pressure of banks’ profit and revenue will continue to weigh,” said Wang Yifeng, an analyst with Everbright Securities, adding that banks will keep boosting provisions in the third quarter.

Net interest margins (NIM) - a key gauge of bank profitability - fell at Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) (1398.HK) (601398.SS), the world’s largest commercial lender by assets, BoCom, CCB and AgBank.

But at BoC, NIM improved slightly to 1.82% from 1.8% three months earlier.

AgBank’s fell to 2.14% at the end of June from 2.17% at the end of March, while at ICBC it narrowed to 1.98% at the end of the second quarter, from 2.2% at the end of the first.

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Non-performing loan (NPL) ratios rose at the big five banks during the reporting period, with that of ICBC increasing to 1.5% by the end of June from 1.43% three months earlier, and that of CCB rising by 0.07 percentage points in second quarter to 1.49%.

Chinese commercial banks overall posted a 9.4% drop in first-half net profit to 1 trillion yuan ($146.08 billion), according to data from the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission.

By the end of the June quarter, the average non-performing loan ratio for commercial banks was at 1.94%, commission data showed, the highest since 2009.