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China at 60% Risk of Banking Crisis, Fitch Gauge Signals

China faces a 60 percent risk of a banking crisis by mid-2013 in the aftermath of record lending and surging property prices, according to a Fitch Ratings gauge.

Fitch sees the risk of “holes in bank balance sheets” should a property bubble burst, Richard Fox, a London-based senior director, said in a phone interview on March 4. The risk assessment is from a macro-prudential monitor used by the ratings company.

Chinese banks fueled record property-price gains by extending a record 17.5 trillion yuan ($2.7 trillion) of loans over 2009 and 2010 under the stimulus program that propelled the nation through the financial crisis. Regulators’ efforts to contain the risks for lenders have included stress tests for declines in house prices and a crackdown on lending to local- government financing vehicles.

China’s risk of a systemic crisis is based on the nation’s MPI3 classification, the highest of three risk categories, in a Fitch monitor begun in 2005. The indicator signaled crises in Iceland and Ireland and has been tested back to the 1980s, Fox said.

In contrast with Fitch’s concern, the Hang Seng Finance Index (HSF), which includes five Chinese banks traded in Hong Kong, advanced 1.5 percent as of 3:34 p.m. local time.

Depleted Capital

Fitch follows an International Monetary Fund definition of a systemic financial crisis, Fox said. Such crises exhaust “all or most of the aggregate banking system capital,” cause a “large number of defaults” and “financial institutions and corporations face great difficulties repaying contracts on time,” according to a November 2008 IMF working paper.

“We’re talking about systemic crises here, affecting most of the major banks,” Fox said. “A crisis is something which technically de-capitalizes the banking system.”

Sixty percent of emerging-market countries downgraded to MPI3 face banking crises within three years, he said. China entered that classification in June. The indicator’s failures have included not sounding an alarm about the banking system in Spain, he added.

Banking systems in emerging markets are vulnerable to systemic stress when credit growth exceeds 15 percent annually over two years with real property prices rising more than 5 percent, according to Fitch.

Wen’s Pledge

Credit growth in China averaged 18.6 percent annually over 2008 and 2009 as house prices jumped, according to the ratings company. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao pledged more efforts to cool the property market on March 5, telling lawmakers that “exorbitant” increases in housing prices in some cities are a top public concern.

The fallout from China’s lending spree may be bad loans totaling $400 billion, according to Hong Kong-based advisory firm Asianomics Ltd.

China is seeking to avoid a repeat of its last banking crisis, when the government spent more than $650 billion over a decade to bail out banks after years of state-directed lending.

Fitch’s concern contrasts with gains in banks’ profits and capital adequacy ratios and declines in non-performing loan ratios, according to data released by the China Banking Regulatory Commission.

The industry’s “capitalization has been noticeably strengthened throughout 2010, with capital ratios of major banks being well supportive of their standalone credit profiles,” Liao Qiang, a director of financial institutions ratings for Standard and Poor’s in Beijing said today.

‘Strong Liquidity’

“With reasonable loan loss reserves at present, good pre- provisioning profitability and strong liquidity, Chinese banks are likely to gradually absorb potential spikes in credit costs caused by looming bad loans, particularly from China’s property sector and local government financing platforms,” Qiang said.

Chinese banks listed in Hong Kong will likely report “strong” 2010 earnings when they report at the end of the month, BNP Paribas SA said in a report today.

In November, Moody’s Investors Service said that it had “concerns over the intrinsic, stand-alone strength of China’s banking system.” At the same time, the largest lenders weren’t materially damaged by the global financial crisis and aren’t likely to pose any significant contingent liability risk to the government balance sheet, the ratings company said.

Absorbing Losses

“Furthermore, we expect that future credit losses -- arising from the surge in lending in 2009, from exposures to the property market, from risky loans to local government financing vehicles, and from off-balance sheet operations in the ‘shadow’ banking system -- will be mostly absorbed by the banks themselves, either from capital, or from future earnings,” Moody’s said in a statement.

To limit risks for banks, China has increased oversight of lending to the local-government vehicles, which surged during the nation’s two-year stimulus program. In a March 5 speech to lawmakers, Wen pledged a “comprehensive audit” of local- government debt, while the Ministry of Finance said separately that “local governments face debt risks that can’t be overlooked.”

Banks have also been told to assign a higher risk rating to local-government loans.

The country’s “systemically important” lenders may be subject to an overall capital adequacy ratio of as high as 14 percent when their credit growth is judged excessive, a person with knowledge of the matter said on Jan. 28. Other lenders would need to meet a 13 percent threshold, the person said. The minimum ratio, used to gauge banks’ ability to withstand financial stress, is currently 11.5 percent for big banks.

Lenders including China Minsheng Banking Corp. and Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. (1288) have announced plans to sell more than 80 billion yuan ($12 billion) of shares and 70 billion yuan of subordinated bonds this year.

- Kevin Hamlin, with assistance from Zhang Dingmin. Editors: Paul Panckhurst, Lily Nonomiya.

To contact the Bloomberg News staff on this story: Kevin Hamlin in Beijing on khamlin@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Panckhurst at ppanckhurst@bloomberg.net

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