Goldman Sachs’s Cohn Bullish on China Banks After ICBC Sale

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. President Gary Cohn said he’s “bullish” on China even after his firm last week sold a $1 billion stake in Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd., the nation’s largest bank.

“You can absolutely still make money off Chinese banks,” Cohn, 52, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Susan Li in Hong Kong yesterday, without naming specific banks. “We are very positive, optimistic, but cautious, about where China’s going.”

Goldman Sachs’s sale of the stake followed an almost 50 percent advance in ICBC stock from its 2012 low. Investing in local lenders in China has reaped bigger profits for foreign banks than operating their own franchises in the world’s second-largest banking market. BNP Paribas SA in December said it plans to increase investments in Bank of Nanjing Co.

The Wall Street firm sold part of an investment first made in January 2006 when Goldman Sachs and client funds it manages agreed to invest $2.58 billion in Beijing-based ICBC. The U.S. bank and the funds have since offloaded ICBC shares at least five times, data compiled by Bloomberg show, and the New York-based firm has recorded more than $3.1 billion of gains on its proprietary holding, according to company filings.

In the latest transaction, Goldman sold 1.35 billion shares at HK$5.77 each, 3 percent lower than the Chinese lender’s HK$5.95 closing price in Hong Kong on Jan. 28. It continues to hold more than $1 billion of ICBC stock, Cohn said.

‘Very Happy’

“We will continue to be invested in China,” he said. “It’s been an important strategic relationship with them for a long period of time and we’re very happy being shareholders of ICBC.”

Global financial firms including Temasek Holdings Pte, Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup Inc. invested a combined $33 billion in Chinese banks from 2001 to 2009, according to data compiled by the China Banking Regulatory Commission. Profits at the biggest local lenders, which are controlled by the government, have since defied the global economic slowdown and risen to a record.

Earnings at ICBC, the world’s biggest lender by market value, probably gained 10 percent to 229.7 billion yuan ($36.8 billion) last year, according to the average estimate of analysts in a Bloomberg survey. That would mark its seventh year of record profit since becoming publicly traded in 2006.

Although shares of Hong Kong-listed Chinese lenders have rallied since mid-September as the U.S. announced a third round of quantitative easing, they continue to trade at close to record-low valuations on concern that non-performing loans will rise. ICBC is trading at about 6.7 times its estimated earnings for 2013, compared with 11.2 for Goldman Sachs and 9.1 for JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Chinese banks are set to report fourth-quarter results next month and first-quarter earnings in April.