ICBC's Quarterly Profit Rises as Bad-Loan Ratio Stabilizes

  • NPL ratio falls to 1.59% as bad-loan coverage improves
  • Rival Agricultural Bank reports 1.9% profit increase

Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd., the world’s largest lender by assets, reported its strongest quarterly profit growth in two years as soured credit and lending margins stabilized amid an uptick in the economy.

Net income rose 1.4 percent to 75.79 billion yuan ($11 billion) in the three months ended March 31 from 74.76 billion yuan a year earlier, the Beijing-based lender said in an exchange filing on Friday. Rival lender Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. separately reported a 1.9 percent profit increase for the period.

The profit outlook for China’s biggest lenders, which have been struggling with rising defaults and narrower margins, has improved after the country’s economic growth accelerated for two straight quarters. Challenges remain as the government embarks on a campaign to curb leverage in the economy and tightens regulations on mortgage lending and off-balance sheet wealth-management products.

Usually, the first-quarter result season “has little impact on China banks’ share price, but 2017 may prove different,” Jefferies analysts led by Victor Wang wrote in an April 17 note. “We may see vast divergence among banks” from the first quarter onward as the regulatory changes start to take effect, they said.

In a sign that Chinese companies’ ability to repay debt has picked up, the average NPL ratio among the country’s banks dropped to 1.74 percent at the end of March from a seven-year high of 1.76 percent in September, data from the industry regulator show.

ICBC’s nonperforming-loan ratio fell to 1.59 percent as of March 31 from 1.62 percent three months earlier. The bank’s bad-loan coverage ratio improved to 141.5 percent from 136.7 percent at the end of last year, below the regulatory minimum of 150 percent.

The lender reported a net interest margin of 2.12 percent, which was higher than the fourth quarter’s 2.1 percent, according to Sanford C. Bernstein estimates.

Key year-on-year numbers reported by ICBC:

  • Capital adequacy ratio: 14.66 percent vs 14.61 percent as of Dec.
  • Net interest income: 122 billion yuan vs year earlier 118.8 billion yuan
  • Net fee income: 41 billion yuan vs year earlier 43.5 billion yuan

Chinese regulators have launched a campaign to crack down on malpractice and curb leverage in the nation’s $34 trillion banking industry with a series of fresh guidelines over the past three weeks. Those efforts helped erased $333 billion of stock-market value during that time and sent bond yields to the highest level in nearly two years, highlighting the challenge for Chinese authorities as they try to rein in shadow-banking activity without destabilizing financial markets.

Ultimately, tighter regulation will force weak and speculative banks to pay for hidden credit costs and capital charges, the Jefferies analysts said. The develeraging campaign by the central bank and the regulators has boosted interbank borrowing costs to a two-year high.

Big state banks are likely to show more improvement in their net interest margins as they are typically providers of net liquidity in the interbank market, meaning they benefit more from tightening financial conditions, Bernstein analyst Wei Hou said by phone this week.

— With assistance by Jun Luo, and Alfred Liu

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