China has begun an aggressive program to recapitalize its insolvent state banks, injecting $45 billion from its vast stash of foreign exchange reserves into two large banks that are preparing to list on stock markets overseas next year.
Officials said the capital injection, announced on Tuesday but completed in secret on December 31, was the first step in a strategy that envisages more than $100 billion in state funds being spent on strengthening the “big four” state banks — the weakest link in China's booming economy.
“The proposal was for more than $100 billion to be earmarked for recapitalization,” one senior financial official told the Financial Times. He added that by injecting money from its $403 billion in foreign reserves, China was killing two birds with one stone — reviving its banks and undermining arguments for a revaluation of the renminbi, the Chinese currency.
The two banks to benefit are China Construction Bank (CCB) and Bank of China (BOC), each of which received $22.5 billion. The next in line is the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) but the amount and timing of that injection has not yet been decided, officials say.
The fourth of the “big four”, Agricultural Bank, is in such a parlous state that its rescue package may take considerably longer to formulate. Together, the big four hold some Rmb 2,000 billion ($240 billion) in non-performing loans, according to official estimates. Independent analysts say the real figure is much higher.
Brokerage house economists, rating agencies and China academics were unanimous in welcoming the move as a sign that the government of Wen Jiabao, premier, was serious about resolving its most pressing economic problem.
“This shows the firm resolve of the Chinese government toward banking reform and internationalization,” said Song Fengming, professor of finance at Tsinghua University.
The CCB and BOC, both of which hope to list on the Hong Kong stock market in 2005, plan to use the injection not to write off bad loans but to boost their levels of capital. In doing this, they hope to be able to generate more income from an expanded loan portfolio and attract foreign strategic investors more easily.
The next key step toward listing is to be their transformation from wholly state-owned organizations into joint-stock companies. Qu Hongbin, China economist for HSBC in Hong Kong, estimated that the capital adequacy ratio — a measure of the strength of a bank's balance sheet — would rise from a current 7-8 percent to about 16-17 percent.
Chinese policymakers have insisted in recent years that after spending Rmb 1,670 billion on bank bailouts since 1998, there would be no more “free lunches”. The injection announced on Tuesday was not quite “free” assistance: the banks will be required to pay interest on the funds injected into them, said Wang Zhaowen, a senior executive at the Bank of China.
A new company, Central Huijin Investment Co, run by government agencies, has also been set up to ensure proper management of the funds injected. Particularly important, officials said, was that the two banks made improvements in corporate governance to guard against creating new bad loans.
Separately, officials hoped that using foreign reserves to recapitalize banks would help combat arguments for a renminbi revaluation. One of the main reasons cited by proponents of a renminbi appreciation has been the size of China's reserves, now the second largest in the world after that of Japan.