| | ICBC Profit Growth Slows as China Banks Special Report - China Inc's debacle in the Outback | Reuters
ICBC Profit Growth Slows as China Banks’ Overdue Loans Rise
By Bloomberg News - 2012-08-31T08 :34 :53Z
Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. led the nation’s biggest lenders in posting slower profit growth as a sluggish economy curtailed demand for financial services and more borrowers defaulted on debt.
Net income at ICBC, the world’s largest lender by market value, climbed 11 percent in the second quarter to 61.8 billion yuan ($9.7 billion), according to first-half figures reported yesterday by the Beijing-based company. Combined earnings of China’s five biggest banks increased 13 percent to 203.6 billion yuan in the quarter, slowing from 33 percent a year earlier.
Overdue loans rose at the five banks as the economy decelerated for a sixth quarter, and China’s liberalization of interest rates threatens to squeeze margins in the second half. Still, Chinese banks’ bad-loan ratios are less than 1 percent and they remain among the world’s most profitable, with ICBC alone making more than JPMorgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. combined.
“Credit quality of Chinese banks has obviously deteriorated, which is a reflection of the significant decline in the economy,” said Lewis Wan, the Hong Kong-based chief investment officer at Pride Investment Group Ltd., which manages $300 million of assets. “The profit growth will certainly stall some more as lending margins shrink and fee income slows.”
Shares of the five biggest Chinese lenders have fallen by an average 7.4 percent in Hong Kong this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. ICBC and its local rivals trade at an average 5.3 times their forecast earnings for 2012, compared with 9.6 times for HSBC (HSBA) Holdings Plc, Europe’s most profitable bank, and 8 times for New York-based JPMorgan, the largest U.S. lender.
China’s two interest-rate cuts this year, three reductions in banks’ reserve requirements since November and accelerated approvals for investment projects haven’t been enough to reverse a slowdown in output.
The economy grew 7.6 percent in the second quarter, the slowest pace since 2009. Barclays Plc, Deutsche Bank AG and Bank of America this month cut their forecasts for the nation’s third-quarter growth, while Morgan Stanley lowered its outlook for 2012 expansion to 8 percent from 8.5 percent.
Bank of Communications Co., China’s fifth-largest lender by assets, yesterday reported a 16 percent increase in second- quarter profit to 15.2 billion yuan. Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. (3988), ranked third, on Aug. 29 posted a 14 percent gain. Net income for China Construction Bank Corp. (939), the second largest, rose 20 percent while fourth-ranked Bank of China Ltd. last week said earnings growth slowed to 5.3 percent.
ICBC gained 0.2 percent to HK$4.20 at the close of trading in Hong Kong, while Bank of Communications added 1.6 percent to HK$5.07. The benchmark Hang Seng Index lost 0.4 percent.
Premier Wen Jiabao said in April China needs to break the “monopoly” of several big lenders, which make easy profits because it’s hard to borrow money elsewhere. The five banks had 31 trillion yuan of loans outstanding as of June 30, controlling almost half of the nation’s total.
Soured loans at the nation’s 3,800 banks increased for a third straight quarter, the longest streak of deterioration in eight years, according to the China Banking Regulatory Commission. Most of the increase in bad loans came from the eastern Chinese province of Zhejiang, the Shanghai Securities News reported this month.
Overdue loans, an indication of future bad loan formation, at the five biggest banks totaled 416 billion yuan as of June 30, an increase of 27 percent from the end of last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. ICBC’s advances with payments pending for more than 90 days rose 7 percent to 62 billion yuan, while debt overdue for less than three months surged 60 percent to 80 billion yuan. At Construction Bank, the 90-day figure jumped 34 percent.
“Asset quality will continue to worsen, and the market has been expecting that,” said Ivan Li, head of research at Kim Eng Securities Hong Kong Ltd. “What is uncertain is the banks’ net interest margins” and how much they will shrink.
ICBC’s net interest margin, a measure of lending profitability, widened to 2.66 percent in the first half from 2.6 percent a year earlier. The measure shrank at Bank of China and Agricultural Bank in the second quarter from the previous three months.
The central bank in June allowed lenders to widen the discount on borrowing costs to 20 percent and broadened it further to 30 percent last month as policy makers picked up the pace of interest rate deregulation.
The weighted average lending rate charged by banks had already fallen to 7.06 percent in June, down by 0.56 percentage point from March, according to the central bank. About 8 percent of loans were priced below the benchmark rate that month, the most in 11 months.
Bank of Communications faces “significant” pressure on its margins, Vice President Yu Yali said yesterday at a briefing. ICBC’s first-half loan margin doesn’t yet reflect the impact of the June rate cut, President Yang Kaisheng said.
China’s government is maintaining curbs on real estate and refrained from introducing a nationwide economic stimulus package similar to the one in 2008. Caterpillar Inc., the world’s largest maker of construction and mining machinery, shut its main excavator factory in China for much of July and had employees on shortened work weeks.
In the first six months, ICBC’s profit rose 12.5 percent to 123.2 billion yuan, according to yesterday’s statement, paving the way for it to post record profit for a seventh year since becoming publicly traded in 2006. The second-quarter figures were calculated based on the first-half numbers.
State-run Central Huijin Investment Ltd. bought more Shanghai-listed A shares of ICBC, Construction Bank, Bank of China and Agricultural Bank in the second quarter, Shanghai Securities News reported today, citing their interim reports.
China’s 3,800 lenders reported net income of $52.8 billion in the second quarter, 53 percent more the total earnings of 7,246 U.S. banks, data from the China Banking Regulatory Commission and the U.S. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. show.
JPMorgan (JPM) last month reported a 9 percent decline in second- quarter net income to $4.96 billion after posting a $4.4 billion trading loss at its chief investment office.
HSBC, the largest European bank by market value, last month posted an 8.3 percent drop in earnings and made a $1.3 billion provision in the first half to compensate British clients wrongly sold payment-protection insurance and derivatives. The London-based lender also made a $700 million provision for U.S. fines after a Senate committee found the bank gave terrorists, drug cartels and criminals access to the U.S. financial system.
Special Report - China Inc's debacle in the Outback
By David Lague
HONG KONG | Thu Aug 30, 2012 10:15pm BST
(Reuters) - Larry Yung Chi-kin is a loyal scion of the Chinese Communist upper crust. His late father, Rong Yiren, was the legendary "Red Capitalist," one of the few industrialists to stay behind in the mainland after the revolution of 1949. Yung himself went on to found the conglomerate CITIC Pacific and become one of China's richest men.
So, when duty called, Larry Yung answered.
In 2006, foreign mining giants were jacking up prices of the iron ore needed by China's voracious steel industry. At the urging of Beijing, Yung and CITIC Pacific negotiated the rights to exploit a vast deposit of low-grade ore in the red-rock landscape of Australia's remote northwest Pilbara region.
The multibillion-dollar deal seemed to be a coup for China's resource-hungry economy. But Yung and Beijing are now paying a heavy price.
A few kilometres down a dirt track off the North West Coastal Highway, beside a towering pile of red tailings, the company has dug itself into what increasingly looks like a bottomless pit.
The original $2.47 billion (1.56 billion pounds) budget for the massive open-cut mine and processing complex has blown out to $8 billion and it is more than two years behind schedule. Senior company managers won't rule out a $10 billion price tag for one of China's flagship offshore resource investments. "It has the potential to be a company killer, that's for sure," says Clinton Dines, a former president of mining giant BHP Billiton in China.
It is a dramatic reversal for Yung, 70, who emerged from obscurity after the Cultural Revolution to become first tycoon among China's "princelings," the children and grandchildren of the party elite.
To compound its pain, CITIC Pacific in 2008 bungled an attempt to hedge against the overruns - exposing the company to a further $2 billion in losses. Yung and his long-time deputy, Henry Fan Hung-ling, were forced to resign that year when Hong Kong police and regulators launched investigations into the hedging transactions.
According to people familiar with the investigations, police and regulators in Hong Kong have concluded their probes into suspected fraud, theft and disclosure failings. They have handed their findings to prosecutors in the semi-autonomous city, who are weighing whether to lay charges against some of China's highest-profile business figures in the politically charged matter.
Yung's office did not return calls requesting comment. A spokeswoman for Hong Kong's Department of Justice did not respond to questions about the investigations. Officials in Beijing have been publicly silent about the probes.
But senior Chinese leaders have privately said they are worried the mine could turn into an embarrassing failure, according to Australian government officials and foreign mining executives. Soaring costs and missed deadlines in the Pilbara mine have delivered a major setback to China's global drive to secure reliable supplies of key raw materials.
CITIC Pacific's Australian subsidiary, Sino Iron, is scrambling to begin operations at the mine and release a flow of revenue that is projected to last for 25 years. Shipments were supposed to begin this year, reaching a pace of 27.6 million tonnes a year.
CITIC Pacific chairman Chang Zhenming said at the company's August 16 results briefing in Hong Kong it now expects trial production to begin only in November, the latest in a series of missed deadlines.
"Before the end of the year we should have production ready for export," said Chang, a veteran of China's state-owned finance sector who was drafted in to replace Yung.
The saga speaks to the broader problems that China's state-owned giants are having as they venture into the wider world. Resource projects account for most of the $380 billion of total Chinese outbound investment as of the end of 2011, according to China's Ministry of Commerce. Losses on these investments have reached almost $27 billion, official media reports say.
Most of it has been blamed on failures to undertake proper research before deals are signed. "In many of these cases, my view is that due diligence was either poor, non-existent or there was an element of hubris involved," says Mike Komesaroff, managing director of Queensland-based Urandaline Investments, a consultancy specialising in China's minerals and metals industries.
CITIC Pacific declined requests for interviews with senior managers about the Pilbara mine or answer questions about its feasibility study and background research on the project.
The market outlook isn't good. Iron-ore prices are expected to continue sliding as China's economy shows signs of slowing. Australia's Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics forecasts ore will average about $136 a tonne this year, a drop of about 11 per cent from 2011. Some analysts expect steeper declines, with China on track to record its first annual drop in steel output in more than three decades.
It's a major shift. Years of seemingly insatiable Chinese demand delivered a bonanza for Australia's BHP Billiton, the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto and Vale of Brazil, which together account for almost 70 per cent of world sea-borne iron-ore trade.
Ore, which had traded for less than $13 a tonne in 2000, peaked at almost $200 a tonne last year. In one savage hike in early 2005, the three miners increased prices by 71.5 per cent.
"That really got their attention," says Shanghai-based Dines, who came under fire from steelmakers when he represented BHP in China and now runs hedge fund Caledonia Asia. "From that moment, China really started worrying about securing reliable supplies of raw materials, particularly iron ore, and the cost of those materials."
That's when Larry Yung headed into the Outback.
FLOUR AND TEXTILES EMPIRE
It was the biggest risk he had ever undertaken, and he was doing it without the support of his legendary father. Just five months before CITIC Pacific in March 2006 signed agreements to mine the Pilbara deposit, Rong Yiren died in Beijing, aged 89.
Rong had become a household name in China after 1949, when he remained in Shanghai and cooperated with Communist efforts to build a socialist economy. As the head of the family's flour-milling and textile empire, Rong was then estimated to be one of the 10 richest men in China, according to reports at the time. His only son, Larry Yung (Rong Zhijian in Mandarin) lived his early years at the family mansion on leafy Kanping Road in what had once been the French Concession.
Even under the Communists, Yung was extravagant. He drove a red open-topped sports car around the city and invited friends and classmates to dine at expensive restaurants, China's official media reported.
That all changed with the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards ransacked the clan's homes, smashing and stealing valuable art and antiques. Rong was spared the brutality meted out to others with similar backgrounds. But he ended up working as a janitor, according to reports later published in the official media. Yung was forced to spend six years labouring in Sichuan Province after graduating from Tianjin University with a degree in electrical engineering.
With the end of the upheaval and Deng Xiaoping's rise to power in the late 1970s, Rong was rehabilitated. Deng tasked him with a key role in guiding China's opening to the global economy.
He set up state-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation, now known as CITIC Group, as a vehicle to coordinate the massive foreign investment needed to jump start a shattered economy. His rehabilitation was complete when, in 1993, he was appointed to the largely ceremonial but prestigious position of Vice President.
RED CHIP PIONEER
As his father returned to influence, Yung moved to Hong Kong in 1978 and started an electronics engineering company with two cousins. He joined CITIC in 1986 before leading the takeover of an existing listed company and renaming it CITIC Pacific. The deal created one of the first "red chips," mainland-controlled companies with shares traded in Hong Kong.
CITIC Pacific gobbled up investments in aviation, property, telecoms, tunnels, bridges, power plants and mainland steel mills. The establishment Swire Group, a pillar of colonial Hong Kong, welcomed him onto the board of its airline subsidiary, Cathay Pacific, when CITIC Pacific became a major shareholder.
As the deals rolled in, the Yung family's links to the CITIC empire deepened. Two of his children, son Carl Yung Ming-jie and daughter Frances Yung Ming-fong, joined the company in senior positions.
The company's stock peaked at almost HK$50 in October 2007, valuing his 19 per cent stake at HK$20.9 billion ($2.7 billion) (The stock now trades at about HK$11.)
That year, Yung took home almost HK$67 million in pay, including a HK$48 million bonus, according to company filings.
CHINA'S RICHEST TYCOON
The silver-haired Yung fit seamlessly into the close-knit ranks of Hong Kong's super rich. He bought Birch Grove in Sussex, the former home of late British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, for a reported 5.5 million pounds in 1989 and spent heavily adding a golf course. The house has since been sold.
Like other tycoons in gambling-mad Hong Kong, Yung invested in champion thoroughbreds and was elected a steward of the prestigious Hong Kong Jockey Club. Club records show 13 Hong Kong horses listed under his ownership won combined prize money of almost HK$100 million. By the time he began scouting for iron ore, China's official media was describing him as the country's richest tycoon.
His connections did him little good in the arid outback. Established players had already scooped up most of the best deposits of hematite, a rich form of iron ore, local miners say.
CITIC had little choice but to invest in plentiful deposits of lower-grade magnetite ore, which then accounted for less than 1 per cent of Australia's iron ore output.
In 2006, after Yung had visited Australia to explore potential investments, CITIC Pacific signed a deal for the right to mine up to 6 billion tonnes from the Pilbara deposit owned by Australian mining entrepreneur Clive Palmer.
Australian officials involved in the discussions say Yung was a confident and polished host. At a meeting in Hong Kong after the signing, Yung told his Australian guests he was flying to South America the following day on his private jet to hunt wild boar.
The Australian government approved the deal in June 2006. Within months, it became clear CITIC Pacific had underestimated the costs of establishing Australia's biggest magnetite mine. There were also unexpected management challenges.
COSTLY, UNRULY AND SCARCE
By Chinese standards, Australian labour is expensive, unruly and in short supply. Government and unions quickly dashed expectations an army of low paid Chinese workers could be imported to build the facility.
That irritated CITIC Pacific managers, who went public with critical views on local working conditions and habits. Then, in the midst of an Australia-wide mining boom, the price of energy, materials and engineering services soared. Complex projects in China had been completed much faster and at lower cost than similar projects in Australia.
"For a Chinese company coming to operate in Australia, this is a big issue," says metallurgical engineer Darryl Harris, a director of Perth-based Indo Mines who has also worked extensively in China. "The trouble is they can't transfer that know-how here."
With costs ballooning at Sino Iron, the Australian dollar began to rise on the back of soaring commodity exports. By July 2008, it had risen 25 percent since work started at the mine, effectively boosting labour and other costs by one-fourth for the company, which had borrowed from Chinese banks.
Facing the prospect of further currency losses, CITIC Pacific entered into a series of leveraged derivative contracts in June and July 2008 to hedge against the rising currency.
They struck deals with a range of banks, including Citibank, Rabobank, Standard Chartered, Natixis, Credit Suisse, Bank of America, Barclays Capital, BNP Paribas, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, China Development Bank, Calyon and Deutsche Bank, according to copies of contracts the company later disclosed.
Just as the contracts were signed, the global financial crisis hammered the Australian dollar in August of 2008, leaving the company holding wrong-way bets.
It wasn't until Sunday, September 7, 2008, five days before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, that Yung and his senior managers learned about the exposure, according to disclosures made later to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. At the time, the Australian dollar was trading at about 81 cents to the U.S. dollar.
CITIC Pacific finally announced six weeks later, on October 20, that it faced losses of up to $2 billion on its hedging. By then, the Australian currency had sunk to 69 cents.
"Needless to say, this is a very unhappy event," Yung told a news conference that day.
POLICE, WATCHDOG INVESTIGATE
Yung blamed finance director Leslie Chang and financial controller Chi Yin-chau for failing to seek his approval for the trades and informing him of the potential risk. Both men had resigned, he added. Hong Kong newspapers later reported Yung's daughter, Frances, was demoted with a pay cut from her position in the finance department.
CITIC Pacific also announced its major shareholder, Beijing-based CITIC Group, had bailed it out with a $1.5 billion loan and would double its stake to 58 per cent in return for absorbing most of its liabilities.
Two days after the company came clean, the Securities and Futures Commission announced it had launched a probe into the delay in informing the market.
After examining documents handed to the market regulator, Hong Kong police mounted a separate probe. On April 3, 2009, detectives raided the CITIC Pacific office. Five days later, Yung and Fan resigned.
In the years since, CITIC Pacific has sparred with investigators. After first saying it would cooperate with the probe, the company began a legal effort to reclaim material handed to the SFC and seized in the police raid.
In two rulings last year, Hong Kong's High Court rejected the company's bid to claim legal privilege over the documents. The court found a prima facie case of conspiracy to defraud and of theft, and ruled the documents, including legal advice, had been produced to facilitate those alleged offences.
From stock exchange filings and court evidence, it is clear that between learning of the scale of its hedging losses on September 7 and informing the market in late October, managers made determined efforts behind the scenes to shore up company finances. Shareholders, however, were not warned
"CONSPIRACY TO DEFRAUD"
On September 16, 2008, CITIC Pacific informed the exchange about two unrelated mainland investments, but did not disclose the hedging losses senior management had learned about more than a week earlier. The board met on September 23 to discuss the crisis and directed its audit committee to begin investigating the hedging contracts, according to the two rulings.
In the following three weeks, the company borrowed HK$250 million from the bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, HK$1 billion from the Bank of China and HK$500 million from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
Resolutions authorizing the borrowing were signed by the board's finance committee, including Larry Yung, Henry Fan, Peter Lee and Leslie Chang, according to evidence police gave the court.
Prosecutors said while securing the loans, CITIC Pacific's board sought legal advice on how long it could delay announcing the losses.
"They wanted to raise money without telling what their true financial position was," prosecutor Charlotte Draycott told the court. "This is a conspiracy to defraud."
In March, CITIC Pacific won a more favourable assessment from the Court of Appeal. It upheld the company's claim that some of the documents were privileged and thus unavailable to the prosecution. The court also disagreed with earlier findings of suspected criminal conduct.
Although police would have preferred to use the documents, the ruling does not undermine the case, people familiar with the investigation told Reuters.
PIPELINE OR PIPEDREAM?
As prosecutors ponder the evidence in Hong Kong, CITIC Pacific is intensifying efforts to end its suffering in the Pilbara.
On a recent day, the 4,000-strong work force raced to bring the mine into production. Plumes of dust whipped away in a hot dry wind as giant bulldozers sent slate-grey ore cascading down a stockpile behind a new power station and processing plant.
A 30-kilometer pipeline that will carry the ore snakes away from the processing complex through low scrub towards the coast at Cape Preston, where the company has built a port.
But even once shipments begin, it may take years for CITIC Pacific to dig itself out of trouble.