Banker’s apparent suicide brings attention to China’s troubled lenders

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The recent death of a Chinese rural bank’s chairman has put the spotlight on the troubles that small lenders in the country face as authorities clean up the financial sector in the world’s second-largest economy.

Yin Jinbao, who was reportedly found dead in his office on May 26 with slits on both his wrists, joined the board of Tianjin Rural Commercial Bank in July 2017 and became chairman in November. Before that, he was a director at Tianjin Binhai Rural Commercial Bank for four years.

Local state media said police had ruled out homicide in their initial investigation of Yin’s death. CNBC reached out to Tianjin police for comment, but has not heard back.

Both the banks Yin worked at are controlled by the local government in Tianjin, a port city in northeastern China that’s home to around 15.5 million people. Rural commercial banks are a category of small lenders in the country set up to support the agriculture sector and small and micro firms in the rural areas.

Yin’s suspected suicide came at a time when Chinese authorities have stepped up their inspection at troubled state-controlled companies. A May 2 notice by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said investigation teams had been dispatched to 22 state firms in Tianjin, including the two banks at which Yin worked.

Several reports by Chinese media outlets suggested Yin’s death could be related to the ongoing probe. Caixin Global, for one, quoted a source close to Tianjin Binhai Rural Commercial Bank saying Yin “could not bear the pressure of the investigation once problems began to surface.”

Tianjin Rural Commercial Bank and Tianjin Binhai Rural Commercial Bank did not respond to CNBC’s requests for comment.

The 2017 annual reports of both lenders revealed above-average levels of bad loans and the struggle to remain financially strong.

Tianjin Rural Commercial Bank reported a 9.3 percent fall in revenue in 2017 but its net profit jumped 21.9 percent. Tianjin Binhai fared worse: Its revenue and net profit slumped by 46.3 percent and 41.8 percent, respectively.

Bad debt was 2.48 percent of overall loans at Tianjin, and 2.29 percent at Tianjin Binhai — higher than the national level of 1.74 percent for 2017.

The banks’ financial standing contrasted with larger peers such as Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, which saw profitability and asset quality improve last year as China doubled down on efforts to cut excessive debt and risky financial undertakings.

“The main takeaway from FY17 is that size matters especially in the context of efforts to reduce systemic debt and financial risk,” analysts from CreditSights wrote in an April note after China’s listed banks reported their 2017 earnings.

They explained that larger banks have a more stable base of deposits and can choose to lend to companies with stronger finances. Meanwhile, many small banks borrow at high interest rates from their mega peers for funding and have more exposure to risky shadow activities.

Both Tianjin and Tianjin Binhai are small, private companies very rarely covered by research houses and rating agencies. Details of their business activities are therefore scarce, but the latter made headlines several times over the last few years for its financial problems.

In 2014, the bank had illegally used company money to buy off-balance sheet asset management products issued by Hengfeng bank, according to a report by Caixin Global. It was also one of the creditors for Bohai Steel Group, which struggled with its 192 billion yuan ($29.95 billion) debt.

Rural commercial banks such as Tianjin and Tianjin Binhai account for 13 to 14 percent of the total assets and liabilities in China’s banking system, according to statistics by the China Banking Regulatory Commission. They may be small, but they could pose risks to China’s economic progress, a Financial Times opinion piece noted in May.

Such banks depend highly on their local economy to keep their businesses going. Tianjin province, for its part, recorded the smallest growth among China’s 29 municipalities and regions last year. It grew 3.6 percent in 2017, which was down sharply from the 9 percent in the previous year.

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