Chinese banks are taking extraordinary measures to avoid recognizing bad loans, seeking to shield themselves and cash-strapped borrowers from the economic fallout of the coronavirus outbreak.
Some of the measures, which include rolling over loans to companies at risk of missing payment deadlines and relaxing guidelines on how to categorize overdue debt, have the explicit approval of regulators in Beijing. Some lenders are also refraining from reporting delinquencies to the country’s centralized credit-scoring system and allowing borrowers to skip interest payments for as long as six months, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be named discussing internal decisions.
Earlier this month, S&P said a prolonged health emergency could cause China’s non-performing loan ratio to more than triple to about 6.3%, amounting to an increase of 5.6 trillion yuan ($800 billion) in bad debt.
Shares of Chinese banks continued to under-performer the benchmark index this year in Hong Kong. The four biggest state-owned banks are trading at an average 0.5 times their estimated book value for this year, near the record low.
The NPL measures mark an abrupt shift in China’s approach toward financial regulation. Authorities in Beijing have spent the past three years trying to instill more discipline in the banking system and develop credit markets that more accurately price risk. As part of that effort, they’ve encouraged banks to be more diligent when accounting for bad loans.
China isn’t the only country to have relaxed accounting standards for banks during a crisis. In April 2009, during the depths of the global recession, mark-to-market rules in the U.S. were eased after banks complained that they resulted in bigger-than-warranted writedowns on thinly traded mortgage securities. While critics of the decision said it reduced transparency, it arguably helped big American lenders recover more quickly from the crisis.