China to loosen banks’ bad debt limits to boost virus-hit firms

China’s regulators say they plan to speed up lending for key projects to stimulate the economy.

Employees work on a production line manufacturing face masks at a factory, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Fuzhou
China is trying to keep its economy from experiencing a sharp slowdown as the numbers of infections and deaths from the coronavirus outbreak rises [Third party via Reuters]

China’s central bank said on Saturday that the country’s lenders will tolerate higher levels of bad loans, part of efforts to support companies hit by the coronavirus epidemic.

“We will support qualified firms so that they can resume work and production as soon as possible, helping maintain stable operations of the economy and minimising the epidemic’s impact,” Fan Yifei, a vice governor at the People’s Bank of China, told a news conference.

He added that the problem will be manageable as China has a relatively low bad-loan ratio.

Liang Tao, vice chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, told the same briefing that lending for key investment projects will be sped up.

Separately, Xuan Changneng, vice head of the country’s foreign exchange regulator, said China was expected to maintain a small current account surplus and keep a basic balance in international payments.

More than 2,600 new cases of coronavirus infections were confirmed in mainland China, health officials said on Saturday, a day after people returning to the capital from holidays were ordered to quarantine themselves for 14 days.

At least two economists at government-linked think-tanks have projected a loss of up to one percentage point from China’s growth rate in the first quarter of 2020 and even for the full year, a potentially troubling development for an economy that was already slowing down.

China’s economy grew by 6.1 percent over the whole of 2019, its slowest expansion since 1990. For the fourth quarter, gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 6.0 percent compared with the same period a year earlier.

Some economists say China’s debt burden could limit its ability to stimulate the economy.

“Corporate debt defaults jumped in 2019 and another spike is likely this year,” Enodo Economics said in a research note emailed to Al Jazeera.

“Smaller banks have been stumbling in quick succession since May, with one failed bank, two bailouts and a number of localised bank runs,” it added. “Beijing knows it needs to get to grips with its debt problems, and 2020 was shaping up to be a year of decisive bank recapitalisation as well as sector consolidation. Now, the impact of the Wuhan coronavirus on the economy looks set to make China’s debt problems worse.”

Research firm S&P Global said in a report in June 2019 that rural Chinese banks face a particularly large problem of bad debts, known as non-performing loans.

“China’s rural commercial banks, whose asset quality is the poorest among the nation’s lenders, could be sitting on even more bad loans amid a slowing economy and potentially tighter rules on debt classification,” S&P said.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies

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