HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hit by bad loans, Chinese banks are expected to show a weakening in their capital strength in first-half earnings, raising the prospect that government might have to inject more than $100 billion to shore them up, according to some analysts.
There are early signs that government is already taking action to help some of the smaller banks, which are struggling to maintain their capital ratios as China's economy slows, interest margins fall, and bad debts climb.
"We believe the recapitalisation and bailout process is already discretely underway. However, it has gone unnoticed as it has started with the smaller, unlisted banks," said Jason Bedford, sector analyst with UBS.
"We expect this process to accelerate sharply in 2017, particularly among listed joint stock banks," Bedford told Reuters, adding closing the capital shortfall would require an infusion of $172 billion.
The largest banks, including Agricultural Bank of China Ltd (601288.SS) and Bank of Communications Co Ltd (601328.SS), start reporting earnings this week, and brokerage Daiwa estimates sector-wide profit growth in the first six months of 2016 will remain at just 0.7 percent.
In the April-June quarter, the banking sector's core capital adequacy ratio, on average, declined by an average 27-28 basis points from the preceding quarter, Daiwa said in a report, citing data released by the regulator.
Bedford said in a report earlier this month that fundraising by smaller banks was partly driven by local government pressure to maintain credit growth and cushion the economic slowdown.
At the same time, the banking regulator wants banks to clean up their balance sheets by providing more for doubtful loans and cutting exposure to shadow lending, which for weaker banks could require extra capital or mergers with the strong.
While the country's top five banks had a substantial capital buffer of around 14 percent at the end of 2015, smaller banks are sailing much closer to the wind, putting the sector's weighted average Tier 1 capital at 10.69 percent at end-June, down from 10.96 percent a quarter earlier.
That is barely above the 10.5 percent minimum that the banks in China would need to achieve by 2018.
China Banking Regulatory Commission did not respond to requests for comment.
Roshan Padamadan, equities fund manager with Singapore-based Luminance Global Fund, expects China's banks will need about $100 billion a year over the next few years, while Wei Hou, senior equity analyst for China banks at research firm Sanford C. Bernstein in Hong Kong, estimates they will need $75 billion over the next year.
"If ... government or the bank management teams decide to take a big bet and write off most of the bad loans in the next year or two, then that will create much higher capital pressure for mid and smaller banks," Hou added.
Chinese banks' non-performing loans are at nearly 2 percent, the highest since the global financial crisis in 2009, according to the CBRC, but some analysts believe the ratio could be between 15 and 35 percent, as many banks are slow to recognise problem loans or park them off balance sheet.
Not all analysts think the banks will need government cash.
Of the 10 China-focused analysts and fund managers who spoke to Reuters, three, including a leading global credit rating agency, said the lenders could avoid it by repackaging non-performing loans into marketable securities.
If they do need funding, however, they will struggle to persuade private investors to part with their cash, as most Chinese bank shares are trading below the book value of their assets, and rating agencies have a negative outlook on the sector.
That leaves government on the hook for capital shortfalls, a phenomenon reminiscent of the bailouts seen in the West after the global financial crisis of 2008.
The mechanisms for getting government cash into the banks are already being limbered up.
In recent months company filings show at least half a dozen listed banks including China Everbright Bank, China Minsheng bank and Bank of Beijing (601169.SS) have received approval for raising capital, mainly through preference shares.
Analysts say the shares are likely to be taken up by state-backed insurance firms and provincial governments.
Mid-tier lender Industrial Bank (601166.SS) last month raised $3.9 billion via a private placement of shares from provincial governments and state-owned China Tobacco.
And at the weekend online financial magazine Caixin said Bohai Steel Group, the indebted state-owned conglomerate whose creditors include the Bank of Beijing, may receive help from a local government bailout fund to restructure its debts.
"Banks are set to write off (bad debts) with ... provisions, or perhaps to try other market measures, such as securitisation or asset management companies," said Qinwei Wang, an economist at London-based asset manager Pioneer Investments.
"Should this not be enough, governments and the PBOC (People's Bank of China) are ultimately expected to step in," he said.
Additional reporting by Shu Zhang in Beijing, Tripti Kalro in Bangalore and Julie Zhu in Hong Kong; Editing by Will Waterman