December 30, 2019 / 10:07 AM / 21 days ago

China rate switch to ease funding costs, but banks not ready to pass cut along

BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s move to change the way banks price loans could help ease funding costs, especially for struggling small firms, although lenders are expected to try to limit the hit to their earnings by not fully passing the cut along.

FILE PHOTO: A man walks past the headquarters of the People's Bank of China (PBOC), the central bank, in Beijing, China September 28, 2018. REUTERS/Jason Lee

The country’s banking stocks .CSI000951 fell as much as 1.5% on Monday, led by Industrial Bank Co Ltd (601166.SS), after news of the benchmark switch over the weekend that is expected to affect the pricing of outstanding loans worth trillions.

China's blue-chip CSI300 Index .CSI300, however, rose more than 1% to an eight-month top as investors expect the policy to reduce corporate borrowing costs.

On Saturday, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) said it will use the loan prime rate (LPR) for pricing existing floating-rate loans starting March 1, extending a reform unveiled in August when the LPR was first applied to new loans.

The revamped LPR, introduced by the PBOC in August, is down 16 basis points and is at 4.15%, while the previous benchmark one-year lending rate has been at 4.35% since October 2015.

“This is an important measure to further push banks towards giving up some profits in favour of the real economy,” said Wang Yifeng, senior analyst at Everbright Securities.

“But since banks have more say in loan pricing, there’ll be resistance,” said Wang, who estimated overall loan pricing would fall about 10 basis points (bps) in 2020.

The switch marks a major move by China to support the economy amid a trade war with the United States.

For nearly two years, policymakers have been trying to cut funding costs for small and private firms that are vital for economic growth and jobs, but have needed to tread cautiously for fear of hurting banks and fanning financial risks.

NEW ANCHOR FOR LOANS WORTH TRILLIONS

Bankers have expressed concerns about the impact on their earnings from the move to a lower rate.

A loan manager at a mid-sized bank said the lender would not lower the rate in the near term.

“For the time being, we will still charge clients based on the previous benchmark rate of 4.35%. The only difference is that we will follow the LPR of 4.15% and add on a risk premium of 20 bps,” said the manager, who was not authorised to speak with media and declined to be identified.

“I think most of the banks will do the same.”

Under the reform, existing floating-rate loans will be shifted to LPR-based pricing over March-August. Nearly 90% of new loans are already benchmarked against the LPR, while existing loans are still priced against the old benchmark.

Outstanding local-currency loans were at 151.97 trillion yuan ($22 trillion) at end-November. The PBOC has not given details of floating and fixed loans, but analysts estimate about 40% of loans would be hit by the switch in the coming months.

ANALYSTS EXPECT MORE EASING

While easing Sino-U.S. trade tensions could relieve pressure on exports, analysts say more policy loosening is needed to cope with weak demand at home and abroad to shore up China’s economic growth that has slowed to the weakest in nearly thirty years.

The PBOC is expected to again cut bank reserve requirements, currently at 13% for major banks, as early as in January to help boost credit and lower banks’ funding costs.

Under the rate regime unveiled in August, the LPR is linked to the medium-term lending facility (MLF), a key policy rate applied to PBOC loans to lenders.

Analysts expect the central bank to cut the MLF by 20-30 bps in 2020, paving the way for a lower LPR.

“We expect PBOC to cut reserve requirement by 100-150 bps along with potential OMO (open market operations) rate cuts in 2020, which will help lower banks’ funding cost,” analysts at Citibank said.

The new loan pricing measure will not affect mortgage rates before 2021, the PBOC said, which analysts said could encourage banks to lend more to home buyers.

Mortgages account for about a quarter of all lending in China, but Beijing is wary of moves that could fuel overheating of the property market.

Beijing has said it will not use the property market to stimulate growth, but analysts expect some marginal easing in coming months.

($1 = 6.9840 Chinese yuan)

Additional reporting by Stella Qiu and Yawen Chen in Beijing, and Samuel Shen in Shanghai; Editing by Tony Munroe and Himani Sarkar

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