* NPLs remain low due to fresh money from inland areas
* ICBC, CCB, AgBank’s NPL ratios fell last year
* China’s “Big Four” post smallest profit growth since going public (Recasts throughout)
HONG KONG, March 27 (Reuters) - China’s top banks, led by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd (ICBC), reported benign bad-loan ratios as brisk lending in fast-growing inland regions countered souring loans to overheated sectors on the country’s eastern coast.
A cooling Chinese economy has raised expectations of a spike in bad loans, mainly stemming from a massive 4-trillion-yuan ($644.02 billion) government stimulus programme during the global financial crisis that led to overinvestment in the real estate and infrastructure industries.
Yet all of the so-called “Big Four” banks - including China Construction Bank Corp (CCB), Agricultural Bank of China Ltd (AgBank) and Bank of China Ltd (BOC) - posted bad loan ratios that were mostly flat or down in their 2012 earnings statements.
“I get a lot of pushback for saying this, but there will not be a banking crisis in China,” said Jim Antos, an analyst at Mizuho Securities in Hong Kong. “I’ve seen many debt crises in my career, and this is not one of them.”
ICBC, the world’s biggest bank by market value, said on Wednesday that its non-performing loan (NPL) ratio slipped to 0.85 percent at end-2012 from 0.94 percent the previous year. CCB and AgBank said earlier that their NPL ratios fell 1 basis point, while BOC’s rose just 1 basis point.
“Bad loans are very concentrated in a few areas, mainly in the manufacturing and export sectors,” said CCB’s Chief Risk Officer Huang Zhiliang. “Those are both industries most heavily reliant on the external economy. When things stabilise, bad loans will stabilise too.”
Bad loans have mostly been concentrated in the Yangtze River Delta, which includes Shanghai and the export-oriented city of Wenzhou, according to the banks.
CCB, which has the highest exposure to the real estate sector among the four lenders, saw impairment losses more than double to 18 billion yuan in the Yangtze River Delta last year.
Sanford Bernstein analyst Mike Werner said the overall NPL ratio had not yet increased as many of China’s inland provinces were still growing quickly, helping to offset the rising tide of bad loans in the overheated coastal regions.
“Although China’s GDP has slowed, we don’t expect NPLs to rise for at least two years,” Werner said.
Strong deposit growth also helped cushion the effects of two central bank rate cuts last year.
At ICBC, deposits increased more than 10 percent, mirroring similar gains at the other lenders, helped by sales of short-term wealth management products that are automatically converted to cash and deposited into investors’ regular accounts.
ICBC said it issued more than 500 new wealth management products in 2012 with a total value exceeding 1 trillion yuan, helping to boost new deposits by 1.2 trillion yuan.
Wealth management products have taken off in the past five years as Chinese investors look for investment choices other than real estate or the country’s roller-coaster stock markets.
Net profit at ICBC grew 14.5 percent last year, the bank said on Wednesday after the Hong Kong market close, beating analyst estimates.
But the earnings growth was the slowest since the global financial crisis as the Chinese economy lost momentum.
That was in line with its three smaller rivals, all of which also reported their worst earnings growth since going public.
“There will be some pressure on our margins up to June this year, especially in the first quarter,” said ICBC President Yang Kaisheng, adding that the bank’s net interest margin fell 4 basis points in January-February from end-December.
ICBC’s Hong Kong-listed shares are down about 1 percent so far this year, matching a similar decline on the benchmark Hang Seng Index. ($1 = 6.2110 Chinese yuan) (Reporting by Kelvin Soh; Editing by Ryan Woo)