China Plans to Let Banks Sell Soured Personal Loans to Ease Risks

China plans to allow some commercial banks to start selling soured personal loans to distressed asset managers as soon as this month, according to people familiar with the matter.

At a December meeting by the official credit assets transfer center, banks and state-run bad-loan managers were asked to accelerate preparations to ensure a smooth start of the trial program in January, said the people, asking not to be identified as the matter is private. Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. could be the first seller, other people said.

Details of the trial are not yet finalized and still subject to approval by the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, said the people.

The move will beef up financial strength at Chinese banks by helping them offload as much as 1 trillion yuan ($155 billion) of non-performing personal loans, according to an estimate by research firm Financial Regulation & Law. China’s total amount of bad loans has climbed to a 17-year high as of Sept. 30 amid the pandemic, eroding banks’ capital and ability to extend new credit to individuals and smaller businesses to revive the economy.

The CBIRC didn’t immediately respond to requests seeking comment, while ICBC declined to comment.

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China’s $45 trillion banking industry suffered its worst profit slump in more than a decade last year after being put on the front-line in helping millions of struggling businesses hurt by the pandemic. With the virus now contained in China and the economy staging a rebound, lenders are being allowed to shift to more prudent loan growth and risk management.

Lenders have been ramping up personal loans, including housing mortgages, unsecured consumer loans, and credit card debt, over the past few years to rival with fintech platforms such as Ant Group Co., which has made it easier for consumers to borrow via its ubiquitous Alipay app. Risks have built up too as latecomers and small banks compete aggressively for customers, often by lowering lending criteria.

Currently, banks often write off such loans when they have gone bad. They can also issue asset-backed securities backed by soured personal loans, though banks still need to be responsible for debt collecting.

Total issuance of such securities amounted to 28.1 billion yuan last year, with 75% of those tied to credit card borrowings and personal mortgage loans.

The new pilot program includes six biggest state-owned commercial banks and 12 joint-stock lenders, as well as the largest distress asset managers and some regional bad-debt management firms, people familiar with the matter said last year.

— With assistance by Charlie Zhu, Zheng Li, and Amanda Wang

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