China’s monetary authorities to keep bank credits on tap to help companies survive the business slump caused by the coronavirus outbreak

Pearl Liu

China’s central bank and financial regulators have offered additional funds to banks, prodding them to help manufacturers and businesses pull through an economy that is being hobbled by the twin burdens of a trade war and the nation’s worst health crisis in nearly two decades.

The bank regulator will ensure that small and medium enterprises (SMEs) get access to the 537 billion yuan (US$77 billion) of credit lined up to help them pull through the business slump caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the China Banking & Insurance Regulatory Commission (CBIRC) said during a press conference in Beijing.

Companies that can restart production as soon as possible when their workers return from their extended Lunar New Year holiday, will receive the support of the People’s Bank of China, to the extent that a “small increase” of non-performing loans owed to banks will be “tolerated,” the central bank said at the same press conference.

“A financial credit support [system] has been offered to enterprises, while help for areas hit hard by the novel coronavirus has been strengthened,” the CBIRC’s vice-chairman Liang Tao said.

The joint press conference, also attended by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) is the latest round of state support that has been lined up to prevent the world’s second-largest economy from going into a tailspin. Economic growth, which already slowed to 6 per cent in the fourth quarter, is likely to sputter further in the three months ending in March, as an estimated 50 million workers were homebound since late January amid a viral outbreak, disrupting production of everything from clothing to toys and crucial components.

The viral outbreak, which sickened more than 66,000 people in mainland China and killed more than 1,500, has put consumer demand under pressure, and exerted a burden on price stability because of the delay in full production, said the Chinese central bank’s deputy governor Fan Yifei.

“The People’s Bank of China’s monetary stance is unchanged, and it will maintain a prudent monetary policy,” Fan said. “We will take measures to deal with problems immediately, and we are confident that it will not lead to large-scale inflation in China.”

Infographic: All you need to know about the global coronavirus outbreak

About 85 per cent of small and medium enterprises would collapse within three months if they did not receive and financial infusion, according to a survey by the Peking and Tsinghua universities, covering 995 SMEs in the country.

The financial regulators are taking no chances, instructing the nation’s state-owned lenders to keep their financial taps open to help manufacturers and service providers pull through, as their businesses dissipated. Similar relief programmes are in place in Hong Kong.

The People’s Bank of China injected 1.7 trillion yuan into the financial system early this month and is expected to continue liquidity support through open market operations.

The Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), the country’s biggest lender, said last Tuesday that it has issued 43 billion yuan of loans since January 24 to combat the outbreak and help companies resume production.

The banking regulator would allow for a “grace period” for unpaid loans to be kept off banks’ books, the CBIRC said. The regulator said it would be “flexible” in its regulatory reviews of banks whose borrowers were affected by the coronavirus outbreak, known as Covid-19. It would also accelerate lending and credit support for key investment projects, while supporting small and private firms hit by the virus outbreak.

“We have been prepared in the bad loans … and are confident to deal with the related problems in a stable way,” said Fan.

Workers make masks at a mask producing factory in Zhangpu county in Fujian province on January 25, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

China is bearing the brunt of the global coronavirus outbreak, which can be traced to the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan, as 99 per cent of the afflicted and fatalities had occurred within the country. Still, 600 people in 28 countries and regions from Egypt to Sweden had caught the virus.

The current epidemic has surpassed the 2003 outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome, or Sars, with five times the number of infected patients. The outbreak 17 years ago wiped 2 percentage points off China’s quarterly economic growth pace, slowing the economy from 11.1 per cent in the first quarter when the disease was reported, to 9.1 per cent in the subsequent three months.

As the virus has spread from Wuhan, authorities have taken unprecedented steps to control the outbreak, locking down more than a dozen cities in Hubei province alone. Elsewhere in China, citizens had been ordered to work from home, while public space from cinemas to Walt Disney’s theme park in Shanghai were instructed to shut.

China’s December inflation accelerated in January, with the Consumer Price Index (CPI) rising 5.4 per cent from a year earlier, faster than December’s 4.5 per cent increase, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. January’s gauge, coinciding with the Lunar New Year shopping season, was the highest point since October 2011.

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