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Banking Watchdog Probes Loans to Curb Overheating

The China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) on February 8 announced a probe into bank loans in fast-growing sectors like steel and cement in the latest move to prevent the nation's economy from overheating.


The move followed a conference by the State Council, or cabinet, earlier this month, which, analysts say, responded directly for the first time to a months-old debate among economists if excessive investment exists in some industries.


The conference decided to harness the excessive investments in the three sectors of steel, aluminum and cement, where the government believes a recent capacity expansion has far outstripped demand, and low efficiency and serious pollution have become protrusive problems.


The purpose of the CBRC probe, the commission said on February 8, is to get a better picture of bank loans flowing into the steel, aluminum, cement, real estate and automobile sectors and see if banks have done their jobs in delivering funding support to agriculture, credit consumption as well as small- and medium-sized enterprises.


All State-owned commercial banks, joint-stock banks and county-level rural credit cooperatives are required to submit self-appraisal reports to the CBRC by the end of February. The commission will hold its own inspections into financial institutions in March and April, it said.


Signs of overheating raised concerns among many economists and government officials as early as the first half of last year, while others feared constrictive measures would backfire by derailing the rapid economic growth that is key to generating new jobs for workers laid off from the State sector.


China's economy grew by 9.1 percent last year despite the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak, the fastest pace since 1997 when the Asian financial crisis struck.


In a report to the State Council at the end of last year, the State Development and Reform Commission (SDRC) proposed measures to prevent further investment excesses in steel, cement and aluminum, sources said.


The rapid capacity expansion in recent years, with thousands of new plants mushrooming mostly in the northern and eastern parts of the country, has distorted industrial structures, the report said.


But the expansion has benefited manufacturers in those sectors, although analysts say the robust growth in profits is hardly sustainable.


Profits at the nation's 39 major metallurgical firms jumped by 93 percent last year on a year-on-year basis, official statistics indicated last week.


Sources said the State Council would soon send investigators to key regions to ensure that corrective measures are implemented. The investigators are mainly from the SDRC, land resources and environmental authorities as well as the People's Bank of China, the central bank.


The environmental and land resources authorities are reportedly drafting stricter rules on approving new steel, aluminum and cement projects.


In the middle of last year, the central bank made the nation's first governmental effort to prevent economic overheating, imposing stricter lending rules on real estate to prevent excessive investment.


A few months later, it announced its first hike in bank reserve requirements in recent years in an effort to slow down rapid monetary growth, a move that prompted worries that this measure would undermine the momentum of the nation's economic growth.


Before the government moved, commercial banks had already revised their lending policies in an effort to steer clear of the investment bubble. Among them, the Minsheng Banking Corporation issued stricter rules on lending to steel firms at the end of last year after its quantitative analysis on the sector detected signs of overheating.


(China Daily February 9, 2004)


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