Some of China’s largest banks are offering a lower interest rate on long-term deposits compared to short-term deposits, as the lack of quality lending opportunities indicates a sustained slowdown in the engine of global economic growth.
China’s four major state-owned lenders, led by the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, began in June to set the interest rate on three-year deposits up to 40 basis points higher than those on five-year deposits. Several other domestic lenders, including China Merchants Bank, put rates at the same level.
Savers normally earn more interest the longer they tie up their money. An inverted yield curve is a closely watched signal of recession risk in Treasury markets.
While China’s Treasury yield curve is normal, officials said the reversal in savings rates indicated the country’s savers had poor long-term prospects. “We are ready for China’s economy to continue to cool in the coming years,” said a senior official at one of the country’s big four banks.
The inversion in savings rates followed a surge in bank deposits as Chinese savers scrambled to find a safe haven for their assets and an economic slowdown weighed on personal spending. China’s economy narrowly escaped a contraction in the second quarter, expanding 0.4% year-on-year in the three months to the end of June.
Official data showed new household deposits rose by more than a third year-on-year to a record Rmb 10.3 billion ($1.5 billion) in the first half of 2022, while borrowing individual banks fell by more than half over the same period.
“Deposits are gaining popularity as people’s risk tolerance decreases,” said Dong Ximiao, chief researcher at Merchants Union Consumer Finance in Shenzhen.
Turmoil in China’s property market and slow recovery in infrastructure construction weighed on demand for long-term loans that are expected to be matched by deposits of similar duration.
Long-term property development lending fell by a quarter in the first half of 2022 from a year ago after a wave of property companies, led by industry champions including Evergrande, failed to have not repaid their debts. Home sales have barely recovered from a government crackdown on real estate speculation.
Infrastructure construction, another major source of long-term credit, is also lagging as indebted local governments, the main funder of roads and bridges, struggle to raise capital.
“The era of cutthroat competition for deposits is over,” said another official from one of the big state lenders. “Our top priority is how to lend money without incurring a pile of bad debt.”
ICBC, the nation’s largest bank by assets, pays an annual return of 3.15% for deposits over three years and 2.75% over five years.
As the inverted yield curve signals further economic slowdown in the coming years, some analysts expect Beijing to ease credit controls in a bid to reverse the trend.
Ming Ming, an economist at Citic Securities, said the anomaly could disappear as China’s central bank implements more stimulus measures, such as reductions in reserve requirements.
But a Beijing-based senior economist at one of the Big Four banks said the reversal could continue, with Beijing’s zero Covid policy and sustained housing market turmoil undermining economic recovery from the lockdown.
“It will take a long time to restore confidence in the Chinese economy,” the economist said.