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HONG KONG -- For Chinese banks, the decision to lend to companies such as Bohai Steel was for years a no-brainer. Lenders took heart from its state backing, which appeared as solid as the millions of tons of steel pipes that rolled off its production lines each year.

That ironclad image is now tarnished. Plunging demand and a worsening glut in production capacity have left Bohai Steel struggling to repay as much as $30 billion in debt. Worried creditors -- more than 100 of them -- are locked in negotiations with the company and local officials.

China's bad loans are on the rise, as companies that borrowed heavily in headier times struggle against a slowing Chinese economy. Underscoring the slowdown, China said Friday that growth in the first three months of this year fell to 6.7 percent, a seven-year low. Growth might have been even slower had China not revved up lending during the quarter -- a solution that could add to debt problems later on.

The stakes are high for banks and for the Communist Party, which ultimately controls a large portion of China's economy.

China's total local currency loans have more than tripled since the start of 2009, to about $15 trillion at the end of March, according to official Chinese figures from CEIC, a data provider. That is equal to 144 percent of China's gross domestic product in the 12 months to the end of March -- relatively high for China's level of development, and still rising. In January, Goldman Sachs said other countries that experienced similar debt run-ups faced either financial crises or prolonged slowdowns.

Defaults tend not to pose a risk to individual Chinese banks because the government is perceived as standing behind them. But a chain of defaults could lead to a pullback in lending that could crimp China's economic output, said Anne Stevenson-Yang, a co-founder of J Capital Research.

"Companies that default are not individually all that important," she said. "But if you allow them to default categorically, then you are sending a message that this-and-that type of debt can default, and people stop lending."

Profit growth at China's biggest state-owned banks stalled in the first three months of the years as bad loans mounted. Bad loans as a share of their total portfolio remains low, at less than 2.5 percent, but economists believe the figure understates the problem because banks often extend the payment dates for problem debt.

Bohai Steel has not disclosed details of its debt, and it is unclear which banks might be affected. But it regularly did business with China's biggest state-run banks, as well as local and regional banking groups also tied to the state.

Since the beginning of this year, company executives have lobbied for more support from banks, as slowing growth and a building slump have reduced China's demand for steel. In January it met with officials from China Bohai Bank, a lender that like Bohai Steel counts the city of Tianjin as a major shareholder. At the meeting, according to a statement from Bohai Steel, Yan Zesheng, general manager of Bohai Steel Group, said he hoped the bank would "continue to offer robust financial support" to the company.

Over the years, the company stressed its ties to lenders including the Bank of China, Industrial Bank and Citic Bank, among others, according to statements on its website. In 2013, the company said, it received a roughly $4.6 billion line of credit from Bank of China. A recent article in Caixin, a respected Chinese financial news outlet, said Bohai Steel's 105 creditors included at least three local banks in Tianjin and Beijing that were each owed more than $1.5 billion.

One of those lenders identified by Caixin, the Bank of Tianjin, raised nearly $1 billion in a Hong Kong public offering last month. The bank's listing document did not mention Bohai Steel but said that nonperforming corporate loans -- or loans that had gone sour -- rose 46 percent between the end of 2014 and September 2015, the most recent data available. It cited the Chinese economy and problems in the steel industry.

Neither Bohai Steel nor the banks responded to requests for comment.

Business on 04/16/2016

Print Headline: Chinese banks feel strain of bad debt as economy slows

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