By CAROLINE HENSHAW And RHIANNON HOYLE
SYDNEY-Chinese banks such as the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. (1398.HK), or ICBC, are muscling into Australia's syndicated loan market, seeking to replace Europe's debt-laden lenders as they retrench in the Pacific nation.
Asian banks-mainly Chinese and Japanese-accounted for about 21% of new syndicated loan issuance in Australia in the year-to-date, up 4% from a year earlier, according to data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch. All of that growth has been clawed from European lenders, which have halved their exposure, research from the bank shows.
"Australia is definitely an important market for us," said Han Ruixiang, the Sydney-based head of Australian operations for ICBC, the world's largest lender by market value. "We are now growing more our bilateral relations lending directly to corporate customers."
Syndicated loans, which require several banks to provide capital, are the most common form of finance for large scale mining and energy projects in Australia. The government expects that resources projects already envisaged will require $450 billion Australian dollars (US$451.4 billion) of capital to complete. China accounts for more than 60% of Australia's exports of mainly iron ore and coal and is the country's largest trading partner, but now Chinese banks see an opportunity to build their presence in a market traditionally dominated by local and European rivals.
"We have a strong interest in resource deals but we're not focusing only on them; as a commercial bank we lend across the board," said Mr. Han.
Up to the end of April, ICBC's gross Australian loans and advances totaled A$859 million (US$860 million), up almost a third from a year ago, according to data from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, or APRA. Mr. Han said that ICBC plans to stay in the market for corporate banking, rather than competing with Australia's dominant domestic retail banks.
ICBC is 70% owned by the Chinese government. It is China's largest bank, with US$2.5 trillion in assets, compared with US$2.3 trillion in assets for the largest U.S. bank, J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM). Its drive in Australia comes as the bank seeks to more than double the share of profits coming from overseas operations in the next five years, to 10%, from the current 4%.
The Beijing-based lender has provided capital for the A$5.7 billion development of the desalination plant in the state of Victoria, the A$3.2 renovation of the Royal Adelaide Hospital and a major coal loading projects in the port city of Newcastle and Queensland state as part of roughly A$15 billion worth of business it has financed in Australia since 2008, said Mr. Han.
ICBC is not alone amongst Chinese lenders targeting Australia. Over the same period, China Construction Bank Corp. (0939.HK) made its entry into the Australian loan market, with A$80 million of debt on its books by April 30, compared to zero a year before, APRA data showed.
Bank of China Ltd. (3988.HK) increased its gross loans and advances by a quarter to A$5.12 billion up to the end of April. The bank's Australian arm says it is focused on providing syndicated loans to "market leaders" here, having already been involved in loans for major Australian companies like telecommunications operator Telstra Corp. (TLS.AU), miner Rio Tinto Ltd. (RIO.AU) and energy provider Origin Energy Ltd. (ORG.AU).
Infrastructure finance via syndicated debt was found to be a primary target of Chinese banks in a study by KPMG and the University of Sydney China Studies Centre last year.
"Chinese and Japanese banks, they are really following and supporting their clients into the Australian resources industry, and filling the gaps left by the withdrawal of the European banks," said Andrew Dickinson, a partner in KPMG's Australian Financial Services division.
European banks have downsized their Australian operations as Europe's debt crisis has worsened. Royal Bank of Scotland Group PLC (RBS) relocated its local fixed income, commodity and currency operations earlier this year, while many other European lenders have quietly cut back activities in more capital-intensive areas, such as lending. Syndicated debt is a prime example. Banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland, Barclays PLC (BCS), France's BNP Paribas SA (BNP.FR), Credit Agricole SA (ACA.FR) and Germany's WestLB AG before global financial crisis accounted for about a third of the local syndicated loan market, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch data.
RBS and London-headquarter HSBC Holdings PLC are the only European lenders to feature in the top 10 syndicated debt tables for Australia, although no Chinese banks features in the ratings either.
Write to Rhiannon Hoyle at email@example.com