China's Worst Banking Stock Last Year Is the Best Performer This Year

(Bloomberg) -- Ping An Bank Co., China’s worst banking stock last year, is now the best performer as investors bet that the lender’s strength in retail banking will shelter it from the nation’s economic slowdown.

Shares of Ping An Bank rose 39 percent in 2019, the biggest gain on the CSI 300 Banks Index, erasing last year’s 29 percent loss. The rally stoked demand for its 26 billion yuan ($3.9 billion) convertible bond sale, which received orders for nearly 1,400 times the amount on offer. Analysts say the bull run may yet continue.

While Chinese banks are benefiting across the board from policy makers’ pledge for capital and regulatory support, Ping An Bank and China Merchants Bank Co. are being particularly rewarded for their focus on retail banking. The Shenzhen-based lenders dominate the sector, where competition is less fierce and returns higher than those in corporate lending.

“Investors are willing to pay a premium to retail banking especially in the economic downturn because it’s less cyclical than wholesale banking,” said Liao Chenkai, a Shanghai-based analyst at Capital Securities Ltd. “Ping An and China Merchants Bank have a lot in common. But the latter trades at a much higher premium, which I believe reflects its fair value, so that means Ping An shares can go up more.”

China's Worst Banking Stock Last Year Is the Best Performer This Year

China Merchants Bank, known as the nation’s king of retail-banking, traded at 1.6 times its forecast price to book, compared with about 1 for Ping An Bank and the banking gauge’s average level of 0.8, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Tianfeng Securities Co. estimates that return on risk-weighted assets for China Merchants Bank’s retail operation was 3.7 percent, compared with 2.6 percent for the overall business.

Ping An Bank began transitioning from corporate to consumer banking in late 2016, years later than China Merchants Bank, when retail contributed just 41 percent of its profit. The share rose to 68 percent by September 2018, and Ping An Bank’s bad-loan ratio of its retail operations stood at 1.05 percent, lower than the 2.49 percent for corporate lending. Yet, Ping An Bank’s return on equity, a key measure of profitability, is 11 percent, below the sector’s average of 13.3 percent, as it continues the transition.

Ping An Bank results and outlook:

  • Fourth-quarter net income beat market expectations, triggering the rally among mid-sized banks
  • Profit growth may outpace peers this year; China International Capital Corp. forecasts 17.6 percent gain compared with average 9.4 percent for all China-listed banks
  • Tianfeng Securities has a buy rating on Ping An Bank; sees stock rising to 15.85 yuan from 12.95 yuan now

“By providing earnings stability and being less capital consuming, retail banking is the bright spot,” Tianfeng analysts led by Liao Zhiming wrote in a recent note.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.