Relax – Singapore is taking profits on Chinese banks, not dumping failures

Today’s news that Singapore is liquidating $2.5 billion in Chinese bank stock should not alarm traders wary of the sector’s health. If anything, by global standards, these banks are among the most solid in the world — if, of course, you believe the official numbers.

Temasek waited until Bank of China (BACHY, quote) and China Construction Bank (CICHY, quote) announced good but not great earnings to unload the shares.

This looks more like a move to take profits than dump failures. Both stocks are up 10% year to date, narrowly ahead of broad but bank-heavy funds like FXI (quote).

And while neither bank has delivered much in the way of upside surprise in its recent operating results, neither is exactly drowning in toxic loans.

BACHY’s non-performing loans dipped to just 1% of its portfolio in the recent quarter, while credit quality at CICHY looks only minimally less robust.

Granted, in the world of Chinese banking, any bad loan ratio above 0.90% looks bad on a relative basis, and China bears will always be quick to point out that these institutions may be hiding their failures under the guidance of Beijing.

But if these massive institutions are lying to that extent about their assets, then we all have bigger things to worry about than whether Singapore has suddenly discovered trouble in its portfolio.

And how good do these numbers have to be to keep the China bears happy? Brazilian banks are considered world-class as long as they keep their non-performing loan numbers below 5% — five times as bad as what BACHY and CICHY deliver.

Russia’s Sberbank (SBRCY, quote) has won its share of fans despite a default rate well above 6%. Even if you figure that an institution backed by Beijing is just as “too big to fail” as one backed by the Kremlin, the Chinese bank still looks a lot more solid.

There is also a double standard at work here that punishes Asian lenders for anything less than perfection, while rewarding Western institutions that take on huge amounts of risk to beef up their margins. How else do you explain the fact that in South Korea, a default rate of 2% is seen as horrific, while the Brazilian government itself is urging its lenders to take bigger risks?

It would also be a very strange thing for Temasek to panic and dump its Chinese banks barely two weeks after increasing its stake in Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (IDCBY, quote) by roughly $2.3 billion.

Both BACHY and CICHY are still on top of Temasek’s holdings in the financial services sector. And Singapore has made it extremely clear that it plans on expanding its Chinese banking exposure when the right opportunity comes along.

In the past, Temasek has even reversed itself, selling China banks to lock in profits and then buying back in a few weeks or months later.

This is not a sell signal on China or its banks. It’s business as usual among the big players.

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