How the World’s Biggest Bank Helps Investors Understand China

BEIJING (TheStreet) -- A good sense of where the Chinese economy is growing -- and where Chinese company stock investors should put their money -- emerged this week with the latest financial report filed by the world's biggest bank.

State-controlled Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (IDCBF) posted a 7.2% gain in net profits for the first half, year-on-year, to about $24 billion, according to the report released in Hong Kong, where ICBC stock is traded.

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That in itself wasn't big news, since China's state banks often report decent earnings. Wealth-building is easy for ICBC, thanks to generous government support and total assets of about $3.3 trillion, including $2.3 trillion in corporate and personal deposits. Earnings from loan interest alone jumped 12% over the same period in 2013 to more than $48 billion.

More significant were notes in the report about ICBC's stepped-up business lending in the service sector and accelerated support for Chinese companies that do business abroad. Also noted was the bank's decision to spend $1.7 billion on stakes in banks in Taiwan, Turkey and South Africa.

Growth in China's service sector -- which now accounts for about half of the nation's gross domestic product -- has been particularly focused on financing, insurance and Internet-related companies in recent months.

Banks including ICBC and state-owned colleagues China Construction Bank  (CICHF) and Agricultural Bank of China (ACGBY) have been recommended by Chinese analysts in recent weeks for profiting from rising fee income and an easing of liquidity restrictions by Beijing regulators.

China's ongoing shift to a consumer-led economy and away from exports has also been a boon to insurance companies accessible to U.S. investors, including CNinsure  (CISG) , China Life (LFC) and Ping An  (PIAIF) .

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Banks and insurers have over the past year built new customer service and marketing channels on the Internet, following the lead of online retailers and platforms that list in the U.S., such as Dangdang (DANG) , JD.com (JD) and Alibaba. CNinsure, for example, operates a Web sales platform for travel, property and other types of insurance used by 20 other insurers including Ping An.

ICBC said 82% of all transactions are now handled electronically. Its online clientele grew to 180 million Internet and 135 million mobile Internet banking customers in the first half. Yet the report also said a stronger push into Internet financing and related services was an "urgent requirement" for the bank.

The bank also has ideas about the future of China's business development.

The report said the bank is also throwing its weight behind a "go global" campaign for Chinese businesses. No companies were named, but Chinese auto manufacturers, construction firms and oil companies have been leading a charge into Africa, South America, the Middle East and Central Asia.

Geely Automotive  (GELYF) , the parent of Sweden's Volvo since buying the car maker from Ford  (F) in 2010, is going global. In addition to recently announced plans to start building export-ready Volvos in China, Geely has pushed into South America by opening an assembly plant in Uruguay last year.

Iraq, Egypt and Ethiopia are among the countries where small-car maker BYD (BYDDF) runs factories. It's also reportedly looking at a plant in Saudi Arabia. Other Chinese car makers expanding abroad include Chery, Great Wall and Jac Motors.

In a speech last week, ICBC Chairman Jiang Jianqing mentioned the bank's work in backing Chinese companies in Africa, which he called a "huge market opportunity" for steel, appliances, cars and cement.

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Other examples of ICBC's overseas push cited in the report include:

-- An April agreement to buy 75% of a bank in Turkey called Tekstil Bankasi for about $309 million.

-- A takeover that closed in January for 60% of South Africa's Standard Bank for $770 million.

-- A $626 million deal for a 20% stake in Taiwan's Bank SinoPac, pending approval by authorities in Beijing and Taipei.

At the time of publication, the author held no positions in any of the stocks mentioned.

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This article is commentary by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.


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