China’s Internet Lenders Feel Pain of Economic Slowdown


China’s internet-lending companies face rising credit costs and a tougher environment for new loans due to the country’s slowing economy.

Their performance shows how China’s wider economic problems—which have hurt the largest banks and included defaults at giant property developers—are affecting even companies catering to small borrowers. Although the three have slightly different business models, they all help funnel loans from banks to consumers or the owners of small and midsize enterprises.

Second-quarter net profit at Lufax—by far the biggest of the three, with a market value of around $7.5 billion—was down 38% from a year earlier, while credit-impairment losses more than doubled to $496 million. About 1.7% of its total loans were over 90 days past due, compared with 1.1% a year earlier.

LexinFintech and 360 DigiTech and said their profits fell 79% and 37%, respectively, in the second quarter due to rising bad debts. Lufax and LexinFintech said their new loans fell.

FinVolution Group,


FINV 0.45%

a U.S.-listed Chinese internet lender that targets higher-quality borrowers, had a better quarter, with a 5.7% drop in net profit. But loans 90 days past due rose to 1.6% from 1%.

The rise in delinquency rates has only just begun and will continue in the coming quarters, said Johannes Au, a financial-services analyst at ABCI Securities. The situation is worse for internet lenders than banks, he added, as their borrowers tend to be less creditworthy.

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Lufax declined to comment. LexinFintech, 360 DigiTech and FinVolution didn’t respond to requests for comment.

While banks generally rely on credit scores and income in determining whether to approve a loan, internet lenders use a range of information that can include demographics, location, spending habits and even data on browsing history, obtained from third parties.

A typical consumer loan is usually the equivalent of around $1,400, with a repayment period of around one year. For small-business owners, a loan can be up to $43,000 and two or three years. Most are unsecured, and online lenders tend to charge an interest rate north of 20% to compensate for the risk.

Internet lenders generally don’t make these loans themselves, instead acting as intermediaries between lenders and borrowers. They typically use third-party loan guarantors to reassure lenders, but as the economic slowdown worsens they are facing more pressure to guarantee larger portions of these loans themselves. Lufax, for instance, bore risk on 21.7% of its outstanding balance in the second quarter, up from 16% a year earlier.

Risk-sharing was initially a selling point for internet lenders, which had positioned themselves as capital-light businesses. But some of these companies are under regulatory pressure to increase guarantees, said Alex Ye, a China financials analyst at

UBS.

“Regulators want certain biggest internet lenders to have more skin in the game so that they will be more careful in underwriting the loans,” he said.

Banks and other financial institutions may also ask for more guarantees during difficult times, said Mr. Au of ABCI Securities. But this represents an opportunity as well as a risk—by providing guarantees internet lenders can also generate higher fee income.

To brace for the economic downturn, internet lenders are putting themselves in defensive mode, focusing on risk management instead of loan growth. Yong-Suk Cho, co-chief executive officer and chairman of Lufax, said in a recent earnings conference call that the company will give priority to asset quality over volume growth this year. New loans on its platform decreased by more than 15% in the last quarter.

“We believe that this is the right approach given the risk profile of the borrowers likely has deteriorated,” Goldman Sachs analyst Thomas Wang wrote in a research report. Mr. Wang expects Lufax’s credit impairment to remain high in the second half of this year and 2023.

On top of the economic slowdown, Chinese internet lenders face regulatory challenges that further hurt their share prices. In a push to support small businesses, Chinese authorities have been outlawing high-interest loans. In 2020, China’s Supreme Court lowered the ceiling for private lenders from 24% to four times the one-year loan prime rate—a calculation that now gives a maximum interest rate of 14.6%.

Many internet lenders are spared from the new rule thanks to partnerships with banks, whose cap is still 24%. But that may not be a long-term solution.

“Even though their pricing is already below the cap, small-business loans lenders may be under some regulatory pressure to further lower the loan pricing to support the real economy,” said Mr. Ye of UBS. He believes online lenders eventually will have to become licensed lenders to maintain profits.

Write to Michelle Chan at michelle.chan@wsj.com

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