China’s Big Four banks cut jobs as tech takes toll on tellers

Technology and slowing growth reduce need for frontline staff but demand still big for specialists in analysis and risk management, observers say

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 7:50pm

China’s big four state-owned banks quietly slashed roughly 19,000 jobs last year, as mobile phones and automated services cut the need for tellers.

Just a few years ago the four lenders – Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank, Agricultural Bank of China and Bank of China – were seen as “gold rice bowl” employers for their job stability and decent pay, but slowing economic growth and competition from emerging technology have made many jobs redundant.

Although the 18,824 positions shed last year accounted for just 1.14 per cent of the Big Four’s total payroll, more were likely to come, analysts said.

Guo Tianyong, banking professor at Central University of Finance and Economics in Beijing, said the losses reflected the growing role of the market.

“Banks need to control costs in line with overall economic performance,” Guo said. “With the growing use of artificial intelligence and the internet, individual banks will reduce payrolls.”

The country’s state banks are still among the world’s biggest by asset size and number of employees, but they are struggling to grow their bottom line.

Last year, ICBC, the biggest of the four, reported just a 0.5 per cent year-on-year increase in profit to 279 billion yuan (HK$315 billion).

That’s a long way from 2007, when ICBC’s profit surged 65.9 per cent, and five years ago when it was still expanding at a double-digit rate.

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But even after shedding 1 per cent of its staff, ICBC still had 461,749 employees at the end of 2016, or nearly double the number at HSBC. The job losses also came after ICBC increased its number of employees by 0.9 per cent in 2015 after 4.6 per cent in 2014.

China Construction Bank, a top mortgage lender, cut its payroll for the second year in a row last year, shrinking its workforce by 1.8 per cent, well above the 0.84 per cent fall in 2015.

The biggest rural lender, Agricultural Bank of China, laid off 1.3 per cent of its staff last year, after adding 1.9 per cent to its ranks in 2015 and 3 per cent in 2014. Bank of China, the smallest of the four, cut 1,142 jobs last year, although the bank increased the number of its employees by 1,914, or 0.6 per cent, in 2015.

“Banks are being challenged by structural changes in the overall economy. Fewer staff are needed as counter clerks are being replaced by new technology but banks still have high demand for experts on analysis and risk management in areas such as liquidity and interest rate liberalisation,” China Minsheng Bank chief economist Wen Bin said.

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In a commentary in People’s Daily on Wednesday, job creation was tagged as the key to overcoming the middle-income trap and ensuring social stability.

The mainland aims to create at least 11 million new jobs this year, one million more than previous years. Much of the hope rests on the services sector, with manufacturing dogged by overcapacity.

Services have been the country’s biggest sector since 2012, and accounted for 43.5 per cent of the workforce last year, official data showed.

Guo said many bank workers quit to join new types of financial institutions, such as trust investment firms, thanks to the booming asset management ­industry.

“Overall demand for workers in financial institutions has risen dramatically with the development of third-party financial services and internet apps,” Guo said.