The rebranding of 290 branches of the newly-merged mega-bank in Hong Kong - the Bank of China (BOC) Group - gets under way on China's national day holiday on October 1. But the proposed public listing of shares, in what may emerge as the biggest new banking brand in the SAR, has been put back indefinitely by the depressed global investor sentiment. The latest developments in the group's restructuring plans were unveiled yesterday by Liu Jinbao, chief executive of the BOC's Hong Kong and Macau regional office, who was reporting on the group's interim results. The 12-member group consists of the Hong Kong branches of seven 'sister' banks incorporated on the mainland, and another four banks incorporated in the SAR, plus the dominant player, the BOC's Hong Kong branch. With the exception of two locally incorporated banks - Nanyang Commercial Bank and Chiyu Bank - the sister banks are to be consolidated into a new entity called the Bank of China (Hong Kong). Yesterday's interim result showed the group's pre-tax earnings were up 6.23 per cent to HK$5.05 billion, thanks mainly to a 32.7 per cent fall in bad debt provisioning. Provisions made for non-performing loans (NPLs) during the six months amounted to HK$2.33 billion, down from HK$3.46 billion previously. A big chunk of bad loans was written off by the bank during the period in an ongoing process of tidying up its balance sheet in preparation for its proposed listing. This reduced accumulated provisioning from HK$24.64 billion previously to HK$17.94 billion. But an aggressive campaign of collections, combined with those write-offs, hauled outstanding NPLs down 31.9 per cent to HK$36.96 billion. At 10.5 per cent of total loans, this is still almost twice the industry average in Hong Kong, but much improved from the 15.3 per cent reported last year. Mr Liu said the ratio would be cut to single digits by the end of the year and added that the group was now actively examining the establishment of an asset management company to take over the bulk of outstanding bad loans. Lacklustre loan demand during the period saw the group embark on an aggressive campaign to lift its share of total mortgage lending in the SAR to 24 per cent - the biggest single slice of the home-loan pie. But the price war in the market helped cut the group's net interest margin to 2.6 per cent, said Mr Liu. Helping limit the damage to net interest income - which was down 3.7 per cent to HK$7.93 billion - was a big jump in higher-yielding credit card business, with cards in issue up 27.3 per cent year on year, and card spending up 23.3 per cent. Thanks mainly to sharply lower activity on the stock market, non-interest income was down 15.2 per cent to HK$2.15 billion. Mr Liu said October 1 had been selected as the formal date for the merger to take effect. The first banking business day after the long weekend holiday, October 3, would be the first formal business day for the new legal entity, the Bank of China (HK). Customers would continue to enjoy an uninterrupted service, said Mr Liu.