Outstanding retail loans at Bank of China increased more than 63 billion yuan (HK$71.33 billion) last year, the mainland's third-largest lender announced yesterday. The growth in retail loans was a significant slowdown from the increase of about 114.85 billion yuan the previous year, reflecting cooling property, car and consumer markets. 'In 2008, BOC granted 540,000 instalments of individual housing loans and extended car purchase loans to 180,000 clients,' the bank said. 'At the end of December last year, outstanding retail loans exceeded 644.5 billion yuan.' The lender claimed top position in the mainland home loan market. It said it would further develop the market by granting discounts of up to 30 per cent to qualified new borrowers and existing mortgage holders. In an effort to bolster the ailing property sector, the People's Bank of China asked banks in October last year to give concessions to qualified borrowers. But it did not specify whether the policy applied to current mortgage holders. However, smaller lenders offered discounts to existing borrowers in November in an attempt to win clients from bigger rivals. Zhang Hua, a bank analyst with Celent, said: 'Mortgage loans are always the high-quality assets of banks, and the market has been dominated by big banks like Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank Corp, BOC and Bank of Communications. 'The loans are directly related to the sales volume of properties. China's real estate market is going through a difficult time, and the housing loans will have low growth rates from 2008 to 2010.' Analysts widely believe mainland banks will not see profits surge this year owing to headwinds from the global economic downturn. Citigroup Global Markets analysts expect sector earnings to contract an average of 12 per cent this year from last year, with BOC profits estimated to decline 12 per cent and ICBC's to shrink 1 per cent. ICBC, the country's largest lender, said yesterday that assets of its overseas operations grew about 15 per cent last year, while its international settlement business exceeded US$750 billion for the first time. Its 126 branches and agencies in 15 countries did not have any subprime collateralised bond holdings and had 'limited losses' in the financial crisis, the bank said.