Mainland China’s biggest banks, the profit stars that are dubbed as the barometer for the national economy, reported mixed profits for 2018, and cautioned investors of bad-loan woes that would continue to dent their earnings this year. Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), the mainland’s biggest lender, posted net profits of 298 billion yuan (US$44.3 billion) in 2018, up 4 per cent on year. It missed analysts’ forecast of 300.4 billion yuan. China Construction Bank (CCB) reported net income of 254.6 billion yuan, up 5.1 per cent, which was slightly below a consensus prediction of 257.2 billion yuan. Agricultural Bank of China made profit of 202.8 billion yuan, an increase of 5.4 per cent, nearly meeting the expectation of 203.3 billion yuan. Bank of Communications earned 73.6 billion yuan, up 4.85 per cent on year. It beat analysts’ forecast of 71.9 billion yuan. The banks published their earnings between Wednesday and Friday, and the forecasts were based on surveys of analysts by Bloomberg. “The results did not appear to be impressive and lingering worries about a potential increase in bad loans may deter investors from buying into the banks,” said Zhou Ling, a fund manager with Shanghai Shiva Investment. “Their business growth will still largely hinge on economic conditions.” It was the fifth year in a row that China’s banking giants – which contributed nearly half to the total profits by mainland-listed firms – posted a single-digit profit rise. Between 2003 and 2013, mainland banks reported annualised profit gains of 49 per cent, ranking as the top beneficiaries of the nation’s debt-fuelled economic expansion. Mainland banks, most of which are state owned, enjoy high net interest margins as the People’s Bank of China determines the deposit and lending rates. But analysts are concerned that new directives from Beijing to ramp up lending could saddle banks with problems down the road. Regulators have instructed commercial banks to grow their lending to small businesses by 30 per cent this year. Privately-owned companies account for most jobs in urban areas, yet they are also seen as more at risk to a slowdown in consumer demand. ICBC set aside 160 billion yuan to cover bad loans last year, which represented 176 per cent of its non-performing loans at the end of 2018. In 2017, the ratio stood at 154 per cent. China’s economy expanded 6.6 per cent in 2018, the slowest pace since 1990. CCB’s chief financial officer Xu Yiming said in Beijing on Thursday that pressure from government to grant loans without proper credit assessment would make it difficult to keep non-performing loans in check.