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A view of Russell Street in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong. [Photo by Parker Zheng/China Daily]

The novel coronavirus epidemic has cast a shadow over Hong Kong"s banking industry with US-based credit rating agency Fitch Ratings projecting a negative outlook for the sector, warning its operating environment is likely to deteriorate further if the outbreak persists.

"The rating reflects profitability pressures from weaker economic growth since the beginning of last year, thereby raising the prospect of negative action on banks" viability ratings," the agency said in its report on the city"s banking business.

Major local lenders, such as HSBC, Standard Chartered Hong Kong and Bank of China (Hong Kong), have introduced a principal moratorium policy for mortgage loans and other types of personal and small and medium-sized enterprises lending. HSBC on Sunday announced liquidity relief measures involving more than HK$30 billion for businesses of all sizes to help them ride out the financial storm.

According to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, up to 30 percent of local bank branches are expected to close temporarily, or have shortened business hours to help curb the spread of the disease.

Fitch said it"s worried that Hong Kong banks" earnings will decline in the near term.

"The outbreak will create extra economic challenges for Hong Kong, and may influence Fitch"s assessment of the city"s operating environment if confidence is damaged on a scale similar to that during the SARS epidemic in 2003," the agency warned.

Hong Kong"s retail banks saw their pre-tax operating profits rose just 1.8 percent in the first three quarters of last year – significantly lower than the 19.4 percent surge for the whole of 2018, according to the HKMA.

The city"s economy posted its first annual contraction in a decade as growth dived 1.2 percent last year.

Nevertheless, Fitch still projects a stable rating outlook for Hong Kong banks, saying local lenders still enjoy sufficient capital and liquidity buffers or parental support, and are well-positioned to meet operational and financial challenges.

According to the HKMA, the total capital ratio of locally incorporated authorized institutions stood at 20.6 percent in September last year, while the liquidity coverage ratio of Category 1 institutions was maintained at 159.9 percent – significantly higher than the international benchmark.

The classified loan ratio of authorized institutions" Hong Kong offices, overseas branches and major overseas subsidiaries stood at 0.56 percent during the same period – largely unchanged from the previous year – the banking industry regulator said.

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