The 21st century has seen China assume an increasingly large position in global finance. In fact, the biggest four banks in the world (by asset size) are Chinese, according to the 2021 annual rankings by S&P Global Market Intelligence: the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, the Bank of China, and the Agricultural Bank of China. All four now combined have more than $17.32 trillion in assets and their collective worth is 16.88% higher compared to the previous year, according to S&P.
China’s banking system has undergone major changes in the first two decades of the 2000s, allowing financial institutions to operate significantly more like their counterparts in the West. However, financial operations are still controlled tightly by the government—specifically, through the nation's central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC). Not only is PBOC responsible for the planning and implementation of China’s monetary policy, but it also maintains all of the banking sector’s clearing, payment, and settlement systems, in addition to overseeing the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, or SAFE, that establishes foreign exchange policies. Although they trade on public stock exchanges, each of the Big Four banks remains wholly or predominantly state-owned and headquartered in Beijing.
Here, we provide snapshot analyses of each of the four largest banks in China—and the world.
- The four largest banks in the world are all Chinese.
- China's Big Four banks, in order of asset size, are the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, the Agricultural Bank of China, and the Bank of China.
Industrial & Commercial Bank of China
Occupying the number one spot is the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC). It is the largest multinational bank company in the world as measured by total assets—over $5.1 trillion as of 2021—though it's no slouch in other areas either, employing more than 440,000 people. The bank was established in 1984 as a limited company and, as the name implies, specializes in business loans to manufacturers, retailers, power companies, and other businesses.
In 2006, ICBC had what was at the time the world’s largest initial public offering (IPO) with a value of over $21 billion. It was the first company to ever be listed simultaneously on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and the Shanghai Stock Exchange.
ICBC has more than 400 overseas subsidiaries. Chief among them is the branch it opened in Kuwait in 2014, the first and only Chinese bank there. It was the fourth branch of the bank in the Middle East, which already had branches in Abu Dhabi, Doha, and Dubai. A fifth Middle Eastern branch has now been added in Riyadh. The opening of the Kuwait branch served to advance the bank’s service network in the Middle East and is considered a significant accomplishment in the bank’s strategy to expand operations internationally.
China Construction Bank Corp.
The China Construction Bank (CCB) has $4.3 trillion in assets as of 2021. It operates nearly 15,000 branches as of 2020, with established subsidiaries in Luxembourg (which serves as the bank’s European headquarters), South Africa, South Korea, the United States, and Australia.
The bank, one of China's oldest, was founded in 1954 as the People’s Construction Bank of China, changing its name in 1996. Bank of America obtained a 9% stake in the bank in 2005, facilitating the bank's continuing rapid growth for the next several years (BOA sold its final stake in 2013).
The combined asset value of China's Big Four banks in 2021, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence.
Agricultural Bank of China
The Agricultural Bank of China (ABC), sometimes known as AgBank, was founded in 1951. As its name implies, it originally specialized in financing enterprises in rural China, but more recently it has diversified into corporate and consumer banking services and products—everything from currency trading to credit cards. The bank has over 860 million retail customers and more than 23,000 branches around the world, including just about every major city: London, New York, Sydney, Singapore, Seoul, and Tokyo. In terms of lending, ABC is the world’s third-largest provider.
As of 2021, ABC held $4.2 trillion in assets and employed a similar number of employees to ICBC—459,000 compared to 440,000. When it went public in 2010, the last of the Big Four to do so, it broke ICBC's record as the world's largest IPO to date, racking up $22.1 billion.
Bank of China
Established in 1912 to replace the Imperial Bank of China, the Bank of China (BOC) is the oldest native bank still in existence on the mainland. Its total assets numbered $3.7 trillion in 2021. Its activities include corporate banking, personal banking, investment banking, and insurance. Though no longer the central bank, It is also licensed to issue banknotes in two of China's Special Administrative Regions.
The BOC is considered the most international of all China’s banks, as it has a branch in every inhabited continent in the world. It operates in 61 countries and regions, including Canada, the United States, and throughout the United Kingdom. In 2010, the BOC branch in New York offered renminbi products to Americans, the first major Chinese bank to make such Chinese currency investments available in the U.S.