How China Is Opening Up to Foreign Financial Firms: QuickTake

(Bloomberg) -- China is thrusting open the door to its financial industry -- after much U.S. banging on the other side. Limits on foreign ownership for banks, asset managers, securities firms and insurance companies are being eased or will disappear altogether, at least eventually. It’s part of China’s move to open up its $40 trillion financial sector as well as counter criticism that it’s been a one-sided player in global commerce. There’s been plenty of that from U.S. President Donald Trump. Now, the signs are that China’s pace of change is moving up a gear.

1. How is China speeding things up?

The big announcement that limits on foreign ownership would be rolled back and then scrapped came in November. (Coincidentally or not, on the last day of a visit by Trump to Beijing.) After trade tensions between China and the U.S. ratcheted up in March, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged a “new phase of opening up” in a speech in April. The following day, the country’s top central banker said some of the changes in the financial industry may happen sooner than previously expected.

2. What had China already pledged?

Here are existing caps on ownership and what China announced in November:

  • Banks -- The current limit is 20 percent for a single institution, with no more than 25 percent held in aggregate by non-Chinese investors. Those limits will be removed and foreign investors will face the same requirements as Chinese. Domestic restrictions include a 30 percent cap for shareholders in private banks.
  • Financial asset management companies -- the same will apply to these firms, originally set up to manage bad loans, as to banks.
  • Securities firms -- The cap will be lifted to 51 percent from 49 percent; three years after the new rules are effective, there will be no limit.
  • Fund managers -- The limit will be raised to 51 percent from 49 percent; three years after the new rules come in, the limit will be scrapped.
  • Life insurance companies -- The cap will be raised to 51 percent from 50 percent after three years and then removed after five years.

3. What’s changed since then?

Yi Gang, the new People’s Bank of China governor, said April 11 that securities joint ventures will no longer have to be with Chinese brokerages. He said restrictions on the scope of business of foreign securities joint ventures might be scrapped. That stands to put overseas banks on the same footing as local companies in securities trading and wealth management. Those changes will happen by the end of 2018. He also said foreign ownership caps for life insurance companies and securities joint ventures may be be raised by the end of June.

4. Is it time for overseas companies to celebrate?

Maybe so. While China has made big strides in freeing up its equity and bond markets, foreign banks, asset managers and insurers have long been kept on the margins by various barriers. The November announcement spurred optimism among global banks that have been largely excluded from lucrative businesses such as secondary-market trading in Chinese debt and equities and managing money for wealthy clients. Yi’s comments can only heighten the feelgood factor. Adding to the new vibe out of China, Yi’s predecessor, Zhou Xiaochuan, used one of his last public appearances to urge the world’s second-largest economy to “be bolder in opening up.”

5. Are these moves a bit late for some?

Indeed. Some foreign firms already wound back their ambitions or exited Chinese ventures. Taking so much time to throw the doors open has allowed domestic firms to entrench their businesses, making it a more challenging business environment for overseas competitors.

6. Which foreign companies own Chinese bank stakes?

Many have already sold up, including Citigroup Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The only remaining bank with a major holding is HSBC Holdings Plc: it has a 19 percent stake in Bank of Communications Co. Analysts say banks gave up stakes as a result of requirements by their home regulators that they hold substantial amounts of extra capital against such minority holdings. Among overseas insurers, Prudential Plc and Manulife Financial Corp. already operate in China, while foreign firms with stakes in local mutual fund managers include UBS Group AG, ING Groep NV and Schroder Investment Management.

The Reference Shelf

  • November’s opening plans were a symbolic step.
  • Now, flesh is being added to the bones.
  • A QuickTake on Xi Jinping and another on the trade war.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.