Foreign banks welcome China's long-awaited opening of its financial sector

Relaxed foreign-ownership limits for financial institutions are applauded by overseas lenders, as it marks a big step in the opening  of China's economy.

International banks that have for years been pressing for more access to Chinese capital markets are lauding new regulations that remove caps on foreign ownership of domestic commercial banks, asset management companies, securities firms, fund managers and life insurers.

Zhu Guangyao, vice finance minister, opened the investment door wider in an announcement last week.

Currently, a single foreign investor cannot own more than 20 percent of a bank or an asset manager, and total foreign ownership cannot exceed 25 percent.

Caps on shareholdings in securities firms, fund managers and life insurers will also be lifted to allow foreign investors to take majority stakes — and eventually full ownership.

The deregulation was hailed as a “remarkable milestone” by the financial research team at UBS Securities. It was a sentiment echoed throughout foreign corridors.

A total of 39 foreign banks have been locally incorporated in China by the end of 2016, with over 1,000 joint ventures, according to data from the China Banking Regulatory Commission. Collectively, their exposure to the country totaled a record high of US$1.89 trillion during the first half, latest data from rating agency Fitch show.

Easing of restrictions on their operations has been incremental since China promised to open up its financial markets gradually upon its entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. Many foreign players have complained that excessive regulation has choked their efforts to gain any significant toehold in the world’s second-largest economy.

In frustration, some foreign banks have actually cut their footprint in China as a result. In January, Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd, one of Australia's biggest banks, joined a slew of lenders to sell its 20 percent stake in Shanghai Rural Commercial Bank.

Euphoria over the latest announcement comes as no surprise.

“HSBC welcomes the changes,” said Peter Wong, deputy chairman and chief executive of the Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corp. “Further foreign participation will help China’s financial markets become more global, supporting greater internationalization of the yuan.”

In June, HSBC became the first foreign lender in China allowed to hold a maximum 51 percent of a securities joint venture, according to media reports.

“We welcome this milestone policy change, which we believe will bring further investment to China and create new business momentum for the financial services industry,” a spokesperson for Morgan Stanley said.

James Gorman, global chief executive of the US investment banking giant, said the bank will “seize the chance” to increase its stake in a local joint venture, according to a report in the South China Morning Post.

Earlier this year, the bank increased its share in Morgan Stanley Huaxin Securities, a joint venture with a local broker, to 49 percent from 33 percent.

J.P. Morgan Chase & Co, another global leader in financial services, said that it “welcomes any decision” made by the Chinese government that further liberalizes the financial sector. The bank said it will continue to “evaluate viable options” to strengthen its position in China.

Last year, J.P. Morgan sold its minority stake in the joint venture to its partner First Capital Securities Co Ltd. 

“First Capital Securities will remain an important business partner of J.P. Morgan as we continue to expand our business in China. We are fully committed to China and has a strategic long term approach to our business in the country”, the bank said at the time. 

Citi China said “a more detailed roadmap” of liberalization would help foreign financial institutions “be better prepared” and it “looks forward to more open markets” to better support their clients, following the recent announcement.

Singapore's OCBC Bank and United Overseas Bank, which are expanding their presence in the world’s second largest economy, also lauded the latest deregulation in financial services.

Darren Tan, chief financial officer at OCBC Bank, said continued liberalization of China’s financial services sector is “positive.” The Singaporean lender now owns 20 percent of the Bank of Ningbo, a city commercial bank and the maximum allowed before the policy change.

UOB (China) said it believes the latest policy shift will “encourage foreign banks to strengthen their investment” in China and “create more opportunities for growth.”

However, industry observers urged caution amid all the euphoria.

“These measures point to a further opening up of China’s financial sector,” wrote Nomura chief economist Zhao Yang in a report. “However, their impact will be only marginal in the short run and may take time to kick in more significantly.”

A research note from UBS Securities said foreign banks may now reassess the value of nationally licensed joint-stock banks or regional banks of superior quality and niche markets.

“With the ownership cap removed, smaller banks with geographical and niche market advantages may draw interest from foreign investors,” it said. “We believe the new policy will benefit listed insurance companies and securities firms more than banks.”

This is echoed by the opening of Manulife Investment (Shanghai) Limited Company today, the first foreign financial institution that has received the investment company wholly foreign-owned enterprises license.

“To us, China is a market of high significance,” said Michael Dommermuth, executive vice president, head of wealth and asset management, Asia, Manulife. The Toronto-headquartered multinational insurance company is betting big on the fast-growing asset management market in China.

Moody’s Investors Service said that China's decision to allow foreign majority ownership of financial firms is “credit positive.” It will increase foreign investor involvement in the country’s domestic markets and improve the risk management and corporate governance of financial institutions, Moody’s said.

However, the relaxation of ownership rules is “not yet a game changer,” said Fitch Ratings.

Fitch said substantial foreign inflows into China’s financial sector are “unlikely” without reforms addressing administrative and other non-tariff barriers that create an uneven playing field for foreign players.


Special Reports
Top