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China

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

China’s leadership has stated that it seeks to build a modern, highly developed, and multi-tiered capital market.  Bank loans continue to provide the majority of credit options (reportedly around 81.4 percent in 2018) for Chinese companies, although other sources of capital, such as corporate bonds, equity financing, and private equity are quickly expanding their scope, reach, and sophistication in China.  In the past three years, Chinese regulators have taken measures to rein in the rapid growth of China’s “shadow banking” sector, which includes vehicles such as wealth management and trust products.  The measures have achieved positive results. The share of trust loans, entrust loans and undiscounted bankers’ acceptances dropped a total of 15.2 percent in total social financing (TSF) – a broad measure of available credit in China, most of which was comprised of corporate bonds. TSF’s share of corporate bonds jumped from a negative 2.31 percent in 2017 to 12.9 percent in 2018. Chinese regulators regularly use administrative methods to control credit growth, although market-based tools such as interest rate policy and adjusting the reserve requirement ratio (RRR) play an increasingly important role.

The People’s Bank of China (PBOC), China’s central bank, has gradually increased flexibility for banks in setting interest rates, formally removing the floor on the lending rate in 2013 and the deposit rate cap in 2015 – but is understood to still influence bank’s interest rates through “window guidance.”  Favored borrowers, particularly SOEs, benefit from greater access to capital and lower financing costs, as they can use political influence to secure bank loans, and lenders perceive these entities to have an implicit government guarantee.  Small- and medium-sized enterprises, by contrast, have the most difficulty obtaining financing, often forced to rely on retained earnings or informal investment channels.

In 2018, Chinese regulators have taken measures to improve financing for the private sector, particularly small, medium and micro-sized enterprises (SMEs).  On November 1, 2018, Xi Jinping held an unprecedented meeting with private companies on how to support the development of private enterprises. Xi emphasized to the importance of resolving difficult and expensive financing problems for private firms and pledged to create a fair and competitive business environment.  He encouraged banks to lend more to private firms, as well as urged local governments to provide more financial support for credit-worthy private companies. Provincial and municipal governments could raise funds to bailout private enterprises if needed. The PBOC increased the relending and rediscount quota of RMB 300 billion for SMEs and private enterprises at the end of 2018.  The government also introduced bond financing supportive instruments for private enterprises, and the PBOC began promoting qualified PE funds, securities firms, and financial asset management companies to provide financing for private companies. The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission’s (CBIRC) Chairman said in an interview that one-third of new corporate loans issued by big banks and two-thirds of new corporate loans issued by small and medium-sized banks should be granted to private enterprises, and that 50 percent of new corporate loans shall be issued to private enterprises in the next three years.  At the end of 2018, loans issued to SMEs accounted for 24.6 percent of total RMB loan issuance. The share dropped 1 percent from 25.6 percent in 2017. Interest rates on loans issued by the six big state-owned banks – Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), China Construction Bank (CCB), Bank of China (BOC), Agriculture Bank of China (ABC), Bank of Communications and China Postal Savings Bank – to SMEs averaged 4.8 percent, in the fourth quarter of 2018, down from 6 percent in the first quarter of 2018.

Direct financing has expanded over the last few years, including through public listings on stock exchanges, both inside and outside of China, and issuing more corporate and local government bonds.  The majority of foreign portfolio investment in Chinese companies occurs on foreign exchanges, primarily in the United States and Hong Kong.  In addition, China has significantly expanded quotas for certain foreign institutional investors to invest in domestic stock markets; opened up direct access for foreign investors into China’s interbank bond market; and approved a two-way, cross-border equity direct investment scheme between Shanghai and Hong Kong and Shenzhen and Hong Kong that allows Chinese investors to trade designated Hong Kong-listed stocks through the Shanghai and Shenzhen Exchanges, and vice versa.  Direct investment by private equity and venture capital firms is also rising, although from a small base, and has faced setbacks due to China’s capital controls that complicate the repatriation of returns

Money and Banking System

After several years of rapid credit growth, China’s banking sector faces asset quality concerns.  For 2018, the China Banking Regulatory Commission reported a non-performing loans (NPL) ratio of 1.83 percent, higher than the 1.74 percent of NPL ratio reported the last quarter of 2017.  The outstanding balance of commercial bank NPLs in 2018 reached 2.03 trillion RMB (approximately USD295.1 billion).  China’s total banking assets surpassed 268 trillion RMB (approximately USD39.1 trillion) in December 2018, a 6.27 percent year-on-year increase.  Experts estimate Chinese banking assets account for over 20 percent of global banking assets.  In 2018, China’s credit and broad money supply slowed to 8.1 percent growth, the lowest published rate since the PBOC first started publishing M2 money supply data in 1986.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange Policies

While the central bank’s official position is that companies with proper documentation should be able to freely conduct business, in practice, companies have reported challenges and delays in getting foreign currency transactions approved by sub-national regulatory branches.  In 2017, several foreign companies complained about administrative delays in remitting large sums of money from China, even after completing all of the documentation requirements.  Such incidents come amid announcements that the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) had issued guidance to tighten scrutiny of foreign currency outflows due to China’s rapidly decreasing foreign currency exchange.  China has since announced that it will gradually reduce those controls, but market analysts expect they would be re-imposed if capital outflows accelerate again.

Under Chinese law, FIEs do not need pre-approval to open foreign exchange accounts and are allowed to retain income as foreign exchange or to convert it into RMB without quota requirements.  Foreign exchange transactions related to China’s capital account activities do not require review by SAFE, but designated foreign exchange banks review and directly conduct foreign exchange settlements.  Chinese officials register all commercial foreign debt and will limit foreign firms’ accumulated medium- and long-term debt from abroad to the difference between total investment and registered capital.  China issued guidelines in February 2015 that allow, on a pilot basis, a more flexible approach to foreign debt within several specific geographic areas, including the Shanghai Pilot FTZ.  The main change under this new approach is to allow FIEs to expand their foreign debt above the difference between total investment and registered capital, so long as they have sufficient net assets.

Chinese foreign exchange rules cap the maximum amount of RMB individuals are allowed to convert into other currencies at approximately USD50,000 each year and restrict them from directly transferring RMB abroad without prior approval from SAFE.  In 2017, authorities further restricted overseas currency withdrawals by banning sales of life insurance products and capping credit card withdrawals at USD5,000 per transaction.  SAFE has not reduced this quota, but during periods of higher than normal capital outflows, banks are reportedly instructed by SAFE to increase scrutiny over individuals’ requests for foreign currency and to require additional paperwork clarifying the intended use of the funds, with the express intent of slowing capital outflows.

China’s exchange rate regime is managed within a band that allows the currency to rise or fall by 2 percent per day from the “reference rate” set each morning.  In August 2015, China announced that the reference rate would more closely reflect the previous day’s closing spot rate.  Since that change, daily volatility of the RMB has at times been higher than in recent years, but for the most part, remains below what is typical for other currencies.  In 2017, the PBOC took additional measures to reduce volatility, introducing a “countercyclical factor” into its daily RMB exchange rate calculation.  Although the PBOC reportedly suspended the countercyclical factor in January 2018, the tool remains available to policymakers if volatility re-emerges.

Remittance Policies

The remittance of profits and dividends by FIEs is not subject to time limitations, but FIEs need to submit a series of documents to designated banks for review and approval.  The review period is not fixed, and is frequently completed within one or two working days of the submission of complete documents.  In the past year, this period has lengthened during periods of higher than normal capital outflows, when the government strengthens capital controls.

Remittance policies have not changed substantially since SAFE simplified some regulations in January 2014, devolving many review and approval procedures to banks.  Firms that remit profits at or below USD50,000 dollars can do so without submitting documents to the banks for review.

For remittances above USD50,000, the firm must submit tax documents, as well as the formal decision by its management to distribute profits.

For remittance of interest and principle on private foreign debt, firms must submit an application form, a foreign debt agreement, and the notice on repayment of the principle and interest.  Banks will then check if the repayment volume is within the repayable principle.

The remittance of financial lease payments falls under foreign debt management rules.  There are no specific rules on the remittance of royalties and management fees.  In August 2018, SAFE raised the reserve requirement for foreign currency transactions from zero to 20 percent, significantly increasing the cost of foreign currency transactions.  The reserve ratio was introduced in October 2015 at 20 percent, which was lowered to zero in September 2017.

The Financial Action Task Force has identified China as a country of primary concern.  Global Financial Integrity (GFI) estimates that over S1 trillion of illicit money left China between 2003 and 2012, making China the world leader in illicit capital flows.  In 2013, GFI estimated that another USD260 billion left the country.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

China officially has only one sovereign wealth fund (SWF), the China Investment Corporation (CIC).  Established in 2007, CIC manages over USD941.4 billion in assets (as of 2017) and invests on a 10-year time horizon.  China’s sovereign wealth is also invested by a subsidiary of SAFE, the government agency that manages China’s foreign currency reserves, and reports directly to the PBOC.  The SAFE Administrator also serves concurrently as a PBOC Deputy Governor.

CIC publishes an annual report containing information on its structure, investments, and returns.  CIC invests in diverse sectors like financial, consumer products, information technology, high-end manufacturing, healthcare, energy, telecommunication services, and utilities.

China also operates other funds that function in part like sovereign wealth funds, including: China’s National Social Security Fund, with an estimate USD341.4 billion in assets; the China-Africa Development Fund (solely funded by the China Development Bank), with an estimated USD5 billion; the SAFE Investment Company, with an estimated USD439.8 billion; and China’s state-owned Silk Road Fund, established in December 2014 with USD40 billion to foster investment in OBOR partner countries.  Chinese SWFs do not report the percentage of their assets that are invested domestically.

Chinese SWFs follow the voluntary code of good practices known as the Santiago Principles and participate in the IMF-hosted International Working Group on SWFs.  The Chinese government does not have any formal policies specifying that CIC invest funds consistent with industrial policies or in government-designated projects, although CIC is expected to pursue government objectives.  The SWF generally adopts a “passive” role as a portfolio investor.

Hong Kong

6. Financial Sector

Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment

There are no impediments to the free flow of financial resources. Non-interventionist economic policies, complete freedom of capital movement, and a well-understood regulatory and legal environment make Hong Kong a regional and international financial center. It has one of the most active foreign exchange markets in Asia.

Asset and wealth managed in Hong Kong posted a record high of USD 3.1 trillion in 2017 (the latest figure available), with two-thirds of that coming from overseas investors. In order to enhance the competitiveness of Hong Kong’s fund industry, open-ended fund companies as well as onshore and offshore funds are offered a profits tax exemption.

The HKMA’s Infrastructure Financing Facilitation Office (IFFO) provides a platform for pooling the efforts of investors, banks, and the financial sector to offer comprehensive financial services for infrastructure projects in emerging markets. In March 2018, IFFO joined the Global Infrastructure Facility as an advisory partner, contributing to the World Bank Group and international efforts to help make more infrastructure projects bankable.

Under the Insurance Companies Ordinance, insurance companies are authorized by the Insurance Authority to transact business in Hong Kong. As of January 2019, there were 162 authorized insurance companies in Hong Kong, 73 of them foreign or Mainland Chinese companies.

The Hong Kong Stock Exchange’s total market capitalization dropped by 12.0 percent to USD 3.8 trillion in 2018, with 2,315 listed firms at year-end. Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited, a listed company, operates the stock and futures exchanges. The Securities and Futures Commission, an independent statutory body outside the civil service, has licensing and supervisory powers to ensure the integrity of markets and protection of investors.

No discriminatory legal constraints exist for foreign securities firms establishing operations in Hong Kong via branching, acquisition, or subsidiaries.  Rules governing operations are the same for all firms. No laws or regulations specifically authorize private firms to adopt articles of incorporation or association that limit or prohibit foreign investment, participation, or control.

In 2018, a total of 267 Chinese enterprises had “H” share listings on the stock exchange, with combined market capitalization of USD 761.8 billion. The Shanghai-Hong Kong and Shenzhen-Hong Kong Stock Connects allow individual investors to cross trade Hong Kong and Mainland stocks. In December 2018, the ETF Connect, which was planned to allow international and mainland investors to trade in exchange-traded fund products listed in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen, was put on hold indefinitely due to “technical issues.”

By the end of 2018, 50 Mainland mutual funds and 17 Hong Kong mutual funds were allowed to be distributed in each other’s markets through the Mainland-Hong Kong Mutual Recognition of Funds scheme. Hong Kong also has mutual recognition of funds programs with Switzerland, France, the United Kingdom, and Luxembourg.

Hong Kong has developed its debt market with the Exchange Fund bills and notes program. Hong Kong Dollar debt stood at USD 236.5 billion by the end of 2018. As of January 2019, RMB 871.2 billion (USD 129.6 billion) of offshore RMB bonds were issued in Hong Kong. Multinational enterprises, including McDonald’s and Caterpillar, have also issued debt. The Bond Connect, a new mutual market access scheme that allows investors from Mainland China and overseas to trade in each other’s respective bond markets, was launched in July 2017.

The HKG requires workers and employers to contribute to retirement funds under the Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) scheme. Contributions are expected to channel roughly USD five billion annually into various investment vehicles. By the end of 2018, the net asset values of MPF funds amounted to USD 104.2 billion.

Money and Banking System

Hong Kong has a three-tier system of deposit-taking institutions: licensed banks (152), restricted license banks (18), and deposit-taking companies (16). HSBC is Hong Kong’s largest banking group. With its majority-owned subsidiary Hang Seng Bank, HSBC controls more than 40.3 percent of Hong Kong Dollar (HKD) deposits. The Bank of China (Hong Kong) is the second-largest banking group with 13.9 percent of HKD deposits throughout 200 branches. In total, the five largest banks in Hong Kong had more than USD 1.7 trillion in total assets at the end of 2017. Thirty-five U.S. “authorized financial institutions” operate in Hong Kong, and most banks in Hong Kong maintain U.S. correspondent relationships. Full implementation of the Basel III capital, liquidity, and disclosure requirements is expected in 2019.

Credit in Hong Kong is allocated on market terms and is available to foreign investors on a non-discriminatory basis. The private sector has access to the full spectrum of credit instruments as provided by Hong Kong’s banking and financial system. Legal, regulatory, and accounting systems are transparent and consistent with international norms. The HKMA, the de facto central bank, is responsible for maintaining the stability of the banking system and managing the Exchange Fund that backs Hong Kong’s currency. Real Time Gross Settlement helps minimize risks in the payment system and brings Hong Kong in line with international standards.

Banks in Hong Kong have in recent years strengthened anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing controls, including the adoption of more stringent customer due diligence (CDD) process for existing and new customers. In September 2016, the HKMA issued a circular stressing that “CDD measures adopted by banks must be proportionate to the risk level and banks are not required to implement overly stringent CDD processes.”

The HKMA welcomes the establishment of virtual banks, which are subject to the same set of supervisory principles and requirements applicable to conventional banks. In May 2018, HKMA issued guidelines on authorization of virtual banks, giving priority to those applicants demonstrating, among other requirements, that they have a credible and viable business plan to provide new customer experience and to promote financial inclusion and fintech development. In March 2019, the HKMA granted three virtual banking licenses, with five more applications under consideration.

In March 2016, the HKMA set up the Fintech Facilitation Office (FFO) to promote Hong Kong as a fintech hub in Asia. Seven banks in Hong Kong have joined an HKMA-led blockchain-based trade finance proof-of-concept to digitize and share trade documents, automate processes and reduce risks and fraud. In 2018, the HKMA signed four fintech co-operation agreements with the regulatory authorities of Switzerland, Poland, Abu Dhabi, and Brazil.

Foreign Exchange and Remittances

Foreign Exchange

Conversion and inward/outward transfers of funds are not restricted. The HKD is a freely convertible currency linked via de facto currency board to the U.S. dollar.  The exchange rate is allowed to fluctuate in a narrow band between HKD 7.75 – HKD 7.85 = USD 1.

Remittance Policies

There are no recent changes to or plans to change investment remittance policies. Hong Kong has no restrictions on the remittance of profits and dividends derived from investment, nor reporting requirements on cross-border remittances. Foreign investors bring capital into Hong Kong and remit it through the open exchange market.

Hong Kong has anti-money laundering (AML) legislation allowing the tracing and confiscation of proceeds derived from drug-trafficking and organized crime. Hong Kong has an anti-terrorism law that allows authorities to freeze funds and financial assets belonging to terrorists. Effective from July 2018, travelers arriving in Hong Kong with currency or bearer negotiable instruments (CBNIs) exceeding HKD 120,000 (USD 15,385) must make a written declaration to the CED. For a large quantity of CBNIs imported or exported in a cargo consignment, an advanced electronic declaration must be made to the CED.

Sovereign Wealth Funds

The Future Fund, Hong Kong’s wealth fund, was established in 2016 with an endowment of USD 28.2 billion. The fund seeks higher returns through long-term investments and adopts a “passive” role as a portfolio investor. About half of the Future Fund has been deployed in alternative assets, mainly global private equity and overseas real estate, over a three-year period. The rest is placed with the Exchange Fund’s Investment Portfolio, which follows the Santiago Principles, for an initial ten-year period. In February 2019, the Financial Secretary announced that an expert team will review the fund’s investment strategies and portfolios to achieve more diversified investments.

Investment Climate Statements
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