By Samuel Shen and John Ruwitch
SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Wealth managers like Huang Qing are tormenting the authorities in Beijing.
The Chinese government has introduced a slew of measures to curb capital outflows in recent years as it seeks to prevent a sudden plunge in the yuan. They include cracking down on underground banks and sales of foreign insurance products that are more like investments, increasing scrutiny of overseas deals, and keeping tight restrictions on foreign currency purchases by individuals.
Yet Huang says he still finds legitimate ways to move his clients money overseas, creating a headache for China’s central bank as it seeks to keep the currency, which is also known as the renminbi, relatively stable.
“Over the past year, we have helped many clients allocate their wealth into U.S. dollar assets, and the biggest obstacle we encountered was how to move renminbi overseas in a proper, legal manner," Huang, Shanghai manager at CreditEase, which specializes in managing money for wealthy Chinese investors, recently told a forum in Shanghai.
CreditEase, which has been raising money from Chinese investors to buy property assets in the United States and Europe, sets an investment minimum threshold of $150,000, but Beijing caps individual foreign currency purchases at $50,000 a year.
"So, we had to use the $50,000 quotas from all their family members, both old and young, to meet our investment threshold. This is what we have been beating our brains out to do for our clients over the past year,” said Huang.
It is paying off.
Since last April, CreditEase has successfully raised more than $300 million from Chinese investors for two dollar-denominated real estate funds, and is now launching a third.
It is this kind of activity that has increased demand for the dollar and pressured the Chinese currency. The yuan <CNY=CFXS> has declined to its weakest levels against the dollar in six years, touching 6.7869 last Friday.
During the first nine months of this year, individuals and companies made net foreign exchange purchases of $243.4 billion, according to China’s forex regulator, though the pace is down from the $465.9 billion recorded in 2015 when a plunge in Chinese stock markets unnerved investors.
Meanwhile, China’s foreign currency reserves <CNFXM=ECI> have fallen to $3.17 trillion at the end of September, from a $3.99 trillion peak in June 2014, indicating that the Chinese government sold U.S. dollars to prop up the yuan’s value.
BIG CORPORATE FLOWS
It’s not only individuals who have engaged in moving their assets overseas.
China's outward direct investment (ODI) surged 71 percent during the first six months of 2016 to $121.4 billion, as Chinese companies bought assets overseas, according to the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE).
China’s outbound acquisition boom has been fueled by Beijing’s strategy to develop overseas markets by helping to finance infrastructure, easy access to liquidity in China, and the lower valuations of many overseas assets when compared with those in China, said Samson Lambert Lo, head of mergers and acquisitions for UBS in Asia.
Financial institutions have been using the yuan's recent depreciation to push more people to increase their foreign exposure.
"Attack is the best form of defense," Chinese wealth manager Jupai Holdings Ltd <JP.N>, which had $3.90 billion under management at the end of June, said in a recent advertisement on the messaging app WeChat. "Allocating U.S. dollar assets can effectively hedge against yuan depreciation risks," the ad said.
The Chinese government has been seeking to dispel concerns there will be further yuan depreciation.
Wang Chunying, a spokeswoman for SAFE, told a news conference on Oct 21 that recent strong dollar purchases were driven by seasonal factors such as the summer tourism season.
The official media has also weighed in.
"Yuan's recent depreciation against the dollar was mainly the result of dollar strength ... but it doesn't mean yuan is entering a one-way deprecation path," the overseas edition of the People's Daily wrote on Oct 19.
The Communist Party's mouthpiece added that the yuan will remain “basically stable” in the mid- to long-term.
These soothing words have been accompanies by a series of crackdowns on institutions that help Chinese move money into foreign assets.
China's biggest bank card provider UnionPay said last Saturday it will tighten rules for how mainland customers can use its debit and credit cards to purchase Hong Kong insurance products. In a related move, the country’s insurance regulator recently visited foreign life insurance firms in Beijing as part of an investigation into the illegal sale of insurance products in Hong Kong to mainland Chinese, the official Shanghai Securities News reported on Monday.
But many in the market don't buy such actions and commentary and expect the market to test Beijing’s resolve. For example, Shanghai businessman Shi Luqun, says he has acquired a property in the United States because he fears the yuan could weaken by at least 15 percent against the dollar over the next two years. He cites structural problems in the Chinese economy – such as over-dependence on real estate and exports – as well as the likelihood of devaluations by rival trading nations.
A sales executive at Yuwo Capital, which helps Chinese invest in or migrate to the United States, said it has seen a rise in client enquiries recently, with some bringing forward their U.S. investment plans due to depreciation fears. He asked not to be identified.
Huang at CreditEase recalled that in 2006, when he was working at a foreign bank, a client spent an entire year converting $1 million into yuan assets because of capital restrictions at a time when the yuan was appreciating. “Today, it's the other way around,” he said.
Still, some see a chance to capitalize on the yuan’s weakness by investing at home. For example, asset manager First Seafront Fund Management Co has set up a fund that will bet on Chinese exporters who will directly benefit from yuan depreciation.
(Reporting by Samuel Shen and John Ruwitch in Shanghai; Editing by Martin Howell)