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Chinese 100 yuan banknotes are seen in a counting machine while a clerk counts them at a branch of a commercial bank in Beijing, in this March 30, 2016 file picture. (© Reuters Photographer / Reuter)
Chinese 100 yuan banknotes are seen in a counting machine while a clerk counts them at a branch of a commercial bank in Beijing, in this March 30, 2016 file picture. (© Reuters Photographer / Reuter)

China looks to clamp down on foreign investment spending Add to ...

For months now, banks in China have been calling clients large and small, asking questions. Why do you want to convert yuan into a foreign currency? When exactly will you convert more? Can you supply more documentation?

The questions have been as much a preview as a warning, that in Beijing decision-makers are worried about the enormous sums of money leaving the country in cash, investments and overseas acquisitions. The yuan has skidded nearly 6 per cent this year.

Now, regulators are contemplating new measures that could include detailed scrutiny of purchases outside China and a temporary cap on overseas buying, set at $10-billion (U.S.) for foreign investments, $1-billion for assets outside a company’s core business and $1-billion for real estate purchased by state-owned companies, according to a South China Morning Post report.

The threshold for central government vetting of foreign exchange transactions will also fall from $50-million to $5-million, Reuters reported.

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“They feel the market is getting the best of them. It’s running away from them,” said Fraser Howie, an investment banker and author who has written extensively on China’s economic model.

Such measures stand to douse the recent frenzy that has seen Chinese buyers pursue hotel chains, pharmaceutical companies, chip makers, soccer clubs, property and, most recently in Canada, a retirement home chain.

No formal changes have been announced, and Chinese regulators have issued statements saying they continue to support foreign investment. But even discussion of a new crackdown is likely to breed new shyness in the country’s acquisition-hungry investors – a shift likely to be felt across the world.

“I’ve been in many meetings with people saying, ‘we’ve been approached by a Chinese investor,’ and their eyes have dollar signs. That is now going to change,” said Mr. Howie. “Even the top quality partners in China will not find it as easy to get money overseas.”

China has always maintained a tight grasp on its currency, and authorities continue to encourage the international adoption of the yuan, and to push a “going-out” strategy for domestic companies.

Government monitoring of currency transactions, even for amounts under $1-million, is also longstanding, said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of Chinese-headquartered boutique investment firm China First Capital Ltd. He sees no evidence of a strict new Chinese capital control regime.

What has changed is the atmosphere in China, where the election of Donald Trump – who has threatened punishing new measures against Chinese trade – has added to fears raised by rising protectionism in places like Germany and the long slide in the yuan, also known as the renminbi or RMB.

The “slipping RMB and Oncoming Trump Freight Train about to ram into China are driving a level of mania to try to get deals done before he takes over,” said Mr. Furhman.

“These are creating unseen conditions, a kind of invisible panic button has been hit. Companies want to buy whatever they can, and fast, and so regulators, sensing this, are signalling ‘over our dead bodies.’”

Among eye-popping Chinese deals this year, one of the most prominent is the $14-billion offered by China’s Anbang Insurance Group Co. for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., which Anbang walked away from earlier year.

“There is concern that the previous acquisitions have not been good buys and that Chinese management is failing to integrate and develop their new business abroad,” said Simon Gleave, the Asia-Pacific head of financial services for KPMG.

Any new regulatory scrutiny will likely hit state-owned companies hardest, he said, although private firms, too, will likely need to more vigorously argue their need for foreign currency.

“Once entities can show that they are more successful, I think things will continue,” Mr. Gleave said.

But for Chinese regulators, the numbers show a need for major change. As the yuan softens and the economy slows, Chinese investors and companies have flocked overseas, sucking down foreign currency reserves in the process. Those reserves have fallen roughly 20 per cent over the past two years, to $3.12-trillion in October.

The country faces a severe capital imbalance, with a $294-billion net outflow in the first three quarters of 2016. It’s not an immediate crisis, given the tremendous size of China’s reserves, which could sustain such numbers for years to come.

But “the drain is too large,” said Louis Kuijs, chief economist for greater Asia with Oxford Economics. Regulators want to “achieve a broadly neutral overall balance of payment,” which would entail a severe cut to outflows.

“They would basically have to shrink them by more than 50 per cent,” Mr. Kuijs said.

Erecting new walls to keep money inside China carries its own problems, however.

“The risk is that it will be harmful to the credibility of China’s reform program,” Mr. Kuijs said.

It’s also unlikely to halt the slide in the yuan, given heavy pressure against the currency remains from foreign companies looking to move money out of China, and Chinese investors seeking safer haven elsewhere.

Regulators “will just control the pace of the depreciation instead of reversing it,” said Ken Cheung, Asian currency strategist at Mizuho Bank, which predicts the yuan will end 2017 down a further 3.3 per cent from current levels.

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