China took a major step toward the long-awaited opening of its financial system, saying it will remove foreign ownership limits on banks while allowing overseas firms to take majority stakes in local securities ventures, fund managers and insurers.
The new rules, unveiled at a government briefing Friday, will give global financial companies unprecedented access to the world's second-largest economy. The announcement bolstered the reform credentials of Chinese President Xi Jinping less than a month after he cemented his status as the nation's most powerful leader in decades. It also coincided with Donald Trump's visit to Beijing, though the U.S. president didn't know it was coming.
Foreign financial firms applauded the move, with J.P. Morgan Chase and Morgan Stanley saying in statements that they're committed to China. UBS Group said it will continue to push for an increased stake in its Chinese joint venture. While China has already made big strides in opening its equity and bond markets to foreign investors, international banks and securities firms have long been frustrated by ownership caps that made them marginal players in one of the fastest-expanding financial systems on Earth.
"It's a key message that China continues to open up and make its financial markets more international and market-oriented," said Shen Jianguang, chief Asia economist at Mizuho Securities Asia in Hong Kong. "How important a role foreign financial firms can play remains to be seen."
Overseas companies will probably focus on increasing their presence in China's insurance, securities and fund management industries, which have "significant room for development," said Oliver Rui, professor of finance at the China Europe International Business School in Shanghai. The lending business, which is dominated by government-run behemoths like Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, will attract less interest because it's a "saturated" industry and foreigners lack a competitive edge, he said.
Regulators are still drafting detailed rules, which will be released soon, China's Vice Finance Minister Zhu Guangyao said at the briefing in Beijing.
Foreign firms will be allowed to own stakes of up to 51% in securities ventures, and China will scrap foreign ownership limits for securities companies three years after the new rules are effective.
Chinese markets took the news in their stride, with the nation's benchmark Shanghai Composite index fluctuating in a narrow range after the announcement. Shares of Chinese financial companies were mixed in Hong Kong.
Policymakers had hinted at an opening in recent months. On Thursday, China's Foreign Ministry said entry barriers to sectors such as banking, insurance, securities and funds would be "substantially" eased "in accordance to China's own timetable and road map." People's Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan advocated for greater competition in the financial industry in June, while one of his colleagues penned an article last month arguing that increased foreign participation would help the sector adopt better corporate governance and risk management practices.
The announcement's timing, on the day Mr. Trump ended his first visit to China as U.S. president, offered the chance for him to claim some credit for the opening and for warmer ties between the two world powers. But Mr. Trump didn't even ask for it in specific terms on the trip, according to people familiar with the situation, and it wasn't mentioned in the White House's 1,392-word statement on what happened during the president's trip to China.
"I believe China has planned for this for a very long time, and now is the right time to announce it because Trump is visiting," said Iris Pang, a China economist at ING Groep in Hong Kong. China is likely to push for improved access to U.S. markets for its financial firms, she added.
Foreign banks held 2.9 trillion yuan ($436 billion) of assets in China at the end of 2016, accounting for 1.26% of the nation's total banking assets, the lowest share since 2003, according to the China Banking Regulatory Commission. They earned 12.8 billion yuan in the nation last year, less than 1% of the profits at Chinese counterparts.
Meanwhile, most foreign-backed securities joint ventures are minnows in China. J.P. Morgan First Capital ranked 120th out of China's 125 brokerages by net income in 2015, according to the Securities Association of China. UBS Securities Co., whose 296 million yuan profit was the biggest among foreign-backed joint ventures, ranked 95th.
Even if they take full control of their China ventures, international financial companies will face multiple challenges. One of the biggest is competition from government-controlled rivals, who currently dominate the nation's financial system and have longstanding relationships with giant state-owned companies that drive much of China's economic activity.
Then there's the country's record debt burden, which amounts to an estimated 260% of gross domestic product after government-run lenders pumped up the economy with easy money in recent years. The country suffered its first onshore corporate bond default in 2014 and has seen at least 20 defaults so far this year. Prominent investors including Hayman Capital Management's Kyle Bass and billionaire George Soros have warned that the country could be headed for a financial crisis.
There's little sign of an imminent blowup. Bank earnings in China swelled to 2.1 trillion yuan last year, up four-fold since 2008, and profits in the securities industry have more than doubled over the same period to 123 billion yuan, according to regulatory data.
Chinese authorities have also taken steps to curb excesses in the banking system, embarking on a campaign this year to clean up some of the nation's riskiest financial products. The potential influx of foreign capital and expertise could help China manage the aftermath of the credit binge and help prevent a repeat, according to Tom Orlik, the chief Asia economist at Bloomberg Economics.
Overseas firms will "calculate the risk-reward margin carefully," said Raymond Yeung, chief Greater China economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group in Hong Kong. "That said, the scale of the market is something they won't ignore."