City banks find plenty of takers for yuan accounts
Tourists, businessmen and overseas Chinese nationals were among the first non-residents to open yuan deposit accounts with Hong Kong banks this week.
Starting from Wednesday, in the latest move to support the city's bid to become an offshore centre for the yuan, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) said local banks could open yuan accounts for non-residents, who were also free to buy unlimited amounts of the currency.
Bankers said they expected the service to eventually become popular among long-term investors interested in taking an exposure to yuan-denominated products, who could now use Hong Kong as a base for their investments.
'We have so far seen customers from a mixture of backgrounds opening yuan accounts,' said Nixon Chan, head of retail banking and wealth management at Hang Seng Bank. 'Tourists from several different countries, overseas Chinese visiting Hong Kong, and some businessmen who have operations or trade relations here were among the first non-residents to open accounts.' Until this week, only Hong Kong identity card holders could open yuan accounts in the city.
But the HKMA, the city's de facto central bank, announced that non-residents could also open yuan accounts from August 1, in a bid to attract overseas investors to trade yuan products here.
The three note-issuing banks - HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank, and Bank of China (Hong Kong) - as well as Hang Seng Bank and some private banks rushed to offer incentives, mostly high interest rates, to compete for non-resident business.
Chan said the non-resident yuan account customers could exchange other currencies into yuan deposits as well as invest in a range of yuan products in Hong Kong.
'We believe they might be interested in yuan-denominated dim sum bonds, yuan funds and yuan structured products,' he said. 'Later on, when we have more yuan shares trading in Hong Kong, we believe non-residents will be interested in investing in these assets as well.'
The yuan is not yet fully convertible, but Beijing has gradually relaxed the rules since 2009 to encourage the use of the currency to settle trade accounts and for investment globally.
Not all non-residents are interested in the new services though.
Kenny Wong, a visitor from Britain, said: 'I am not really that interested because I do not travel to China that often and I do not see currency as my preferred way of investment.'
Ikuko Goto, director of the Japanese services group of Deloitte's in Hong Kong, said Japanese banks had begun promoting yuan accounts to their customers at home, and Japanese tourists to Hong Kong could open yuan accounts in the city.
Anthony Muh Yi-tong, chairman of the Hong Kong Securities Institute and a veteran fund manager from New Zealand, said he would tell his relatives and friends in New Zealand about the new move. 'I am going to tell them the rules have changed. It would be good for my friends and family from New Zealand to be able to trade these yuan products here.'
Several private bankers said overseas Chinese from Southeast Asia would be interested in using Hong Kong as a hub to invest in yuan products. Claude Haberer, head of Asia wealth-management operations at Swiss private bank Pictet, said non-residents had shown an interest in opening yuan accounts here.
'When the US dollar and the euro are showing high volatility and fundamental economic weakness, the yuan will be seen as a safe haven,' Haberer said. 'Offshore yuan accounts and related investments - bonds in particular - have become basic products a Hong Kong-based private bank must offer.'
Hong Kong also has to compete with other markets that also want to become offshore yuan centres.
In London, Bank of China and Bank of East Asia branches offer high interest rates and fee waivers to attract investors to open yuan accounts, and for the some 600,000 overseas Chinese and students living in the city, opening yuan accounts in the banks' outlets in Chinatown is easier than doing so in Hong Kong.
London had over 100 billion yuan (HK$122.60 billion) on deposit in customer accounts in the city, compared with about 556 billion yuan in Hong Kong in June.
Louis Tse Ming-kwong, director of VC Brokerage, said many Southeast Asian investors invested in the Hong Kong stock markets and they might be interested in opening yuan bank accounts here. 'However, we do not have many yuan shares listed here yet. I think only those overseas investors who want to bet on the long-term valuation of the yuan would be interested in opening accounts in Hong Kong.'
The yuan exchange rate has been largely unchanged versus the US dollar in the first half of this year, in contrast to its 30 per cent appreciation since 2004. The value of yuan deposits in Hong Kong in June was down 11 per cent from a peak in November.
But Hang Seng Bank's Chan said those non-residents who had already opened yuan accounts in the city were taking a longer term view. 'The non-residents who buy yuan today are not expecting to have a quick return tomorrow. Many are prepared to invest for the long term.'
Yuan deposits in Hong Kong rose in June by 0.7 per cent from a month earlier to this much