City fails test in promoting yuan settlement business

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 August, 2010, 12:00am

Dear Ms Yam,

I am a businessman in Brazil. A friend e-mailed me your column on the offering of yuan business in Hong Kong.

It read: 'A Brazilian trader keeping yuan trade receipts in Hong Kong can choose to do whatever he/she wants with the money (even remitting the money to Brazil when a yuan-clearing platform is established in that country).'

I am very interested. Everyone is talking about the rise of the yuan. I am happy to accept yuan and sit on it.

But when I Googled 'renminbi trade settlement', I found some very confusing information. Most came of it came from banks and they are saying different things. Some said only those in Hong Kong, Macau and Asean countries could benefit from it. Others said it involved trade transactions with any part of the world.

The only official statement I can find from the Hong Kong government is a bulletin issued by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority last September which says only Hong Kong, Macau and Asean are covered.

I know I should visit the website of the Chinese government, but I cannot read Chinese.

So what is happening? Is there an official website on the issue? I don't want to go to my banker without knowing the ABC of what is happening. Please advise.


Oh dear. As someone living in Hong Kong where the yuan is part of daily life, I did not really appreciate the frustration of poor Paulo ... not until I went online and did the same searches. Indeed, it's very confusing.

And unfortunately, I have to disappoint him. After spending hours clicking on official websites, I could find nothing on the yuan-settlement business - no matter how remote. I have nothing for Paulo.

Yes, I am surprised, given the strategic significance of the yuan internationalisation not just to Hong Kong but also the country, and the recent breakthrough in the development of yuan business in the city. Beijing has made Hong Kong the only offshore yuan centre and signed a new accord to make various yuan products possible.

Yet, on the front page of the Hong Kong government website, I found only the 'Shanghai Expo', 'what Hong Kong is talking about' that tells me it's the 'Closer Economic Partnership Agreement', 'online applications for liquor clubs'; 'prevention of heatstroke at work', 'Hong Kong Watch and Clock Fair', but nothing on the yuan business.

How about the Monetary Authority? There we find '2010 banknotes', 'investment products related to Lehman Brothers' and 'frauds'. I searched for yuan in its archives but only came up with bits and pieces of unrelated information.

The Financial Services and Treasury Bureau? There are links to 'Prevent chicken flu', '5-day week', 'Quality seawater assurance' and the 'Lehman Brothers incidents report'. Again, nothing on the yuan. The Financial Secretary's Office? No. Invest Hong Kong? No. The Trade Development Council? No.

By comparison, each of these websites offer tonnes of information on the Cepa, which gives Hong Kong companies better access to the mainland markets. There are dozens of FAQs, all the press releases, sector-specific knowledge and contact points not just in Hong Kong, but in Beijing and various provinces.

Why doesn't the yuan business, which will outshine Cepa by whatever measures, receive comparable exposure?

I tried not to be judgmental, accusing officials of being complacent or passive. I thought of all the possible reasons for them to hide this jewel, but remain unconvinced.

Perhaps, the bosses want to do it quietly. Well, it's true that Beijing does not want to publicise the 'internationalisation' of the yuan, but it is definitely not quiet about 'greater use' of the currency.

Between May and July, mainland central bankers have toured Asia, Europe and America with Standard Chartered to talk about yuan-trade settlement. Within days of relaxing yuan business in Hong Kong, Beijing signed a 150 billion yuan (HK$171 billion) swap agreement with Singapore. You don't call these 'low-profile'.

Beijing wants Hong Kong to be the promoter of the yuan to the world. In fact, central bankers have met their Hong Kong counterparts and other bankers at least three times in the past eight months calling for a bigger push on yuan business.

Maybe our officials are just being sensitive to the feelings of Shanghai after the city lost out to Hong Kong in the battle to be the country's offshore yuan centre. However, I am sure there are many ways to promote Hong Kong's yuan business without crowing. (And by the way, the pragmatic Shanghainese have already suggested a joint roadshow).

Or maybe the officials consider the educational stuff a matter for the private sector? The stakeholders are financial institutions with whom they have regular contacts already. The public will be duly informed by the institutions when the service is being offered, right?

Okay, let's be honest. The yuan business has yet to get into full swing. It will be some time before it churns out big bucks. So far, only a handful of banks have come up with some products or marketing either as a long term investment or a political favour to Beijing. That's far from enough.

It is for the government to increase the awareness and knowledge of the latest breakthrough not just among the financial institutions but also the end users.

The more the market knows about it, the more the products, the higher the acceptance of yuan and the faster it becomes an international currency.

But the whole thing has just got started and, perhaps, there isn't much to talk about? But if that is so, go tell the bankers at HSBC who have come up with more than 30 frequently asked questions and tried to answer them. Mind you that's on yuan trade settlement alone.

Better still, go tell Paulo and many others in other parts of the world who have zero experience with the yuan but are eager to find out more.