The Chinese yuan, also known as the renminbi, is already convertible under the current account - the broadest measure of trade in goods and services. However, the capital account, which covers portfolio investment and borrowing, is still closely managed by Beijing because of worries about abrupt capital flows.
Central banks' investment in yuan puts currency nearer reserve status
Investment by dozens of central banks comes despite currency not being fully convertible
At least 40 central banks have invested in the yuan and several others are preparing to do so, putting the mainland currency on the path to reserve status even before full convertibility, Standard Chartered said.
Twenty-three countries have publicly declared their holdings in yuan, in either the onshore or offshore markets, yet the real number of participating central banks could be far more than that, said Jukka Pihlman, Standard Chartered's Singapore-based global head of central banks and sovereign wealth funds.
Pihlman, who formerly worked at the International Monetary Fund advising central banks on asset-management issues, said at least 17 central banks had invested in yuan assets without declaring they had done so.
The US dollar is still the world's most widely held reserve currency, accounting for nearly 61 per cent of global allocated reserves at the end of last year, according to IMF data. The ratio has been on a declining trend since 2001, when 71 per cent of the world's reserves were denominated in US dollars.
The IMF does not disclose the percentage of reserves held in yuan, but the emerging market countries' share of reserves in "other currencies" has increased by almost 400 per cent since 2003, while that of developed nations grew 200 per cent, according to IMF data.
Pihlman said "a great number of central banks are in the process of adding [yuan] to their portfolios".
"The [yuan] has effectively already become a de facto reserve currency because so many central banks have already invested in it," he said. "The [yuan] may become a de facto reserve currency before it is fully convertible."
The central banks more likely to add yuan holdings in the future were the ones with "strong trade linkages to China" and those which had relatively large levels of reserves which could consider diversifying more for return-related reasons, he said.
"The [yuan's] convertibility may be already there for central banks in a way that has got them comfortable to start investing in the currency," Pihlman said.
The rising popularity of the yuan among central bankers is probably mainly due to Beijing's extremely favourable treatment of them as it has sought to encourage investment in the yuan.
For example, central banks enjoy preferential treatment in the qualified foreign institutional investor category, both on the size of the quota and the length of the lock-up period. The quotas to the interbank bond markets given to central banks are not publicly known, but some of those announced by investing central banks are up to 10 times larger than others in the programme and, most importantly, free of any capital controls.
"Central banks and sovereign funds have special treatment," Pihlman said. “They have the ability to invest in a way that any other investor does not. When it comes to convertibility, there is nothing kind of formally out there, but the feed back from central banks is that it is fully convertible.”
Among the 23 central banks known to have yuan holdings, 11 are from Asian markets with close trade links with mainland China: Australia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Macau, Malaysia, Nepal, Pakistan, Singapore and Thailand, according to public records from either central banks' own statements or central bankers' interviews with the press.
The rest are five from Europe - Austria, Belarus, Norway, France and Lithuania - and seven from South America or Africa - Bolivia, Chile, Ghana, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Tanzania.