China takes big step towards fully convertible yuan

State Council says it is preparing plan for internationalised currency

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 07 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 07 May, 2013, 5:13am

In a move towards internationalising the yuan, the State Council said yesterday it will unveil an operational plan this year to make the currency fully convertible under capital accounts.

The plan is likely to include a clear-cut time frame.

The cabinet also said it would establish a comprehensive system for individuals' outbound investments, indicating that Beijing would make a renewed effort to relaunch the "through train" scheme allowing mainlanders to directly buy Hong Kong stocks - a plan that was scrapped in 2007. While the yuan is already convertible under the current account, covering trade, the capital account, which covers portfolio investment and borrowing, is closely controlled.

The announcement, which followed a meeting chaired by Premier Li Keqiang , indicated the leadership may already have drafted a time frame for a freer capital flow. It had been speculated earlier that full convertibility would come by 2015.

The State Council said the decisions at the meeting were in compliance with directives from the Communist Party's Central Economic Working Conference in December chaired by President Xi Jinping .

"The statement shows the leadership has attached great importance to the convertibility issue and the operational plan will give the all-clear for liberalisation," said Li Huiyong, chief economist with Shenyin Wanguo Securities. "Global and domestic economic conditions have pushed the leaders to accelerate the pace for reforms."

Global and domestic economic conditions have pushed the leaders to accelerate the pace for reforms

In 2007, Beijing first announced its ambition to internationalise the yuan and promote its use worldwide in step with China's rising economic heft.

Liberalisation of the capital account would allow businesses or individuals from home and abroad to freely convert their currencies to buy assets and equities across the border. However, it is likely that, at least initially, the exchange of foreign currencies would still be subject to restrictions by regulators to prevent an entirely free flow of capital.

Beijing opened the current account in 1996, allowing companies to exchange foreign currencies for trade deals. The central bank put full convertibility on the agenda in 1996, with 2000 as a target date, but the Asian financial turmoil derailed the plan.

As China integrates further into the global economy, with domestic capital seeking fresh markets and foreign funds gravitate to the mainland, an open capital account would facilitate capital flow and investments.

"The meeting discussed a lot of issues, but it's not easy to get all of them done," said Industrial Bank chief economist Lu Zhengwei . "The thing that Premier Li is set to do in the near term is to reduce administrative approvals."