Canadian financial services group Manulife Financial has launched a joint working team with a mainland partner to prepare itself for a lucrative part of the potentially huge fund-management market. The team was put together despite Manulife not knowing when it will be allowed into the country. Manulife and China National Chemicals Import and Export (Sinochem) recently signed a memorandum of understanding outlining the basis on which they would like to form a joint-venture company to carry out fund management in the mainland. The firms have joined two other foreign firms, Jardine Fleming and American International Group, to enter into such an arrangement. Manulife's marketing and communications vice-president in Hong Kong Philip Hampden-Smith said he had no idea when they would be able to get a licence. 'A lot of people have asked me when the mainland would open its A-share market to foreign fund managers,' he said. 'Honestly speaking, I don't know. It could be two or three years, or even longer.' But Mr Hampden-Smith said Manulife was patient when seeking expansion on the mainland and its optimism was not based on blind faith. The company spent eight patient years on the mainland before it was allowed to set up a life insurance joint venture with Sinochem late in 1996. He believed the mainland was not in a hurry to open its budding fund management industry to foreign investors. National People's Congress chairman Li Peng has recently ruled out the opening of the A-share market to foreign investors in the foreseeable future, citing the Asian financial crisis. Mr Hampden-Smith said Manulife wanted to be prepared to be one of the first on the bandwagon when the market was opened one day. The mainland fund-management market is puny at present with retail fund sales of 16 billion yuan (about HK$14.89 billion), compared with bank deposits amounting to about five trillion yuan. But the retail funds market is expected to top 200 billion yuan over the next five years if reforms of the sector are properly managed, according to Manulife. It said the total funds market, including institutional funds, could top one trillion yuan by the next decade.