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RMB to Play Bigger Role in Hong Kong Insurance

Posted on Jan 18, 2012 by Sergio Ulloa ()

Hong Kong has announced new measures this week to liberalize yuan capital requirements for local banks in a bid to promote the city-state's status as China's main offshore currency centre. This move will likely result in more yuan-denominated insurance products and retirement funds becoming available in Asia's premier insurance market soon. On Tuesday, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA), the city's de facto central bank, declared that local banks would now be able to include both their holdings of yuan-denominated Chinese sovereign bonds that were issued locally in Hong Kong and bonds traded within Mainland China's inter-bank market as part of their mandatory capital reserve requirements going forward. Prior to this regulation, all Hong Kong-based banks trading on the offshore yuan market had to set aside cash and settlement balances as reserves (equal to 25 percent of customer deposits) with a separate yuan-clearing bank or through the fiduciary account in the People's Bank of China, as part of the city's strict risk management regulations. Relaxing these requirements now will allow Hong Kong banks to take on more risks, hold more cash for mainland interbank lending, and increase their involvement overall in the fledgling offshore yuan market . This announcement follows the HKMA and UK Treasury decision earlier in the week to launch a new joint private sector international forum designed to promote the globalization of the yuan. The forum will enhance cooperation between Hong Kong and London's financial centers and work to support the continued development of the offshore yuan market. After years of stringent currency isolation, the Chinese government is now attempting to promote the use of the yuan overseas as part of their long-term plan to turn their notes into an international reserve currency to compete alongside the United States dollar. China sees the growh of the Hong Kong yuan market in particular as a key component to this objective, and are working to support it's continued development. Yuan-denominated deposits in Hong Kong increased to CNY627.3 billion (US$99.18 billion) in November 2011, up by 1.4 per cent from a month prior. London, the world's largest foreign exchange centre, will soon be permitted a slice of this yuan action too, as the United Kingdom looks to boost its trade and investment ties with Asia's fast-growing economies. Speaking at the annual Asia Financial Forum in Hong Kong yesterday, HKMA Chief Executive Norman Chan told attendees that the new relaxed rules on yuan capital requirements would ensure the stable development of the offshore Chinese currency market and become a boon for the rest of the international business community as well. "These measures greatly expand the scope of offshore yuan business development," Chan said, adding that this in turn "raises the flexibility on how banks manage their yuan assets, favoring further growth in the market." The HKMA has advised however that banks should of course continue to adopt prudent measures in measuring their foreign exchange and liquidity risk when engaging in yuan-denominated activities. "We are required to change financial rules according to market conditions. Our principle is to make gradual change while keeping risks at bay," Chan concluded. One of the beneficiaries of this development will of course likely be the Hong Kong insurance industry. The HKMA Chief admitted that they were already looking for ways to get insurer investment back into the Mainland interbank bond market. Increasing insurer trade would in turn lead to an increase in the number of yuan-denominated insurance products and retirement funds with longer maturity available in China. According to HKMA statistics, the value of new life insurance premiums priced in yuan hit a record CNY4.43 billion (HK$5.4 billion) during the first half of 2011, representing about 13.8 percent of the total Hong Kong life market for the year. The mainland insurance market offers business opportunities that HK insurers cannot ignore, provided they are permitted to engage with them. One of Hong Kong's chief insurance sector legislators, Chan Kin-por, was also on hand at the Asia Financial Forum to explain that currently only China Reinsurance is allowed to invest the yuan-denominated premiums. "If insurers could directly invest in the mainland interbank bond market, that could generate 3-4 percent return almost risk- free," said Chan Kin-por, adding that a direct investment channel for HK insurers is long overdue. Four HK-based insurance companies have already confirmed their interest in the mainland bond market and will likely be granted an investment quota soon, with pension funds expected to wait a while longer. Despite persistent financial market volatility, Hong Kong's insurance industry kept pace with double-digit growth rates posted in several neighboring Asia-Pacific markets throughout 2011. According to the latest figures made available on the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance (OCI) website, Hong Kong's insurance companies posted HK$172.8 billion (US$22.2 billion) in gross written premiums for the first three quarters of 2011, a 12.6 percent growth rate over the same period last year, with overall underwriting profit rising from HK$1.7 billion (US$220 million) to HK$2.1 billion (US$270 million) during that time. While these double-digit premium growth rates may prove elusive in 2012, Hong Kong's insurance companies will likely benefit from the business potential available across the Asia Pacific region, specifically Mainland China. According to a recent report issued by the Hong Kong Federation of Insurers (HKFI), Mainland Chinese customers are projected to contribute 20 to 30 percent of all new HK insurance sales over the next five years. China is now the world's second largest economy, with an emerging middle class population ready to spend vast sums on a variety of insurance and investment products. This tremendous potential customer base has presented sizeable opportunities to major international financial markets, most notably Hong Kong of course, which is both convenient geographically and culturally as well. While this Hong Kong-China relationship has frequently been tested, made notable last year by maternity tourism abuse, overall the mainland market will provide many HK businesses with bountiful business prospects going forward. Hong Kong insurance companies that can develop both innovative and cost-effective insurance products not yet available on the Mainland will be able to capitalize upon a still under-penetrated and lucrative market.
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