China Unleashes New Steps to Control Financial Risks, Outflows

  • Measures target banking system risks, capital outflows
  • China limits purchases of insurance products overseas

China’s government is stepping up efforts to ward off a potential financial crisis, warning bank executives that their jobs are on the line unless they control risks and putting restrictions on an increasingly popular way of evading capital controls.

The moves come after China’s slowest economic growth in a quarter century fueled concerns that bad debts will cripple the banking system and speculative pressure on the yuan mounted. They add to evidence that President Xi Jinping’s government is moving with increased urgency to rein in financial-system risks.

In January, China stepped up administrative measures to slow capital outflows that Bloomberg Intelligence estimates reached $1 trillion last year. The tightening marked a reversal after years of easing that spurred global use of the yuan, a trend that turned on China when speculative bets against the currency offshore jumped.

Moving to plug one popular way for moving money out of China, the currency regulator is imposing restrictions on buying insurance products overseas, people with knowledge of the matter said Tuesday. Purchases of insurance products overseas using UnionPay debit and credit cards will be capped at $5,000 per transaction effective Feb. 4, according to the people.

Purchases through China UnionPay Co. cards have been exempt from capital controls that limit Chinese individuals to bringing out a maximum of $50,000 per year. Chinese people have been flocking to Hong Kong to buy insurance policies, which typically come with better service than on the mainland and also offer them a way to skirt controls on how much capital they can move abroad.

“They are obviously trying to escape the impact of the yuan’s depreciation and evade capital controls in China," Chen Xingyu, a Shanghai-based analyst at Phillip Securities Research, said before Bloomberg News reported on the restrictions.

Purchases of insurance policies by mainland visitors in Hong Kong reached HK$21.1 billion ($2.7 billion) last year through September, following a 64 percent surge in 2014, according to the city’s industry regulator.

Below are other measures taken recently by Chinese regulators:

* Shang Fulin, chairman of the China Banking Regulatory Commission, told an internal meeting last month that banks would be forced to restructure, inject new capital or change their senior management if key risk indicators fall outside "reasonable ranges," people familiar with the matter said Tuesday. Those indicators include bad-loan coverage and capital adequacy ratios, Shang told the meeting, the people said.

* China’s central bank has told lenders it will require greater control over the amount of wealth management product funds they give to brokerages and other financial institutions to manage, people familiar with the matter said Tuesday. The People’s Bank of China told banks it will also impose more limits on the amount of proprietary funds managed by other institutions, and that it will tighten control of leverage taken on when buying bonds, the people said.

* The central bank said Tuesday it will allow banks to cut the minimum required mortgage down payment to 20 percent from 25 percent for first-home purchases to the lowest level ever as it steps up support for the property market. A rising stockpile of unsold new homes is hampering government efforts to spur investment expanding at the slowest pace in more than five years.