As yuan weakens, Chinese rush to open foreign currency accounts

Sun Dec 18, 2016 6:36pm EST
 
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By Winni Zhou and John Ruwitch

SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Zhang Yuting lives and works in Shanghai, has only visited the United States once, and rarely needs to use foreign currency. But that hasn’t stopped the 29-year-old accountant from putting a slice of her bank savings into the greenback.

She is not alone. In the first 11 months of 2016, official figures show that foreign currency bank deposits owned by Chinese households rose by almost 32 percent, propelled by the yuan's recent fall to eight-year lows against the dollar.

The rapid rise - almost four times the growth rate for total deposits in the yuan and other currencies as recorded in central bank data – comes at a time when the yuan is under intense pressure from capital outflows. The outflows are partially a result of concerns that the yuan is going to weaken further as U.S. interest rates rise, and because of lingering concerns about the health of the Chinese economy.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s threats to declare China a currency manipulator and to impose punitive tariffs on Chinese imports into the U.S., as well as tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea, have only added to the fears.

“Expectations of capital flight are clear," said Zhang, who used her yuan savings to buy $10,000 this year. "I might exchange more yuan early next year, as long as I've got money."

Household foreign currency deposits in China are not huge compared to the money that companies, banks and wealthy individuals have been directing into foreign currency accounts and other assets offshore. All up, households had $118.72 billion of foreign money in their bank accounts at the end of November, while total foreign currency deposits were $702.56 billion.

But the high growth rate in the household forex holdings are symbolic of a growing headache for the government as it struggles to counter the yuan's weakness.

Since October, the government has acted to slow outflows by tightening existing measures, such as approvals for foreign currency transfers, and has leant on banks to be stricter, making it harder for companies and individuals to change money and transfer money abroad.   Continued...

 
A bank clerk counts U.S. dollar banknotes on bundles of 100 Chinese yuan banknotes at a branch of a bank in Huaibei, Anhui province April 26, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer