December 18, 2016 / 11:36 PM / 8 months ago

As yuan weakens, Chinese rush to open foreign currency accounts

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.Stringer

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.

More measures may be in the cards.

On Wednesday, a group of central bank advisers signaled their readiness to defend the yuan and said depreciation pressures would ease as the economy stabilized.

This has all started to have an impact at local bank branch level. Individuals are permitted by current law to convert the equivalent of $50,000 a year into foreign currency but according to some bankers they are taking steps to try to slow the flow in the current environment.

Two banking executives said some banks were threatening to put people who changed the daily maximum of $10,000 on consecutive days on blacklists. A person who is blacklisted may be from changing money for a period of time, one said.

Banks under pressure to minimize outflows are also offering deals and giveaways for people who voluntarily convert their forex savings back into yuan. Bank of Communications is entering any customer who changes more than $1,000 into yuan the chance to be part of a lucky draw, with various prizes, such as portable printers. Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) on its website offers preferential exchange rates for dollar-to-yuan transactions.

"We're not seeing capital flight or lack of confidence in the local currency," said Raymond Yeung, chief economist for Greater China at ANZ. But, he added, "the more you see people converting, reflected in foreign currency deposits in the banking segment, it means obviously there's pressure on the local currency."

DIVERSIFYING AWAY

In November, households added a net $5.65 billion to onshore foreign currency deposits, which was more than a quarter of the total increase, which includes deposits by companies, central bank data showed.

The deputy head of a district branch of one of China's biggest banks said she'd noticed an uptick in ordinary people shifting money from yuan into dollar accounts. "Everyone's following the trend," she said.

The biggest monthly rise in the foreign currency account deposits so far this year came in January, when the annual $50,000 conversion quota was reset and individuals rushed to change yuan into dollars.

While foreign currency deposits are a type of capital outflow, Julian Evans-Pritchard, China economist at Capital Economics, said they were preferable to money actually leaving the country.

"Regulators have a lot of control over what happens to those deposits, and they can control the rate of inflows into onshore FX deposits," he said.

Zhang, the accountant, has withdrawn her dollars in cash, concerned that a further fall in the yuan could lead to tougher measures from the state, such as forcing her to sell dollars in a bank account. There is no indication the government is considering anything of that nature.

Additional reporting by Jackie Cai; Editing by Martin Howell

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