To “Prevent Public Panic”, Beijing Orders Banks To Keep Capital Controls Secret
China is so concerned about the ongoing surge in capital outflows that its forex regulator, SAFE, has taken the unprecedented step of ordering banks to keep its instructions about curbing capital outflows secret and also to ensure that research analysts do not publish any negative views about the yuan according to Reuters. According to bankers from local and foreign banks, both demands are seen as an attempt by the authorities to prevent alarm that could trigger further declines in the yuan.
With the yuan losing 6% of its value against the dollar last year as a result of hundreds of billions in official outflows (and as much as $1.1 trillion in unofficial since August 2015 according to Goldman calculations), Beijing has unleashed a flurry of restrictive measures on capital outflows from the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), including setting limits on banks’ currency volumes in some cities or provinces and requiring approval for ever smaller transactions. Overnight, the PBOC even unveiled probed into bitcoin exchanges, sending the digital currency plunging over 20%.
Reuters reports that SAFE, which is part of the People’s Bank of China, is insisting, orally, that dozens of bank don’t reveal its role in such restrictions, which was damaging their relationships with clients since they were unable to explain why they were turning away business. SAFE’s reticence began at least as far back as August, when its Shanghai branch called at least 20 of the major foreign and domestic banks operating in the city to a meeting with the regional heads of several SAFE departments.
A representative from an international bank attending the meeting said there were no written instructions, but a high-ranking SAFE official told them explicitly what was expected of them.
“You must control your forex deficit, but you can’t say that SAFE is controlling capital outflows,” the official told the bankers. The banks were told to “manage sentiment” to prevent public panic, the banker said, and the banks’ research analysts should not broadcast any negative views on the yuan.
As a reminder, while in the US, the real Fake News is anything having to do with relations between Trump and Russia; in China fake news mostly focus on the economy and the currency (as well as virtually everything else).
“They told us not to publish bad house views – analyst house views – on the yuan”, the person said. A second banker on the forex team of an international bank said his bank had received the same instructions.
Where a bank has exceeded the SAFE-set limits for forex transactions in a month, they have to turn business away, but are unable to explain the real reason why, several bankers complained. “We’re not going to tell our customers that (our forex business) has stopped; we just have to find ways to turn down the business we’re not allowed to do,” said a banker at Chinese Commercial Bank Ping An who had received SAFE instructions from seniors.
“It’s not good for client relationships,” he added, explaining that he had told his clients to go to other banks.
Additionally, SAFE had told banks to interview clients to make sure the forex deals were not for fake transactions, or else face punishment, according to two bankers at separate listed banks. In response to those orders, one of the banks sent an internal notice to employees, seen by Reuters, to alert them to SAFE’s requirements, explaining that the regulator’s penalties could include “cancelling business qualifications” needed for the lender to conduct forex business.
The notice passed on SAFE’s instructions that staff should not mention the regulator, i.e., it was to be kept secret.
“Please do not reply to clients using wording such as SAFE controls, or SAFE doesn’t allow or strictly controls FX purchases,” it read. Instead, they should adhere to the line provided by SAFE, that the purpose of the changes was to “promote healthy development of outbound direct investment” and “crack down on fake deals”, the notice added.
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While China’s foreign exchange reserves fell to $3.05 trillion in November from $3.3 trillion in the first 11 months of 2016, and many traders are betting there will be further outflows as U.S. interest rates rises make dollar assets more attractive, SAFE wants banks to advise clients to buy yuan and sell dollars, the international bank representative said, a play that is likely to lose clients money. “If a person doesn’t ave this need, how am I supposed to encourage it?” the banker said.
At the same time, SAFE is quietly choking programmes designed to open overseas markets to Chinese investors. Even where institutional investors have been granted quotas to invest overseas, they are finding it increasingly difficult to exchange yuan into another currency.
“SAFE would tell you that you still need to stand in the queue, and the waiting period is ‘uncertain’,” said an executive at Shanghai-based China equity fund house Greenwoods. An investment program set up so global funds can raise Chinese cash to invest overseas has ground to a halt without explanation. “The application process seems to be in a state of suspension,” Michael Lu, managing director of Greater China Business Development of Dutch money manager Robeco told reporters in November.
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In short, China has implemented full blown capital controls, without wanting its population to know it has done so, which is understandable: fear of the unknown would lead to panic, would lead to more selling, and more panic and so on. But what we find delightfully ironic is that China is cracking down on the internationalization of its currency, just months after the IMF made the Yuan a fully “respected” member of the SDR – a token of how “liberalized” the currency is. As usual, trust Christine Lagarde to get it dead wrong.