China's slowing economy has many investors worried - they shouldn't be. China's slew of capital market reforms offer foreign investors a host of new opportunities.
China's slowing growth in recent years has many claiming that investment opportunities in the country are drying up as the economy matures. China grew at a year-on-year rate of 7% in Q1 2015, with annual growth also forecast at around 7%, the lowest rate in decades.
China's massive growth has also led to massive debts, with total debt (government, corporate, individual) increasing four fold since 2007, reaching $28 trillion. These trends, combined with recent low industrial output and stock market volatility, have led some to predict trying times ahead for investors.
Quite frankly, this is the wrong outlook.
The Chinese government is fully aware of the challenges facing a maturing economy, and has engaged in a vigorous reform program. As labour costs increase and China moves towards a consumer spending rather than export driven economy, fewer chances exist for the types of heady investments seen in the '90s and 2000s.
To promote consumer spending, the Chinese government has recently announced a 50% reduction on cosmetics, clothing, and footwear tariffs. Further tax cuts are also planned on a wide range of imported consumer goods to increase consumer spending.
Beijing seeks more private-public partnerships
The government is also looking into easing monetary policy, increasing central government spending, and formulating plans for local governments to sell bonds. Investors looking for new opportunities in China should take heed of these changes.
For instance, the central government announced it is seeking to increase the role of the private sector in infrastructure projects. Specifically, the National Development and Reform Commission (the organization in charge of China's Five Year Plans) recently revealed a list of 1,043 upcoming public-private partnership infrastructure projects, valued at over $300 billion.
Furthermore, last week saw the government announce that a 25% stake in the Chinese National Nuclear Power Corporation will be offered, making this the largest IPO in China since 2010. Currently, the state owned China National Nuclear Group holds a 97% stake; however, in order to fund future reactor projects, the government is selling a quarter of its stake, valued at $2.16 billion. The flotation is scheduled for June.
Capital market reform key focus for Beijing
More significantly, the government is focusing on boosting foreign investment and the country's capital markets. The State Council announced that its 2015 reform priority would be capital markets.
The council has promised an orderly easing of controls on deposit rates, reforming the IPO system, and the development of a multi-layered capital market. These reforms had previously lagged due to the higher complexity of financial vs. industrial reforms, as well as the time needed to redistribute responsibilities between the central and local governments.
China has been following and continues to implement a cautious approach to these reforms, seeking to prevent the market overheating and thus risking greater economic stability. Over the past year, as China has been slowly deregulating and reforming its capital and stock markets, Chinese stock prices have risen 140% over the past 12 months.
Recently, the Shanghai Composite hit a seven-year high, after the National Development and Reform Commission announced the aforementioned infrastructure projects. Last November, China also implemented the Shanghai-Hong Kong stock connect, which allows Chinese individuals to buy stocks in Hong Kong.
Having said this, it is nevertheless important to note that the People's Bank of China (PBOC) has voiced concerns over a buoyant stock market powered by looser monetary policy. A specific concern is that these gains are coming at the expense of small businesses, which are suffering from high real interest rates and loan shortages.
Indeed, despite three rates cuts in the past six months, real interest rates in China are still over 3%. This is in stark contrast to the negative borrowing rates in the U.S., the E.U., and Japan.
Chinese individuals allowed to invest directly overseas
Despite these concerns, Beijing appears strongly committed to reforms. Alongside reforms targeted at institutional and corporate investors, China has announced a new six city (Shanghai, Tianjin, Chongqing, Wuhan, Shenzhen, and Wenzhen) pilot project.
The project, called the Qualified Domestic Individual Investor program, or QDII2 (it is the sequel to an institutional version), allows individuals to directly invest overseas. Individuals with at least one million yuan ($160,000) are eligible to join. This program has the potential to unleash billions of accumulated Chinese savings into the global stock and bond markets.
This program is interesting because unlike the Shanghai-Hong Kong stock connect program, QDII2 allows Chinese individuals greater freedom of choice. The Shanghai-Hong Kong program seeks to channel Chinese investors to stocks related to China, thus allowing for little risk diversification while keeping a tight grip on capital flight.
The QDII2 is an interesting development as Beijing allows individuals to invest in projects of their choice. This increases risk diversification for these investments, while the government can avoid exposure to said risk, as losses would be confined to personal bankruptcy cases.
Huge potential for foreign investors in wake of reforms
So far this year, the central bank has allowed an additional 32 foreign institutional investors to trade in China's $6.1 trillion inter-bank bond market. This is a significant increase in approved traders, with only 34 having been approved in 2014.
Overseas fund managers now hold $115 billion in domestic Chinese bonds, a 78% increase since December 2013. China is seeking to increase foreign bond ownership so as to pump excess cash into the bond market, thus providing greater stability in the market in the case of a crisis.
This sudden uptick in approved inter-bank traders is also an attempt to offset the capital flow leaving China - which in Q1 2015 reached a record high of $209 billion - as speculators withdraw and companies become cautious about holding yuan.
To this end, in April, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange amended its rules, making it easier for companies to convert and freely use yuan. The State Administration has also begun adopting IMF standards for calculating balance of payments and international investment positions.
This is part of China's largest efforts to convince the IMF to include the yuan as a new reserve currency in the organization Special Drawing Rights in October. This is the name for the IMF's international currency basket which includes the dollar, euro, pound, and yen.
If the yuan is included in the Special Drawing Rights, it is predicted that by 2020, foreigners could hold as much as $1.1 trillion onshore bonds. This would be a major development, since according to Q4 2014 data, foreigners only hold 2.4% of China's domestic bonds.
China's capital market reforms have significant potential for investors: taking a second look at China seems like a capital idea.