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China Eases Limits on Foreign Stakes in Financial Firms

A view of Shanghai’s financial district last year. The Chinese government announced on Friday that it would relax or remove some of the limits on foreign ownership of banks and securities firms.

Mike Nelson/European Pressphoto Agency

A view of Shanghai’s financial district last year. The Chinese government announced on Friday that it would relax or remove some of the limits on foreign ownership of banks and securities firms.

BEIJING — Hours after President Trump left China with a warning about its trade practices, Beijing threw him — and Wall Street — a bone.

The Chinese government said on Friday that it would relax or remove a broad range of limits on foreign ownership of banks and securities firms. The move could inject a little foreign know-how into a vast financial system that helped fuel China’s economic rise but that in recent years has become burdened with debt, bubbles and inefficiencies.

Foreign firms may not rush in right away. Global financial institutions have been cautious about investing in China, partly because they would be required to buy mostly Chinese-made telecommunications equipment for their operations here and to store financial data here as part of the country’s tough new cybersecurity laws.

Still, the Chinese initiative could help Beijing rally political support from Wall Street banks and securities firms, which have profited from fees on Chinese purchases of American companies but have long been limited in what they could do inside China.

China could use some friendly faces in Washington. In addition to Mr. Trump’s comments about unfair trade during his visit to Beijing this week, Republicans in the House and Senate introduced legislation with strong Trump administration support that would ratchet up considerably the federal government’s scrutiny of Chinese acquisitions of companies in the United States.

Goldman Sachs Group praised the Chinese move, saying, “We welcome today’s announcement and look forward to playing a greater role in China’s capital markets.”

China keeps tight limits on a number of industries it considers vital, including energy, transportation, the media and financial services. Companies in the United States, Europe and Japan have increasingly complained about being limited in those markets or shut out entirely, even as Chinese companies make their own investments in similar industries outside its borders. In many cases, Beijing’s limits have given rise to Chinese giants who dominate markets at home.

Officials in Beijing had previously said the government would open the financial sector to outside money, but Friday’s move offered the first concrete details.

Zhu Guangyao, China’s vice finance minister, said that his country would start allowing foreign investors to own 51 percent of Chinese securities firms, fund managers and futures companies, and would allow them to own 100 percent three years from now. The current limit on foreign ownership is 25 percent for large, publicly traded securities firms and 49 percent for most other businesses in these categories.

Mr. Zhu said that China would also raise the allowed foreign investment in insurance companies, currently 50 percent for most companies, to 51 percent in three years and 100 percent in five years. China also plans to eliminate its current limit of 25 percent foreign ownership in banks, Mr. Zhu said, but he did not say when it might happen.

While the moves were announced several hours after Mr. Trump and his advisers flew to Vietnam, Mr. Zhu said that the initiatives were the result of decisions made during the Communist Party’s congress last month. Trump administration officials shied away from making commitments while in Beijing over market access, the sort of horse-trading that marked previous presidential visits. They have also been distracted by domestic issues and other trade issues.

Some international banking acumen may be welcome in China. The country’s state-controlled banking system has lent heavily to state-owned companies and affiliates of local governments, leading to vast piles of debt accumulated in a short amount of time. Meanwhile, some smaller businesses continue to complain about lack of access to money. Increased competition could spur state-owned banks to improve their lending decisions.

“Speaking over all, it is a good thing,” said Liu Dongliang, an analyst at China Merchants Bank. “There will be more different kinds of capital involved, and their management ideas and risk control ideas may arouse some reaction.”

American financial institutions cautiously welcomed the Chinese move. Citibank said that its existing operations in China were already growing, with more than $1 billion a year in China-related revenue, and that it wanted to study the details of the new regulations when they were released.

China promised when it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 that it would rapidly open up its financial markets to foreign competition. Foreign commercial banks were then disappointed when Chinese regulators set high capital requirements for each foreign bank branch, limiting their ability to expand.

But the rise of online banking has reduced the need for bank branches, and so has the rise of electronic payments. Over the past couple of years, Citibank has been gradually closing some of its retail branches in China, as it has done in the United States. According to the bank, 95 percent of its retail banking transactions now take place outside bank branches.

Yet foreign banks hold just 1.5 percent of the assets in China’s credit-swollen banking system. State-owned banks have flooded credit markets with so many loans that finding large, financially stable, creditworthy borrowers has become harder in China, forcing newcomers to enter the treacherous market of providing loans to smaller enterprises at a time when the entire Chinese economy is gradually slowing.

China’s financial markets have a reputation for fraud and manipulation, particularly the stock market. Increasing the role of foreign firms in these markets could help introduce overseas practices that might limit misconduct.

Asset management companies have already been expanding their role in China, and the new rules announced by Mr. Zhu could speed that process. Peter L. Alexander, the founder and managing director of Z-Ben Advisors, a Shanghai financial consulting firm, said that because Chinese investors tended to have large holdings in relatively simple money market funds and had not yet shown much interest in purchasing exchange-traded funds, “there’s an opportunity for active managers.”

Mr. Zhu also repeated on Friday a Chinese pledge made late Thursday to ease joint-venture requirements for electric cars and other so-called new energy vehicles that may be built in China’s free-trade zones. Unlike any other large car manufacturing nation, China requires either that all cars sold within its borders be assembled in a 50-50 joint venture with a local partner or that an import tax of at least 25 percent be paid, plus a range of other taxes.

Tesla has sought and apparently obtained permission to have a wholly owned factory in a free-trade zone in Shanghai, and is still working out other details, like whether cars made in the zone will qualify for electric car subsidies that China currently provides only to domestically produced cars.

Follow Keith Bradsher on Twitter:@KeithBradsher

Ailin Tang contributed research.

Copyright © 2017 The New York Times Company. All rights reserved.
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