This edition’s GTR Asia Market View comes from HSBC. Following the launch of a Chinese government pilot scheme permitting the limited use of renminbi (Rmb) in trade transactions, HSBC has closed the first trade transaction to be settled in Rmb. Chris Lewis, head of trade and supply chain, greater China, at HSBC, looks at the impact of the scheme on trade finance markets.

In July 2009, the People’s Bank of China released the final details of a pilot scheme that allows trade between the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong, Macau and certain countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to be settled in renminbi (Rmb).

Shortly after this scheme went live, HSBC, in co-operation with its strategic partner Bank of Communications (BoCom), became the first foreign bank to settle a cross-border trade in Rmb.

Although the initial pilot is relatively modest in scope, there are expectations that it will be extended in due course to include other countries.

In the short-term, it seems probable that the initiative will replace the use of US dollars and euros in some existing trade transactions. However, in the medium to long-term there are hopes it will lead to significant new trade activity as new participants are attracted by the advantages of Rmb settlement.

Expanding use of renminbi
The mainland Chinese government’s preliminary announcement in late 2008 that it would be permitting the limited use of Rmb as a trade currency between China and Hong Kong and Macau was not entirely unexpected.

A limited range of retail Rmb transactions have been possible for some time in Hong Kong and these have now been extended as part of the pilot. In addition to the existing seven designated merchants engaged in tourism or consumer services, all companies in Hong Kong that are engaged in imports and exports with designated mainland enterprises can open Rmb accounts for the purpose of settling cross-border Rmb trade.

A further announcement in April 2009 revealed that the pilot project would operate between five designated mainland cities (Shanghai, and four cities in Guangdong – Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Zhuhai and Dongguan) and Hong Kong and Macau.

The final detailed announcement of the pilot scheme by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) in early July 2009 actually extended the scheme by allowing these cities to settle trade with countries of the Asean in Rmb. (It was originally anticipated that this would not happen until a later phase of the pilot.)

There was a swift reaction by the market to the final detailed announcement of the pilot, which was closely followed by the first ever cross-border Rmb trade transaction by an international bank, in this case HSBC, in co-operation with HSBC’s strategic partner – China’s Bank of Communications.

HSBC offers a range of Rmb services, including trade finance, two-way exchange between Rmb and the Hong Kong dollar and other foreign currencies as well as outward and inward remittances for imports and exports made with Mainland designated enterprises.

Who’s involved?
Various Chinese agencies in the relevant provinces handle applications by corporate clients to be eligible for the pilot scheme. All selected candidates are also subject to a joint review by the PBOC, the ministry of finance, the ministry of commerce, the general administration of customs, the state administration of taxation, and the China banking regulatory commission.

The PBOC intends to further expand the number of participating companies, but in the pilot stage it appears that the number will be limited to around 400.

Although the initial scheme is fairly modest, it is still a significant and very welcome step. While both Hong Kong and Macau are special administrative regions of China, both have their own currencies, which are also both pegged to the US dollar – although indirectly in the case of the Macau pataca.

These linkages will afford all participants an indication of the likely response if the scheme is expanded to include ‘direct’ US dollar trade between mainland companies and trading partners in countries outside the initial pilot.

As with any scheme that potentially internationalises the Rmb, the PBOC will be keen to ensure the process runs in a smooth and organised manner. In the initial pilot, settlement of trade transactions in China will take place either through Bank of China (Hong Kong) or mainland correspondent banks via a nostro account.

Internationalising Rmb
The pilot scheme is part of a broader trend of currency and trade deals that China has been agreeing with major trading partners since December 2008.

By the end of the first quarter of 2009, China had agreed currency swap deals in various formats with Malaysia, South Korea, Hong Kong, Belarus, Indonesia and Argentina, worth some US$100bn.

The motivation behind these agreements varies. Occasionally the aim is to promote trade by reducing frictional costs and risks for trade participants. Alternatively, the objective is for Rmb to provide support for the currency of an important trading partner.

A discussion in May 2009 between Brazilian and Chinese leaders Lula da Silva and Hu Jintao demonstrates an alternative approach. Rather than an outright swap for an agreed rate and size, the notion is simply for Brazil to pay for Chinese goods with Brazilian real and China to pay for Brazilian goods with Rmb.

These currency swap initiatives and the Rmb pilot for Hong Kong/Macau have one key feature in common; they will allow for the controlled internationalisation of the Rmb.
Any currency exchanges are defined in advance and typically involve another sovereign government as the counterparty.

With the Hong Kong/Macau pilot scheme, the PBOC will closely monitor the activity of participating banks on the mainland, while the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA) will fulfil the same role for banks in Hong Kong and the Monetary Authority of Macau (AMCM) for those in Macau.

In the short term, this conservative approach may result in a fairly modest effect on trade flows.

Pros of settling in Rmb
However, the scheme could drive a significant, although small-scale, currency switch as importers and exporters see how settling in Rmb has advantages for their businesses.
Some mainland companies may maintain a more cautious approach, as some of their customers may insist on continuing to be billed in US dollars or euros.

While their suppliers may accept being paid in Rmb, this will have little effect on the wider adoption of Chinese currency if they prefer not to hold Rmb and always hedge or translate back into their domestic currency. The decision to use Rmb for trade settlement will obviously also depend on factors such as whether they need to purchase or borrow in Rmb or if they are interested in investing in Rmb-denominated bonds.

Even where trading partners do adopt the Rmb for settling their transactions, this is unlikely to drive a significant expansion in total trade with China in the early stages.

There are also implications for Hong Kong to increase its position as a trade centre.

Companies both within and beyond Asia (especially in those Latin American countries with which China has signed swap agreements) may be encouraged by the pilot scheme to establish entities in Hong Kong to carry out trade business in Rmb. Ultimately they may use Hong Kong as a hub from which to conduct back-to-back trade beyond the special administrative region.

Further growth
The effects of the trade pilot scheme from a medium-to-long-term perspective are likely to be more significant than the short-term implications.

If there is a further extension of the pilot, domestic market-focused Chinese companies will probably rethink their business strategy. They may previously have been deterred from international trade by the prospect of having to manage US dollar or euro currency risk, but will be more inclined to expand into this area if they can settle and/or hedge easily in their domestic currency.

While by no means a perfect parallel, the effect of the introduction of the euro on trade gives some indication of what may happen to trade flows in the mid-to-long-term if Rmb becomes more widely adopted in trade.

The comparison is imperfect, as the new entrants to cross-border trade in Europe were in many cases attracted by the lower frictional costs of trading with partners within the Eurozone. But, there is evidence to suggest that the availability of euros as a trade currency has also had a significant influence in boosting trade flows between Eurozone and non-Eurozone countries.

While the US dollar has a long pedigree as the currency of international trade, the sheer volume of non-US-related China trade now flowing makes Rmb an attractive alternative.

At present, the European Union is still comfortably China’s largest bilateral trading partner, with the US second. However, China’s trade with other nations – particularly the other BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia and India) – has grown phenomenally in recent years. (For example, in April 2009, China’s trade with Brazil topped US$3bn; the mainland has now overtaken the US as Brazil’s primary trading partner, upsetting a status quo that had prevailed since the 1930s.)

From the perspective of trade between Chinese companies and their customers/suppliers outside the US, trading directly in Rmb (as opposed to using the US dollars as an intermediary currency) makes increasing sense.

If Rmb continues to become more accessible as a trade currency, further positive considerations kick in. Given the robust state of China’s economy when compared with the current condition of other major trade nations, it seems reasonable to assume that the Rmb would be similarly robust as a currency. If that assumption proves valid, then a growing number of China’s trading partners would be content to hold Rmb as an appreciating or strong currency, rather than always hedging out.

At present, the huge liquidity of US dollar spot and derivative markets make hedging reasonably cost-efficient, but there is still some frictional cost to using it as an intermediary currency. Assuming the availability of liquid Rmb hedging and trade finance instruments, some non-US suppliers to Chinese companies may see further potential in adopting it for trade. Switching from billing their Chinese customers in US dollars to billing them in Rmb may offer the opportunity to expand margins, while also reducing risks and hedging costs.

Reduced foreign exchange risk will be a welcome relief for importers and exporters who engage in cross-border trade, with respondents in a recent survey undertaken on behalf of HSBC, Trade Confidence Index indicating volatile foreign exchange rates were a top barrier to growth.

From the bank side

A critical factor in the widespread adoption of Rmb will be the pricing and availability of suitable bank products. This will be heavily dependent on the efficiency of the methods available to banks to hedge and raise funds in Rmb.

There has been some talk of allowing China-based subsidiaries of Hong Kong banks to raise Rmb funds in Hong Kong. (HSBC has just completed such a fundraising exercise in Hong Kong and it is expected that other banks will shortly follow suit.) While there is a non-deliverable forwards market in Rmb, growth and usage of other Rmb derivatives has been limited.

If there is insufficient liquidity available in the interbank derivatives market for offsetting Rmb risk, then pricing and availability to importers and exporters will be impacted and demand for Rmb-denominated trade reduced. The key is how this can be facilitated and extended without giving rise to unwanted speculative activity.

There are certainly signs that the Chinese authorities are already putting the appropriate derivatives infrastructure in place. For example, the PBOC made an announcement in March 2009 approving the consolidation of various derivatives master agreements into one uniform master agreement.

It is clear that greater levels of Rmb-denominated trade could in the mid-to-long-term prove highly positive for global trade volumes. While it may be premature to predict a significant decline in US dollar-denominated trade, it is certainly safe to assume that many trade participants will see the recent moves by the Chinese government and the PBOC as highly positive.

The key will be at what point new participants expand their domestic focus to a global one and whether existing trade participants ramp up their activity in response to the Rmb opportunity.