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Did China’s Wealthy Elite Secretly Move Capital Offshore via Hong Kong’s Gemstones?

Last Updated September 23, 2020 12:22 PM
Melanie Kramer
Last Updated September 23, 2020 12:22 PM

There’s attention being drawn to an anomaly in China’s trade data. Compared to imports of precious gemstones from Hong Kong, it could point to China’s wealthy overpaying for said imports. A method of moving capital out of the country that bypasses China’s capital controls.

An Outflow of Capital?

The first trigger is an increase in China’s capital outflow at the end of 2018. It correlates with both a devaluation of the Chinese yuan and an increase in the value of imports from Hong Kong.

China Imports from Hong Kong Source: ZeroHedge

As noted by ZeroHedge  and reported by the Financial Times , citing RBS strategist Elsa Lignos, there has been a recent rise in imports to China of precious stones from Hong Kong. That rise constitutes 53% of China’s total imports from Hong Kong. A figure that was just 2.9% in February 2018.

Jeffries analysts note that at the same time there was “slower consumption” in the potentially comparable market of “big ticket gem-set jewellery.” This means the hike in imports of precious gems from Hong Kong might not correlate with market behavior.

China Imports from Hong Kong Compared Against the Yuan Source: ZeroHedge

As per the Financial Times, if China’s wealthy are “using the notoriously opaque gem trade to evade capital controls and transfer assets out of China” then:

This may be an ominous sign for the direction of the Chinese currency, and by extension, the economy.

A recent appreciation of the Chinese yuan may have removed the incentive for Chinese citizens to secretly move capital offshore. While the value of the yuan was falling in 2018 capital outflow risks  were more of a concern for China.

US Dollar/Chinese Yuan Over the Last Six Months Source: TradingView

Analysts are now watching to see if “imports” of precious gems from Hong Kong fall again. If this trend persists, it may potentially shroud capital exiting from China. Then, the yuan may once again devalue.

Capital Controls in China

China imposes strict capital controls. Individuals can move no more than the equivalent of $50,000 out of China each year. Chinese companies are only allowed to exchange yuan to the US dollar and other currencies when approved to do so. The Asia Times suggested on January 3 that these exchange controls were being subtly tightened.

ZeroHedge reporting says “unofficially, China’s capital controls” have been “skirted” for years.

Other reporting  suggests that despite potentially increasing efforts to prevent capital outflows not only is that outflow happening but that China’s wealthiest are themselves leaving too. Apparently, a third of Chinese millionaires in a survey say they are considering emigrating. And, that another report found two-thirds of China’s wealthy were already emigrating or had plans to leave China.

The Impact of Capital Outflow in China

Chinese investment into companies in the wider global economy has also slowed as China looks to offset a potentially cooling economy by keeping money closer to home .

To encourage inward investment China has doubled  the amount allowed to flow into its equities markets via its foreign institutional investors (QFII) programme. Taking the permitted figure to $300 billion. A Commerzbank analyst noted this was also a “genuine gesture” to ease trade talks with the US.

In 2015 China saw an outflow of capital that it took until 2017  to slow. Once that happened and capital outflows turned to inflows China’s economic outlook strengthened.

A return to greater capital outflows and a falling yuan, combined with falling economic growth would detriment China’s economy. Experts are concerned that a slowdown in Europe and China could trigger a global recession.