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Currencies

China's rich seek ways to move cash abroad before yuan weakens

Black-market dealers and Irish homes offer escape hatch

A for-sale sign stands in front of a home in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Interest in overseas real estate is rising among wealthy Chinese.   © Reuters

SHANGHAI -- "There is no room for negotiation today," a black-market currency dealer said when approached on West Nanjing Road, a bustling commercial strip in Shanghai, last week. "It's going to be 7.2 yuan to the dollar."

The official rate was 7.06 that day, but the man, who was a little past his prime, was defiant. At one point late last month, the yuan had sunk to 7.19 in overseas trading. He was confident in the direction of the weakening currency. 

"Oh, I can help you send money overseas too. I have a friend who can do that," he said, before quickly leaving the scene. Police in the area are said to have become a bit stricter of late.

Signs are emerging of wealthy Chinese searching for ways to skirt regulations to move money out of the country on worries about the yuan's weakening and growing trade tensions with the U.S.

The well-established route of setting up a dollar account in Hong Kong to send it overseas is making a reappearance. Interest in overseas real estate and insurance products is rising as the coronavirus pandemic winds down in the region.

Black-market currency traders bide their time on a park bench in Shanghai. (Photo by Yusho Cho)

About a hundred people watched a webinar on investing in Ireland this month, listening to an executive from a company there repeatedly tout Irish properties as practically immune to the Sino-American frictions. At the end, the executive showed a 1.32 million euro ($1.5 million) home with an expected return of nearly 3%.

The talk was the latest of a series of webinars hosted since May by Juwai, a Chinese brokerage specializing in emigration, real estate and education opportunities abroad. Malaysian and Japanese properties have also been featured.

Such locations as Malta and Cyprus are growing popular, according to another brokerage.

China has strict rules on exchanging money, placing a cap of $50,000 a year per person. For investments overseas, buyers usually pool the limits of various family members or take cash with them when traveling abroad.

But travel bans due to the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on outbound movement of funds. Capital outflows from China came to just $1 billion in the first quarter, according to French investment bank Natixis.

Once borders start reopening, outflows are likely to increase.

"The yuan weakened more than 10% in two years," said a broker of foreign-currency-denominated insurance sold in Hong Kong. "You need foreign currencies to protect your assets."

The broker earns commissions by meeting mainland customers in Shenzhen and escorting them to insurance sales offices in nearby Hong Kong. Inquiries started increasing around May, with many customers planning to go buy policies there in the autumn or later, the broker said.

Affluent Chinese increasingly worry that this gray method of moving money abroad will be cut off now that the government has decided to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong.

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