BEIJING — China plans to ease restrictions on foreign ownership of financial services groups, the government announced Friday, a long-desired step for those seeking greater access to the vast Chinese market.
The news came at a briefing to mark the end of President Trump's state visit, during which he publicly pressed Beijing for better market access. It is not clear, however, whether the Trump administration was involved or simply benefited from the timing of the announcement.
Zhu Guangyao, vice minister of finance, said detailed rules are still being drafted, but foreign firms will be allowed to own up to 51 percent of securities, fund management and futures trading joint ventures. The previous cap was 49 percent.
Zhu also said that China planned to remove caps on foreign stakes in Chinese banks. At present, a foreign investor can hold a 20 percent stake in a Chinese bank, and a group of foreign investors can hold 25 percent.
The changes could be good news for U.S. companies, though experts said they need to know more about the rules and the timing of the changes.
“It is a positive step forward,” said Paul Gillis, a professor at Guanghua School of Management in Beijing. “Fifty-one percent [joint ventures] offer control to the foreign investor, although the devil is in the details as to how management and the board are structured.”
Major U.S. banks immediately cheered the move. Morgan Stanley, which has offices in Beijing and Shanghai, called it a “milestone.” The New York-based bank already increased its ownership stake in its securities venture in China, Morgan Stanley Huaxin Securities, from 33 percent to 49 percent this year. Now, it could potentially go further.
“Morgan Stanley is committed to growing our businesses in China and we see this policy change as an important step in the further development and opening-up of China’s capital markets,” the bank said in a statement.
Goldman Sachs also owns 49 percent of a joint venture in China. But in an interview with CNBC Thursday, chief executive Lloyd Blankfein said the bank’s ability to invest in China has been hampered by the country’s ownership restrictions.
"It's a question of which of our people want to commit their careers to that kind of a joint venture. How much capital we put in it when we only have a claim on less than half" of the returns, he said. Blankfein was the only big bank chief executive to join Trump's business delegation to Asia.
Goldman said in a statement Friday that it welcomes the announcement and looks forward “to playing a greater role in China’s capital markets.”
Ownership restrictions have hindered China’s economic activity for a long time, said William Zarit, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China.
“I look forward to seeing the details, as opening up the financial sector in particular could greatly improve the allocation of financial resources and support China’s future development,” Zarit said.
Andy Xie, an independent economist based in Shanghai, was more skeptical. He predicted that the effect of the changes would be “marginal.”
“It’s symbolic in the sense that the Chinese markets have become much tougher for financial institutions to crack, even without barriers, because the market is so competitive now,” he said.
Neither Xie nor Gillis saw it as a significant concession to Trump.
Xie saw the announcement as a nod to criticism from U.S. and European businesses that in recent years have accused China of protectionism, not as a fundamental change.
“China likes to throw bones to foreign visitors, so it was expected that Trump would be given some good news,” Gillis said. “I doubt it is significant, however. It certainly won’t create any U.S. jobs.”
This comes at a time when Chinese investors are maneuvering to delve further into U.S. financial markets. A group of investors led by Chongqing Casin Enterprise Group has launched a $20 million bid for the Chicago Stock Exchange that has been met by resistance by Congress and U.S. regulators. And former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci is selling his investment firm, SkyBridge Capital, which has $11 billion in assets, to a Chinese firm. Both deals could give China a new level of access to U.S. financial markets and a map to its most wealthy investors, industry analysts have said.
Shirley Yang and Yang Liu contributed from Beijing. Merle reported from New York.