Type to search

Weak Yuan Boosts Chinese Stampede for Hong Kong Insurance

Abrupt end to zero-Covid and lack of confidence in the economy and the yuan spurs rush to buy Hong Kong insurance, with policies leaping a staggering 2,686% to $9.6 billion in the first quarter

Insurers in Hong Kong reaped a bonanza in the first quarter from a flood of citizens on the mainland shocked by the abrupt end of the tough 'zero-Covid' and wanting to diversify their investments.
Insurers in Hong Kong reaped a bonanza in the first quarter from a flood of citizens on the mainland shocked by the abrupt end of the tough 'zero-Covid' and wanting to diversify their investments. File photo by Reuters.


Lack of confidence in China’s weakening currency has amplified the rush for insurance products in Hong Kong and offshore dollar deposits.

The yuan is under pressure as confidence sinks over China’s weak economic recovery in the second quarter.

The outflows highlight deep-seated concern about the state of China’s economy as its much-awaited pandemic recovery stalls. Consumer spending is flagging, the property market and stock markets are in the doldrums and cash is piling up in savings.

Brokers say individuals are responsible for the surge and it shows no sign of letting up, which analysts warn could put further pressure on the yuan as it teeters at eight-month lows.


ALSO SEE: Moderna Signs Big Deal to Develop mRNA Vaccines in Shanghai


Insurers reap $9-billion boom in first quarter

Mainland Chinese holdings under a nascent scheme allowing investment in Hong Kong and Macau wealth products have more than doubled since the end of last year to 814 million yuan ($110 million).

New premiums collected on Hong Kong insurance policies leapt a staggering 2,686% to $9.6 billion in the first quarter of 2023.

“More and more people realise they cannot put their eggs in one basket,” said Helen Zhao, an insurance broker busy helping mainland clients sign Hong Kong deals, citing Sino-US frictions and pessimism about China’s outlook as motivating factors.

Hong Kong insurance has long been a channel for Chinese buying assets abroad, with the policies providing more protection than what’s available on the mainland, and attendant savings and investment products mostly denominated in dollars with a global remit.

AIA Group, Prudential and Manulife all reported a jump in business, citing contributions from mainland investors.


Shock from abrupt end to zero-Covid

A wealth manager at Noah Holdings said he recently arranged a group of mainland clients to sign insurance contracts in “long queues”, many unsettled by the abruptness of China’s lurch in December from the tough zero-Covid policy to living with the virus.

“Some clients were a bit of shocked by the policy U-turn, and they grow pessimistic about China’s economy,” he said. “The burst of insurance buying in Hong Kong reflects a gloomy domestic outlook, and worries about an uncertain future.”

Savings insurance products in Hong Kong offer a minimum yield of 4.5%, he said, better than 3% offered on the mainland. He requested anonymity as he isn’t authorised to speak publicly.

Noah Holdings said in an emailed statement that offshore insurance is a convenient tool for global asset allocation, while Hong Kong’s location makes it a natural destination for mainland investors.

Dollar deposits in Hong Kong, meanwhile, offer a hedge against movements in the yuan and, for a one-year term, yield 4%, according to Bank of China. On the mainland, one-year dollar deposits yield 2.8%, while yuan deposits yield 1.65%.


Offshore demand while yuan looks fragile

Such returns are the pull factor. The gap between two-year US and Chinese government bond yields is its widest in 16 years, in favour of the US, and global stocks are going up while China’s are going sideways.

“Offshore demand for policies denominated in Hong Kong dollars is low – US dollar-denominated policies are more prevalent, to provide access to global asset allocation,” Lawrence Lam, chief executive officer at Prudential Hong Kong, said.

To be sure, total demand remains below pre-Covid levels, and a surge in interest was expected to coincide with China’s borders reopening, since signing policies requires a visit to Hong Kong.

Yet it comes as the yuan is looking increasingly fragile. A previous, and larger, rush of outflows in 2016 prompted Beijing to ratchet up capital controls and unveil other measures to curtail insurance buying.

The wealth manager at Noah fears that a sustained rush into Hong Kong insurance risks inviting Beijing’s policy tightening.


Moves to bolster the yuan

Chinese authorities have already stepped up efforts in the last few weeks to shore up the yuan, with state banks selling dollars and the central bank warning it would guard against the risks of large exchange rate movements.

Hao Hong, chief economist at GROW Investment Group, notes the outflows also coincide with exporters’ reluctance to repatriate dollar proceeds – another weight on the currency and sign of low confidence in the economy.

The yuan’s real exchange rate, he points out, is below the nadir seen during China’s 2015-16 stock market crash and capital flight.

While that makes for a possible source of a yuan rebound later in the year, according to Tan Xiaofen, professor at the School of Economics and Management of Beihang University, caution is likely to drive individual outflows ahead.

“We’ve seen some changes to the risk attitudes of mainland visitors, which has moderated to a more balanced approach to their investments,” Sami Abouzahr, head of investments and wealth solutions at HSBC in Hong Kong, said.

“They remain interested in investment opportunities but are also paying greater attention to their health and legacy needs through medical and legacy planning insurance solutions.”


  • Reuters with additional editing by Jim Pollard




China Bid to Stop Yuan Slide: Dollar Deposit Rates Slashed


Chinese Companies Prepare for Weaker Yuan as Rate Cuts Loom


China Fails to Release Covid-19 Crematoria Data – CNN


China’s Exports Sink by 7.5% in May Amid Global Slowdown


China’s Property Sector Will Remain Weak For Years: Goldman


China Manufacturing Slips Further in May, as Recovery Falters


Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years.


AF China Bond