x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Yuan gains strength as a settlement currency

Banks bet that Middle Eastern companies are ready to give up the greenback in favour of Chinese yuan as they trade with the Asian nation.

When the US dollar was last threatened by surging interest in an international rival, Shawn Carter - better known as the rapper Jay-Z - caused a minor sensation by ditching the traditional dollar bills in his music videos and instead waving wads of €500 banknotes.

Now banks expect that the rise of China will spur companies to take a leaf from his book and forgo the greenback - this time for the Chinese yuan.

The yuan is expected to become the third most popular currency for trade settlement in the Middle East and North Africa after the dollar and the euro, according to trade data from HSBC. That would put it level with the Saudi riyal and slightly ahead of the UAE dirham.

Banks are expecting yuan-denominated accounts to be opened in greater numbers as UAE companies position themselves for a higher volume of trade with Chinese counterparts.

"Our trade research tells us that the yuan has already overtaken the pound sterling in its use as a settlement currency, and traders are telling us that they expect it be one of their top three settlement currencies this year," said Nicholas Levitt, HSBC's head of commercial banking for the UAE. "And, as trade with Asia increases, so does global interest in this important currency."

Standard Chartered was first into the market last year with yuan-denominated business banking accounts but has since been followed by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and HSBC.

"It's a bit of a nascent market at this stage," said Motasim Iqbal, the regional head of transaction banking at Standard Chartered. "But the interest level has increased significantly in the last six months alone."

Removing the need to exchange currencies also protects against the risk of a sharp swing in value of one currency - which can potentially leave the exporters out of pocket.

Deposits in yuan-denominated accounts in Hong Kong have soared in the past year as the Chinese government attempts to internationalise its currency and increases the number of provinces and companies that can execute yuan trades with overseas customers.

Deposits in Hong Kong banks surged from 89.7 billion yuan (Dh51bn) in the middle of last year to 451bn yuan in March, according to Standard Chartered.

The bank also expects the cost of borrowing in yuan to fall sharply.

While companies such as McDonald's and Caterpillar have sought to tap Chinese markets in recent years through "dim sum bonds" - yuan-denominated bonds issued in Hong Kong - Gulf companies have not yet jumped on the bandwagon.

But companies could find borrowing costs falling as an increase in deposits provides the Hong Kong loan market with a deep source of liquidity, Mr Iqbal said.

ghunter@thenational.ae