2013 will remembered as an incredibly dynamic year for China’s financial services industry. From the increasing number of hedge funds in the market to the emergence and regulation of Bitcoin, industry observers, investors, participants and regulators have had their work cut out for them keeping up with the market.
The year started out with the prospects of a new government taking a new stance on reforming what had been a highly regulated financial services industry; we weren’t disappointed. Regulators unveiled a reform agenda both at the fall plenary session and throughout the year that has, and will have, a significant impact on interest rate reform, capital market investment in and out of China and the financial industry as a whole. Although some of the measures are still somewhat vague, some of the implementations, including the removal of the floor on lending rates, have already have a significant impact on banking profitability – it will be a new market in 2014.
China's finance in 2013 also brought an increased focus on development zones and centers. Opened to much fanfare, but little detail, the Shanghai Pilot Free Trade Zone (FTZ) was formally established in late September. Although it is still early days, if news reports and indications from the regulators are to be believed, the FTZ promises to be a new test-bed of reform for ‘value-add’ services similar to what Shenzhen was to the manufacturing / production industry in the late 70s and early 80s; arguably, one of the most important developments in China’s economic history. Smaller initiatives such as the Hongkou Hedge Fund Center in Shanghai sought to make it easier for hedge funds to enter the market and trade on China’s expanding base of capital markets products.
And last but certainly not least, we would be remiss if we didn't touch on Bitcoin. Chinese investors and tech enthusiasts were truly ‘chomping at the bit’ in 2013 as Bitcoin went from a little known US$13 cryptocurrency, to a US$1,000 potential economic destabilizer. China topped the world in Bitcoin wallets in May 2013 and then surpassed that again in November with over 150,000 wallet downloads. With the world’s biggest Bitcoin exchange and increasing popularity, China had little choice but to weigh in on the matter and in early December the People’s Bank of China annouced that Bitcoin was not a currency, banks could not deal in it, yet it could continue to be used in China. The price of Bitcoin fell, only to rise almost immediately afterward.
Will the sequel to 2013 in 2014 be as exciting? Will Xi Jinping continue to push reforms? Can the PBOC accept Bitcoins as a legitimate currency? Whatever happens, 2014 will be another dynamic year for Chinese markets and we’ll be here every step of the way to help you understand what’s happening in China’s financial services industry.
From purchasing property with Bitcoins, to the world’s largest Bitcoin exchange, to incredible mining operations, China over the past few months has become the largest Bitcoin market in the world and a key part of the Bitcoin story.
This is a great image from Fiatleak.com that shows the global flow of Bitcoins to various countries sourced from data from the world's biggest Bitcoin exchanges. Go to their site to see the real-time animated image, which is rightly described as a bit hypnotic.
Bitcoin acceptance in China has now extended into real estate with a residential developer in Zhangjiang Hi-Tech park in Shanghai finding a new way to promote sales through the acceptance of Bitcoin virtual currency.
Shanda Group, one of the large IT giants in China, through its real estate development arm, opened sales of its first real estate investment project on October 25th, 2013. 300 apartments in the soon to be built buildings ranging from 42-81sqm were available for sale and sold out in a few minutes as demand far outstripped supply.
Here's to a happy prosperous buying future with Bitcoin
As part of the promotion, Shanda accepted Bitcoins for payment. Although the exchange rate was ‘fixed’ at 1,000 Chinese Yuan (CNY) to one Bitcoin and the developer reserved the right to adjust the rate, the deal represents one of the first times that Bitcoin could be used for such a large scale 'public' purchase. The exchange rate was about 1,200 CNY : 1 Bitcoin on BTCChina that day, so the developer was obviously trying to hedge a bit in case Bitcoin fell through, but considering the rate is rapidly reaching nearly 2,000 CNY : 1 Bitcoin, it would have been a great deal for the developer – Bitcoin is one of the few investments in China that has been increasing faster than real estate in 2013.
The program was specific for the Zhangjiang Hi-Tech park as there are, as you would expect, a number of high-tech companies in the zone with younger workers would presumably be more aware of and in-touch with Bitcoin. The advertised price for the apartments was between 21,000-28,000 CNY / sqm, which is roughly what you might expect, if not a bit cheap.
The current run-up in the price of Bitcoin is an indicator of the interest in the currency, but is likely largely due to speculation. However, examples like this property development show how Bitcoin could be used for non-speculative purposes in nearly every industry. Regular bank transactions to pay for property would typically involve a stack of paperwork and likely a solid afternoon in the bank. With Bitcoin, the transaction could be completed in minutes.
In our previous commentary, we looked at the future of Bitcoin in China and its potential to become a widely adopted and used virtual currency. One aspect of its development which will be critical if the fledgling currency is to really gain traction is the maturation of Bitcoin as a transaction platform.
In February 2013, China became the second largest active Bitcoin market globally as measured by wallet downloads. This has attracted new Bitcoin based businesses to China and what could be a massive market for the developing virtual currency. An example is Bitfash, which was launched in April 2013 and became the first online shopping platform for clothes to accept Bitcoin as payment; one of its key target markets is China. However, will Bitcoin really take off in China? Can the Chinese consumer shift the value of the virtual currency as they did with gold earlier in 2013? What will the government eventually inevitably do to control the currency? It could be a potentially huge market, but will largely depend on its payment function development, the attitude of the Chinese government and the stability of Bitcoin's value.