World Economy

Beijing opened the door to international investors, and one domestic sector may be the big winner

Key Points
  • The insurance industry will be the biggest beneficiary of China's recent announcement to lift the cap on foreign ownership in financial firms
  • The domestic industry will also benefit from the introduction of best practices
  • China's insurance industry has been under recent scrutiny for its risk-taking
The AIA building in the historic Bund district of Shanghai, China where the company was founded. The Hong Kong-listed company is now the only 100 percent foreign-owned life insurer in China.
Aly Song | Reuters

China shocked the world last week when it suddenly announced it would finally make some moves to open up its financial sector to more ownership from international investors.

But it's not just overseas companies that stand to benefit: One important Chinese sector will grow stronger, experts said.

Like many parts of China's financial industry, insurance is under scrutiny by Beijing for firms' outsized risk appetite, including the issuance of high-yield, short-term life insurance and other investment products. But those same insurers now stand to be the biggest beneficiary of the new investment rules.

That is, with the expectation of more competition and emphasis on best practices, the industry will likely see better products and standards, analysts said. In fact, the management in China should begin adopting better strategies for risk management — a persistent issue in the world second-largest economy.

"The Chinese insurance sector's risk management remains in the developing stage, and thus would benefit from a greater influx of overseas practices and professional personnel," said Eunice Tan, an analyst at Standard & Poor's Global Ratings.

"We expect the increased foreign-insurer participation will promote the development of more sophisticated products with higher margins and more recurring premiums such as pensions, retirement planning and healthcare insurance, areas undeserved by domestic insurers," said Moody's Investors Service in a note this week.

Chinese authorities have been sounding warnings and taking decisive steps to crack down on excessive risks in the financial system this year.

Just on Thursday, a senior official at the China Insurance Regulatory Commission said the country will tighten regulations on the use of insurance funds to curb "financial chaos," Reuters reported.

In July, a senior Chinese insurance regulator warned of multiple risks in the industry, including liquidity, state news agency Xinhua reported. And a month earlier, authorities detained the chairman of insurer Anbang — best known for its 2015 purchase of New York's landmark Waldorf Astoria hotel — in what industry experts called a "house-cleaning" of those associated with high-yield insurance products.

Opportunity for foreign insurers

Overall, observers are positive on the move to relax ownership rules for foreign investors.

"The new regime is credit positive for foreign life insurers operating in China because it will allow greater management autonomy," said Frank Yuen, a Moody's analyst.

Foreign insurers have been hampered by stiff competition in China from giants such as Ping An and China Life, particularly as they'd been stuck with minority stakes in joint ventures, missing out on rapid growth opportunities in the world second-largest economy.

The life insurance market in China is "significantly under-served" and presents a compound annual growth rate of 22 percent from 2012 to 2016 for premiums, according to Moody's.

Even so, constraints on ownership have affected business expansion for the 28 foreign-invested life insurance companies in China. Those firms accounted for just 6.5 percent of gross premiums in August this year, barely growing from 6.3 percent in the same month last year, noted S&P analysts.

Hong Kong-listed insurance giant AIA — which traces its roots to China — is the only 100 percent foreign-owned life insurer in China. Shares in the company reacted positively to Beijing's announcement, with the Hong Kong-listed stock jumping over 7.5 percent from last Friday.

However, with the caps on foreign ownership lifted, that likely means AIA China will face more competition, Nomura analysts said.

However, the Chinese insurers with their home-ground advantage are still better positioned for the growth opportunities in China.

"Chinese financial institutions have a large lead and will continue to enjoy a home-field advantage. Foreign entrants will still rely on domestic franchise for access to customers and local knowledge. Moreover, domestic partners in existing joint ventures with international firms may be unwilling to dilute their stakes," said S&P's Tan.