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China's Yuan Trade Expands Offshore

For those outside China, offshore interbank trade in the Chinese currency means easier, cheaper access for multinational corporations that do business in China. That's just about everyone.

Foreign investors can settle accounts with suppliers or partners in Chinese currency without costly foreign exchange conversions. Yuan received can later be re-used, exchanged for other currencies or kept in an offshore deposit.

Says Tim Condon, Asia head of research with ING in Singapore: "Wherever there's significant trade with China, there are companies who prefer to invoice those trades in yuan to avoid the exchange rate risk."

Multinational corporations already tend to work out of Hong Kong, making them obvious clients for renminbi business in that city and explaining part of the large trade volume. Hong Kong is not just a who's who of Asia-Pacific headquarters for global companies. It's also a clean, fair city for doing business.

Expect a payback for the likes of HSBC (HBC), which does commercial renminbi services for more than 160,000 small and medium enterprises in Hong Kong.

Singapore's advantages largely match Hong Kong's, especially for those keen on business in Southeast Asia. I'm less sure about Malaysia. Except for multinational corporations (MNCs) bound closely to local commodities such as palm oil, most wouldn't pick that country just as a center for mass cross-border banking.

Taiwan has been out to prove that its quickly improved ties with Beijing after 60 years of tension can turn the island into a gateway for Western firms that do some business in China but don't want to plunge headlong into it. So Taiwan was keen to sign a deal with China in August to establish the yuan exchange that began Feb. 6.

But I expect Taiwan to rank down with Malaysia in the eyes of MNCs. Foreign renminbi spenders already know how to operate in the free port cities of Hong Kong and Singapore, where foreigners generally have an easy time with just about anything.

Despite Taiwan's urge to bring in more Western MNC business, the island's finance and business rules can be as protectionist as China's.

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