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China's QFII No Longer an Exclusive Club

Stocks in this article: BIDU CTRP MS CS

TAIPEI ( TheStreet) -- When Hong Kong-based Value Partners Group announced this month it had won approval from China to trade in the yuan currency, leading to a coveted quota for investing in mainland capital markets, I realized what a difference 10 years makes.

If the same announcement occurred in 2003, news would have quickly traveled around the world about how the firm was blazing new trails into a booming, sought-after but largely exclusive market. That year China began offering qualified foreign institutional investor, or QFII, status to foreign firms.

However, the Hong Kong fund manager's deal comes at the same time as so many others it's hard to find anything new to say about its circumstances.

What's new is that, via the growing pile, common people have more access to Chinese markets and more choices in how to reach them.

According to official Chinese government charts, last year 72 companies got QFII status, up from 12 licenses handed out in 2003. The trend continues this year, with firms such as Investec Asset Management and UBS Global Asset Management receiving QFII licenses.

Quoting a report from the Web site of government-run China Central Television, the QFII program is "rapidly expanding" this year, with the total number of approved institutions rising from 22 to 229 over the program's history. In July, China also raised the total quota for qualified foreign investors from $80 billion to $150 billion. More opening is on the way, the TV report says.

"You've seen in the last eight or nine months a record number of foreign investors entering the securities market," notes Drew Bernstein, co-managing partner with Marcum Bernstein & Pinchuk, a New York audit firm with affiliations in China. Chinese officials, he says, "are clearly trying to create more investment dollars."

Chinese regulators had held back on foreign investment in the past to limit flows of assets in and out of the Communist country's command economy. Foreign investment still makes up a slim fraction of the overall amount in the country's capital markets and, according to one estimate, less than 10% are institutional investors from anywhere.

Still no single foreign investor can own more than 10% of a Chinese company's stock, nor can the total foreign share of a company's ownership exceed 30%.

Beijing is opening suddenly to QFII because it wants to "lure more long-term international financial institutions to the Chinese market," China Central TV adds. That mission would help reanimate China's A-shares while shooting money into a slowing economy, which is forecast to grow just 7.5% this year, down from the old days of 9% to 10% growth.

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