With 'mutual recognition' of investment products between Hong Kong S.A.R and the People's Republic of China set to transform these markets, regulators and market participants need to consider the conditions that will allow the benefits of this impending policy to take full effect for the region's growing exchange traded funds market. Rex Wong, Managing Director within BNY Mellon's Asia Asset Servicing business, describes the market infrastructure, product developments and aspects of investor education that are needed to bring about the full potential of mutual recognition for exchange-traded funds (ETFs).
"There's great potential for mutual recognition to make life easier for ETF promoters and drive product design and development as they expand their footprint in the Asia-Pacific region. But success in building the ETF market in China and sustaining product development also requires changes in local market infrastructure and, most importantly, regulatory reforms.
"Today, Hong Kong and China together account for around 35% of total ETF assets under management (AUM) in the region, with Japan accounting for approximately 45%. The Asia-Pacific ETF market as a whole is seeing growth of 15%-20% annually. Once the right structures are in place, we expect the ETF market in Hong Kong and China to outpace the growth of the broader Asia-Pacific region. Mutual recognition may accelerate the growth, leading to AUM in Asia-Pacific's ETF market to grow by as much as 50% to reach US $250 billion by 2016 from its base of roughly US $165 billion today.
"We start from the premise that mutual recognition cannot be viewed in a vacuum. It will exist as part of – and because of – the success of other efforts that the Chinese government has put in place to liberalize its financial sector and facilitate cross-border capital flows. The pillars of this system include the expansion of the Renminbi Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor (RQFII) program, raising investment quotas for RQFII holders, opening new asset classes to foreign investors, such as interbank debt, and free trade zones.
"All of these programs need time to develop in order to create the right environment for ETF promoters to take full advantage of mutual recognition. In the interim, mutual recognition will mostly benefit mutual funds, as the market infrastructure requirements are less complex than for ETFs.
"However, I believe we will see some ETF developments in the early days of mutual recognition, especially in the area of China A-share ETF products listed in China thanks to the continued interest of Asian investors in the country's domestic market. In the medium term, investors will also be able to access more diverse asset classes including international equities, bonds and commodities. That will give them an exchange-listed option to gain exposure to global markets and other asset classes that do not currently exist today in their home market.
"But these are modest developments, essentially low hanging fruit. New market infrastructure is needed in order for China's ETF market to reach a stage of development that resembles the big ETF markets in Asia-Pacific, which are Japan, Hong Kong and Korea."
Promoting ETF liquidity and enhancing the ease of currency transfers
"First, we need to see more broker-dealers act as ETF market-makers and their active participation to provide liquidity is essential to the survival of ETFs. The ETF market making business in China is relatively new. However, many global broker-dealers already have a presence in Hong Kong, and can step into this role if regulation so permits it. They can bring their global trading platforms and expertise, and promote the development of this sector in China.
"Second, an ETF that uses multiple active market makers that can access multiple liquid alternative hedges in addition to its basket would make it easier for the ETF to attract assets and to survive in the ETF space. There needs to be a diverse range of futures and options and a liquid derivatives market for ETFs. This will be an important inducement to market-makers as it allows them to hedge their exposure for the products in which they are providing liquidity.
"Third, removing restrictions on short-selling of ETFs would lower the cost that market-makers face and improve their ability to provide liquidity in the market.
"Finally, there needs to be a more streamlined process for transferring RMB across borders to make it more of a real-time process. This point is crucial. Restrictions on and delays in RMB transfers can prevent fund managers from investing in the underlying index shares. This introduces the risk that ETFs will suffer 'tracking error,' which can undermine their appeal, especially to institutional investors. A system for real-time RMB transfers or enhancement to the existing cross-border transfer process will alleviate this pain point and really allow the industry to take full advantage of mutual recognition."
Achieving the full benefits of mutual recognition
"Once the regulatory and infrastructural foundations are in place, the market will be able to support a greater number of ETFs and investment styles covering a variety of industry sectors, asset classes and investment strategies.
"We are seeing some innovative products today, like fixed income, sector, style, gold, cross-exchange and cross-border ETFs in China, but enhanced infrastructure, on the back of regulatory reforms, will really allow the market to develop further. Korea has been very progressive and has seen products such as inverse and leveraged ETFs come to market and we have seen Japan follow suit. Nevertheless, unless the current regulation is relaxed, we will not see the same level of innovation in China or Hong Kong.
"While regulatory reforms remain the key to the development of Asia's ETF market, investor education will play a vital role. The ETF promoters can foster wider and deeper usage of ETFs by showing how they facilitate asset allocation and portfolio building. And with trading in China's domestic markets dominated by retail investors, fund sponsors need to encourage institutions to see ETFs as instruments that can be used both tactically and strategically. Institutional and retail participation will be critical for the ETF market's growth."