China might have been the world’s manufacturing powerhouse for the past two decades but it could be in financial services where it is yet to have its most dramatic impact.

The country already has the world’s biggest bank – ICBC (Industrial and Commercial Bank of China) by profit and market capitalization, and its four biggest banks are now among the top 10 biggest globally.

During the recent reporting season, China’s Big Four banks, which apart from ICBC, are Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China, revealed some 4.7 trillion yuan (580 billion euros, $758 billion) of overseas assets.

The engine of China’s banking strength is the savings of the Chinese people. They stood at $3.6 trillion at the end of 2010, almost double the $1.83 trillion of the United States – whose citizens still retain a preference to spending.

China’s sovereign wealth fund, China Investment Corporation, only set up in 2007, had $482.2 billion in assets under management at the end of 2011, two-thirds of which were in the United States.

Some of its most high profile deals include the 880 million pound (1.03 billion euros, $1.33 billion) rescue of Canary Wharf, London’s second financial center, in 2009.

China’s policy banks, China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China, have been major forces in the developing world, particularly in Africa, where they have funded major infrastructure projects. The Export-Import Bank of China has lent more money in Africa than the World Bank in each of the last eight years and lent a total of $15 billion in 2011.

In Africa, the increasing presence of China’s commercial banks has also been felt.

ICBC made the biggest ever foreign direct investment in South African history when it paid $5.5 billion for a 20 percent slice of Standard Bank, Africa’s biggest bank, in 2007. The other banks are also increasing their Africa footprint.

The overseas ambitions of the Chinese banks are not disguised. Wang Hongzhang, president of China Construction Bank, made clear recently it was the intention to grow not only by setting up overseas branches but also by taking over foreign banks.


The bank’s overseas assets were $83.6 billion in 2012, some 3.7 percent of its total and it is looking at opening in new markets.

“We are accelerating preparations to open in Dubai, Russia, Toronto, San Francisco. We conduct our overseas business by setting up CCB’s own branches and agencies and by mergers and acquisitions.”

In the major international financial centers, the presence of the Chinese banks is nowhere more visible than in London with Bank of China located right in the heart of the City of London, next to the Bank of England.

ICBC, which also has a base in Canary Wharf, is also believed to be in talks about setting up a new headquarters in the City financial district.

Mark Boleat, chairman of the policy and resources committee of the City of London, says Chinese investment is welcome in London.

“We expect all the big Chinese banks to be expanding what they are doing in London. China’s financial industry is very large and growing very rapidly.”

He says the Bank of England is even considering changing the rules to allow Chinese banks to operate as branches and not subsidiaries, the only status currently allowed for foreign banks in the UK. Operating as a branch, with the full security of the Beijing legal identity behind it, would enable banks to expand without deploying as much direct capital.

“The Bank of England understands the importance of having the Chinese banks and they are looking at ways of accommodating their method of operation,” Boleat adds.

Whatever the international strategies of the banks, China is already a dominant financial player in the world.

By virtue of being the world’s manufacturing workshop for a generation, it has accumulated $3.2 trillion in foreign currency reserves.

Around $1.16 trillion of this is held in US Treasury bonds and therefore China is a major underwriter of the world’s biggest economy’s gigantic national debt.

– Andrew Moody and Hu Haiyan