(Bloomberg) -- A trade pact opening up China’s insurance sector to U.S. firms has caused confusion among lawyers in the Asian nation.
China pledged to remove the foreign-equity cap for the life, pension and health-coverage sectors no later than April 1, according to the text of a broad trade agreement announced Wednesday. However, lawyers in China say they thought the limit had already been lifted on Jan. 1.
The confusion stems from life insurance in China being colloquially used to cover a host of areas including health and disability, distinct only from non-life coverage of things such as property and automobiles. Local companies offer specialized cover for life, health and pension through separate units.
China has said it lifted foreign ownership restrictions on “life insurers” at the beginning of the year, which was understood by many to indicate it was removing limits for all three sectors. It’s unclear why health insurance and pensions were introduced separately in the trade deal, according to lawyers who spoke with Bloomberg and didn’t want to be identified discussing a government decision.
China’s insurance and banking regulator didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Whether January or April, the import remains the same. Foreign firms will soon be able to make an aggressive bid to wrest business from dominant local players including China Life Insurance Co. and Ping An Insurance (Group) Co.
If implemented effectively, the changes are quite valuable for foreign players, said Hu Lei, a Beijing-based partner at LLinks Law Offices. Also allowed is 100% ownership of insurance asset management businesses, which would benefit companies including AIA Group Ltd., he said.
Chubb Ltd., which is based in Zurich but has a large U.S. presence, could be among the first insurers to benefit after building a presence in China. In November, the company agreed to lift its stake in Huatai Insurance Group Co. to 46.2%. The insurer was aiming for “majority and beyond ownership in Huatai,” Chief Executive Officer Evan Greenberg said at the time.
“We have confidence in the long-term potential of the Chinese insurance market, and this agreement should expand market access for American business in financial services, including insurance,” Chubb said in an emailed statement.
The trade deal is being billed as the first step in a broader set of agreements between the two nations. China is also allowing fully owned units to do an array of investment banking and securities dealing, and U.S. card companies could gain more access to the market.
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Increased access to China’s market could be a boon for U.S. insurers. The country is expected to contribute about half of the gain in global life premiums in the next two years, according to a report from consulting firm Deloitte. Germany’s Allianz SE in 2018 won permission to set up the first entirely foreign-owned insurance holding company.
“We’re very pleased with the agreement,” Susan Greenwell, MetLife Inc.’s senior vice president of global government relations, said in an emailed statement. “These kinds of reforms have been a big priority for MetLife, and they’ll help us expand insurance opportunities for China’s growing middle class.”
Global financial firms are rushing to capitalize on China’s opening of its $45 trillion financial industry, with the likes of JPMorgan Chase & Co., Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and UBS Group AG adding staff and expanding their footprint in everything from futures and brokerages to asset management.
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--With assistance from Steve Dickson and Katherine Chiglinsky.
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