In the Market: In Asia, people ask, how do I derisk from America?

By Paritosh Bansal

(Reuters) – A European private wealth manager in Hong Kong told me last week he recently got the catalyst he needed to land a Taiwanese billionaire’s account: geopolitics.

The billionaire was down to two major wealth managers — UBS and JPMorgan Chase — after Credit Suisse’s demise last year. He wanted a third bank but did not want to increase exposure to the Americans.

The Taiwanese tycoon’s worry, the banker said, stemmed from the uncertainty caused by China-U.S. tensions: What if the Americans turned against people like him, or U.S. banks came under pressure to pull back from business there?

In recent years, as the Sino-U.S. saber rattling has increased, I have repeatedly heard from sources in the United States about how companies and investors are de-risking from China, building resiliency in their supply chains, reducing their exposure and putting a higher risk premium to business there. China is still too big a market to ignore or abandon, they say, but they need a backup, a ‘China plus 1’.

Over the past few days in Hong Kong and Singapore, conversations with more than a dozen senior bankers, officials and investors show the same de-risking is happening on the other end of the world with equal urgency. People are asking what’s their ‘America plus 1.’

Wealthy people like the Taiwanese billionaire are diversifying their assets and exposure away from the United States. Companies are looking for additional funding sources from other parts of the world, such as the Middle East, and building factories in places like Southeast Asia. And they are thinking about how to reduce their dependence on the dollar, these sources said. The sources requested anonymity to speak freely because of the sensitivity of the subject.

These conversations provide a window into how geopolitics is impacting investment decisions in the East. And as these worries lead to actions, they highlight the risks of further fragmentation of the global economy, with attendant consequences, such as inflationary pressures.

It is also clear from these conversations, however, that any such decoupling is unlikely to be complete and will take years, if not decades, given the dollar’s dominant position. One top banker in the region said companies and investors in Asia still want access to the United States as the deepest, most liquid market in the world.

But there appears to be new urgency around these conversations as people see tensions escalate with measures such as tariffs and sanctions. One Singapore-based banker said in the past when people talked about replacing the U.S. dollar, they would talk in terms of 20-30 years; now, they talk about 10-15 years.

U.S. sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have brought home the realization that Western authorities can seize assets in a conflict. That has been compounded by worries about sustainability of U.S. debt levels and the impact on the dollar, the banker said, leading people to ask “why do I have to hold U.S. dollar assets?”

The conundrum can be seen in data. The U.S. dollar still accounts for nearly 60% of forex reserves, but there has been a gradual diversification of away from it, according to the International Monetary Fund.

And while SWIFT data shows the dollar dominating trade finance with an 84% share, the yuan last year became the most widely used currency for cross-border transactions in China for the first time.

In Asia, discussions with sources show more efforts afoot to chip away at that reliance on the U.S. dollar.

The central banks of China, Hong Kong, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates, for example, are developing a cross-border settlement system that would allow participating banks to settle transactions in local currency.

More central banks are expected to be invited to join as it is further developed.

A search for alternatives to the United States is also happening among some companies. Chinese companies, for example, were looking to places like the Mideast for funding, one China-focused investment banker at a global lender said. He pointed to electric vehicle maker Nio’s $2.2 billion deal with an Abu Dhabi investor. “This would have gone to the U.S. in the past,” the banker said.

A top banking executive said companies still wanted to go to the United States, but those such as fast fashion retailer Shein — forced to look for an initial public offering in London after running into hurdles in New York — were being pushed away.

The geopolitics is making everyone think “do I have to have” an alternative, the banker said, adding it had “propelled people to make conscious choices.”

While there is little one can do about it in the near term, the banker said thinking a decade out, people are beginning to ask, “How much do I lean on the dollar?”

(Reporting by Paritosh Bansal; Editing by Anna Driver)