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China mulls allowing individuals to invest more abroad

A Chinese national flag flutters outside the headquarters of the People's Bank of China, the Chinese central bank, in Beijing, in this Apr 3, 2014 file photo.

[SHANGHAI] China is considering relaxing limits to allow individuals to invest overseas in stocks and property, the central bank said, which would potentially unleash a flood of money if the government loosens strict capital controls.

The country keeps a tight grip on outflows of funds due to worries capital flight could disrupt the economy and weaken its control.

The People's Bank of China said it was studying letting "qualified" individuals invest abroad in industry, property and financial products through the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, according to a statement released Friday.

"These policy initiatives are another important step toward complete capital account liberalisation," Zhou Hao, a senior economist at Commerzbank in Singapore, was quoted by Bloomberg News as saying.

China's premier free trade zone in the commercial hub Shanghai was set up in 2013 with the promise of a range of financial reforms, but foreign investors especially have expressed disappointment over the pace of change.

Chinese citizens are now only allowed to convert the equivalent of US$50,000 from the domestic yuan currency under an annual quota, state media said, which creates a limit on overseas investment though many evade the barrier.

Individuals are allowed to legally invest in stocks in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, through a special link with accounts on the Shanghai stock exchange.

The central bank announcement, which gave no timetable for the move, followed a top-level Communist Party meeting which discussed the country's development plans for the next five years.

China also wants the yuan to join the International Monetary Fund's "special drawing rights" basket of currencies and is pursuing reforms to help gain the coveted status.

In August, the central bank suddenly devalued the yuan, allowing it to lose nearly five percent of its value over a week, in a move which raised alarm over the state of the world's second largest economy.