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Chinese banks buy the most yuan in seven years in December

[BEIJING] China's central bank and commercial banks bought the most yuan in seven years in December at around US$19 billion, a Reuters calculation of data showed, suggesting some capital is leaving the world's second-largest economy as its growth slows.

China's central bank and commercial banks sold 118.4 billion yuan (US$19.05 billion) worth of foreign exchange on a net basis in December, according to a Reuters calculation of central bank data released on Monday.

That was the most foreign exchange that Chinese banks have sold to clients since December 2007, and suggests that investor appetite for Chinese assets may have waned as its economy loses steam.

Indeed, analysts said speculative funds, or "hot money", were exiting China amid increased market jitters about whether the Chinese economy was at risk of a sharper slowdown.

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"There must be money flowing out, but it's hard to gauge the amount," said Liu Dongliang, a senior analyst at China Merchants Bank in Shanghai.

Just last week, data showed China's foreign direct investment rose at its slowest pace in two years in 2014 as its cooling economy spurred more businesses to take their money overseas in search of better returns.

The volume of December foreign exchange sales also suggested that companies now prefer to hold dollars in view of the yuan's recent weakness, Liu added.

A rising dollar and a sluggish Chinese economy that has stoked bets of further policy loosening in China helped to push the yuan to a seven-month low in December, although it has since rebounded.

This is not the first sign of capital outflows.

Separate central bank data last week also showed China's foreign exchange reserves, the world's largest, falling slightly to US$3.84 trillion at the end of December from US$3.89 trillion at end-September, the second quarterly decline in a row.

The drop in foreign exchange reserves came despite China logging a major trade surplus in the final quarter of last year, in what some analysts said was further evidence that money was leaving the system.

Hurt by a housing slump and twin slowdown in investment and manufacturing, China's economy has sagged in the past year even though its growth rate of over 7 per cent is still twice of that seen in other major economies.

China is due to report on Tuesday fourth-quarter gross domestic product data, which is expected to show growth cooling to 7.2 per cent from a year ago, the weakest since the depths of the global crisis.