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Getting Around Regulations: How Chinese Investors Bring Their Real Estate Money Stateside

In a weak home economy, China's wealthiest are looking elsewhere to place their money. In the US alone, the Chinese spent almost $30B in the year ending last March (with more to come), becoming the largest foreign buyers of real estate. And let's not forget China's 90% domination in the $3.7B flood of EB-5 projects. 

Despite a $50k per person per year conversion rule, UBS Group estimates a whopping $324B left China last year.

How are wealthy Chinese getting around strict regulations to transport their capital to the safe haven of US real estate? Here are six ways they get the job done.

1. Hong Kong Money Chargers

Hong Kong is home to more than 1,200 currency-exchange shops, which—with their low premiums—help transfer money from mainland China in less than two hours. And no money technically crosses any borders since only domestic transfers occur. Customers can even use instant-messaging services. One money-change shop in Hong Kong's Mongkok district makes HK $4k for each HK $1M. 

2. Checks from Underground Banks

People easily pass through customs while carrying large checks from China's shadow-banking system.

“I normally do large-amount foreign currency conversions through underground banks due to the capital controls,” factory owner Frank Deng told Bloomberg on his entry into Hong Kong earlier this year. “I took checks only because that’s easy for me or my friends to carry abroad and can help avoid scrutiny from customs.” 

3. "Smurfing"

Named after the tiny blue cartoon characters who collectively make up a whole, many Chinese families are "smurfing," or pooling together their individual $50k quotas to make larger, collective investments outside of China. 

4. The Old Cash-in-the-Suitcase

Some are still using the old-school method you might see in a movie: cash in a suitcase. But customs is on to it. In just the first three months of the year, over 80 people were stopped at Shenzhen customs for trying to smuggle a total of 30M yuan in their suitcases to Hong Kong.

5. Get a Mortgage Overseas

The wealthiest of the Chinese can take the legal route for making overseas property investments. China's second-largest lender, China Construction Bank, allows private banking clients to borrow up to HK $20M using deposits and other mainland China assets as collateral. 

6. Pay by Card and Return for Cash

Chinese tourists can make large overseas purchases using credit or debit cards and then return the merchandise for cash. Over-invoicing is a similar method of inflating the price to also transfer money between a vendor and Chinese. [Bloomberg]