Fitch Upgrade of ‘Taiwan, China’ Jolts Traders, Irks Taipei

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(Bloomberg) — Fitch Ratings referred to Taiwan as being part of China in the headline of a ratings announcement for the first time since at least 2003, triggering confusion among some traders and a rebuke from the government in Taipei.

Fitch’s statement began with the phrase “Fitch Upgrades Taiwan, China to ‘AA’; Outlook Stable,” which some observers initially read as meaning a dual upgrade of both Taiwan and mainland China. Previous statements from Fitch used only “Taiwan.” So too have recent statements from Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings.

While Fitch’s wording change didn’t have a discernible impact on market prices in mainland China, it did lead to some double takes by traders. It also elicited a response from Taiwan’s Ministry of Finance, which said in a statement on Friday that it regretted Fitch’s decision.

Fitch’s statement “definitely raised some doubts,” said Tommy Gu, a senior bond trader at Capital Securities. “‘Taiwan, China’ can be interpreted in a different way.”

A spokesperson for Fitch said the name change was “an operational decision,” without elaborating.

The episode is part of a broader shift by companies doing business in China to adopt phrasing that will avoid angering Beijing. In 2019, for instance, JPMorgan Chase & Co. told some staff to ensure they don’t refer to Hong Kong, Macau or self-governing Taiwan as separate countries.

Fitch won regulatory approval to offer independent credit risk assessments in China in May 2020, becoming the second major rating agency to receive the green light following the S&P Global Ratings in 2019. JPMorgan is also ramping up its presence on the mainland.

“The change may be related to Fitch’s efforts, alongside other Western credit ratings agencies, to build a China onshore ratings business,” said Gabriel Wildau. a senior vice president at global business advisory firm Teneo. “Even if Beijing didn’t directly pressure Fitch to change its naming convention, Chinese onshore issuers may be reluctant to commission ratings from Fitch when the company’s communications were clearly at odds with Beijing’s view on a core sovereignty issue.”

China’s Communist Party views Taiwan as part of its territory, even though it has never controlled it, and has threatened military force to prevent the leadership in Taipei from moving toward formal independence.

(Adds analyst comment in eighth paragraph.)

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