Brad Setser

Follow the Money

Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

Why Did China’s 2016 Current Account Surplus Fall?

by Brad Setser Friday, February 17, 2017

Few policies are less liked than China’s 2015/2016 credit-driven stimulus. Even people like me who worried that slamming the brakes on credit, in the absence of more fundamental reforms to lower China’s savings rate, risked creating a shortfall in demand were not exactly enthusiastic supporters. China would be far better off if had used a rise in central government social expenditure to support demand, not yet another wave of off-balance sheet borrowing by local governments and state firms.

But the current pick-up in growth suggests that arguments that (yet another) expansion of credit wouldn’t work were a bit overdone. There are no doubt better ways to support growth than more credit. But growth did responded to the stimulus, even if there is a real debate over just how strong the response was.*

Tilton, Song, Tang, Li, and Wei of Goldman Sachs (in a report summarized here):

“Chinese policy makers wrestled with challenges throughout 2016, but large and sustained policy stimulus eventually fostered recovery. … Our China Current Activity indicator bottomed out at 4.3% in early 2015, recovered to the mid-5 percent range last year, and is now running at 6.9%. Heavy industry … has seen an even more pronounced re-acceleration”

And there is growing evidence, I think, that the pickup in Chinese demand also had positive spillovers for the rest of the world.

China’s current account surplus for 2016 fell more than I expected. To be sure, China’s reported current account is prone to significant revisions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the (very low) q4 surplus is revised up.

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How Serious Is the Threat to Global Financial Stability From a Border-Adjustment Tax?

by Brad Setser Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Neil Irwin’s column on the border-adjustment tax spurred an interesting debate. Irwin notes that a 25 percent rise in the dollar (or even a somewhat smaller rise) would have an impact outside the United States, as the dollar is a global currency.

Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein note that the dollar moves around a lot without destroying the global economy. The projected moves in the dollar are no larger than the dollar’s 20 percent or so move over the last three years. Baker: “Movements of this size happen all the time. They certainly can cause problems, but the financial system generally deals with it.”

Fair enough.*

I still worry though. There is a difference between a 20 percent move (off a long-term low) and a 30 or 40 percent move. And there is a difference between normal exchange rate volatility and large, sustained currency shifts. I would note that the 20 percent rise in the dollar in late 2014 and early 2015 contributed to the change in China’s currency regime—and China’s shift to managing against a basket roiled global markets from August 2015 to February 2016. The world survived, but it wasn’t totally smooth.

Let me focus on two specific reasons for concern:

One. Balance sheet mismatches in emerging economies.**

Two. Dollar pegs, or basket pegs heavily weighted to the dollar.

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The Dangerous Myth That China “Needs” $2.7 Trillion in Reserves

by Brad Setser Monday, February 13, 2017

$2.7 trillion is well over 3 times China’s short-term external debt (around $800 billion per the IMF). It is roughly two times China’s external debt ($1.4 trillion, counting over $200 billion in intra-company loans). It is enough to cover well over 12 months of goods and services imports (total imports in 2016 were around $2 trillion).*

There are two good reasons why a country might need more reserves than it has maturing external debt. The first is that it has an ongoing current account deficit. A country arguably should hold reserves to survive one year without any external financing – the sum of the current account and short-term external debt. The other is that a country has lots of domestic foreign currency deposits.

Neither applies to China. China’s runs a $200 to $300 billion current account surplus, so its one year external financing need is now around $500 billion. China has a relatively modest $250-$300 billion in foreign currency sight deposits, and just under $600 billion in domestic foreign currency deposits (to put that in context, it is about 5 percent of GDP). It would take just over a trillion in reserves to cover China’s external (short-term debt) and internal (domestic fx sight deposits) fx liquidity need.

The $2.7 trillion number (or $2.6 trillion) stems from the initial application of the IMF’s new (and in my view flawed) reserve metric to China. The IMF’s metric revived M2 to reserves as an important indicator of reserve adequacy, and China is off the charts on this indicator (China has very little external debt, but a very large domestic deposit base – so a composite indicator that includes the domestic deposit base gets a very different result than metrics that focus on external debt). In the composite indicator, emerging economies with a fixed exchange rate and an open capital account need to hold 10% of M2 in reserves. That alone is about over 20% of China’s GDP – as China’s M2 to GDP ratio is a bit over 200%. For China, the weighted contributions from short-term debt, “exports” (the IMF uses exports rather than imports) and long-term external liabilities are trivial. For China, the entire reserve need more or less comes from one of the four variables in the IMF’s composite indicator (more here).

But that calculation is now outdated. The IMF has refined its metric to give more weight to the presence of capital controls, and China has tightened its controls. Assuming that there are capital controls, the IMF metric indicates that China would be fine with $1.8 trillion in reserves (though that sum rises over the course of 2017, thanks to the ongoing growth in M2 as a share of GDP).**

I am not a fan of the even the updated new metric. I am not a big fan of composite metrics in general. And if you are going to use a composite metric, I think the composite metric should put more weight on foreign currency deposits than domestic currency deposits, while the IMF’s metric typically weights all domestic deposits at 5%. The IMF’s metric thus ignores one of the key insights of balance sheet analysis.

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Does Korea Operate A De Facto Target Zone?

by Brad Setser Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute has long argued for target zones around the major exchange rates. In the past twenty years, no G-3 economy has followed Bergsten’s policy advice.* The world’s biggest advanced economies have wanted to maintain monetary policy independence, and—Japan perhaps excepted, at least during certain periods—they haven’t viewed foreign exchange intervention as an independent policy tool.

China formally has a band around its daily fix, but its exchange rate is still more of a peg (now a basket peg, without any obvious directional crawl over the last 7 months) than anything else.

I though increasingly think that Korea’s exchange rate management could be described as a target zone of sorts.

It buys dollars and sells won when it thinks the won is too strong (recently, too strong has been less than 1100 won per dollar). And it sells dollars and buys won when it thinks the won is too weak (recently too weak has been above 1200 won per dollar).

As a result, Korea intervened heavily to cap won strength in q3 2016. Counting the change in its forward position, government deposits, and government purchases of foreign debt securities, its total foreign exchange purchases in q3 were roughly $12 billion (about 3.5 percent of GDP).**

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Offshore Profits and U.S. Exports

by Brad Setser Monday, February 6, 2017

One important result of my theory about the sources of “dark matter” in the U.S. balance of payments is a concern that “border adjustment” might not generate the expected revenues. American multinationals would have a strong incentive to shift their offshore income on intellectual property rights that are now located in subsidiaries offshore back to the U.S..

A lot depends on the details of any proposed tax reform, but I think a firm with U.S. expenses and export revenues would generate a tax loss on its exports (export revenues are excluded from calculation of revenues for the purpose of the tax, and domestic expenses can be deducted). If that tax loss is refundable, exporters essentially get a check back from the government for a sum equal to their domestic labor costs (see Chad Bown on the “subsidy” component of a border tax adjustment).* Profits that now show up in subsidiaries in Ireland, Puerto Rico, Singapore, and the like** based on intellectual property that is held in the Caribbean, thanks to the low price headquarters charges for the global rights on their intellectual property, might show up back in the U.S.—and I suspect the royalties their offshore subsidiaries pay headquarters for research and design and engineering (e.g. exports) would soar.

I haven’t started to figure out how European companies that now report very little income on their direct investment in the U.S. might try to game the system. I suspect that they have an incentive to try to lower their reported intra-firm imports—e.g. reduce the transfer prices they charge their U.S. subsidiaries to lower their “border adjustment”. Auerbach, Devereux, Keen and Vella have emphasized that introducing a destination based cash flow tax in one country would have quite different effects than introducing a destination based cash flow tax in all countries.

But I also wanted to draw out the implications of the rapid growth in the offshore profits of American companies for the broader debate on globalization.

Consider the following chart: normalized versus GDP, the “reinvested” (tax-deferred, or less politely, largely untaxed as of now) profits of U.S. multinationals have more than doubled over the past twenty years, while U.S. exports of capital goods, consumer goods, and autos (my measure for “core” manufacturing exports) have stayed constant as a share of GDP. Imports of that set of goods have increased by roughly 25 percent on this measure.

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Dark Matter. Soon To Be Revealed?

by Brad Setser Thursday, February 2, 2017

The debate around the House Republicans’ proposal for a border adjusted (destination-based cash flow) tax will, I think, force an important debate about the impact of corporate tax strategies on global trade flows.* My guess is that tax strategies do have a significant impact on the trade data (one hint: the trade deficit in pharmaceutical the U.S. now runs with Ireland and Switzerland). And in turn I suspect that the revenue projections from the House’s proposals will depend in part on how firms are expected to adapt to a world where export revenues booked in the U.S.—including export revenues from the royalties on intellectual property—are not taxed. A world where the U.S. suddenly becomes tax competitive with Ireland, the Netherlands and others.

I suspect that the size of the impact will surprise many people.

I first started looking at the impact of firms’ tax strategies on the balance of payments back in early 2006, as part of a debate over the sustainability of the U.S. trade and external deficit. One argument at the time was that Americans had nearly magical skills at cross-border investing—magic that produced a surplus on net foreign direct investment (FDI) income (the dividends that American firms receive on their foreign investment relative to the dividends foreign firms receive on their U.S. investments) that would perpetually negate the United States’ interest payments on its net external debt. That magical surplus on investment income in the balance of payments effectively made conventional measures of U.S. external debt sustainability moot.

Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann has always had a way with words. He named the forces that kept the U.S. income balance positive even as the U.S. ran persistent trade and current account deficits: dark matter.

Time, I think, has helped bring the sources of dark matter—or, put differently, the sources of the United States’ exorbitant privilege—into the light. I suspected back in 2006, and now suspect even more strongly now, that “dark matter” is largely a function of the tax strategies employed by firms like Apple (here is a 2005 Wall Street Journal article focusing on another large tech firm).

The “income” the U.S. earns on its equity investment abroad now heavily shows up in low-tax jurisdictions. The “stock” position is now relatively balanced (the market value of U.S. direct investment abroad was $7 trillion at the end of 2015, which is not that different from the $6.5 trillion value of foreign direct investment in the U.S). The net income the U.S. earns on investments abroad essentially comes from the difference between the low cash returns foreign companies report on their U.S. equity investment and the large returns American firms report on their non-repatriated (e.g. tax deferred) income abroad.

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