Brad Setser

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Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

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Showing posts for "central bank reserves"

China’s Estimated Intervention in January

by Brad Setser

It should go almost without saying that China’s ability to maintain its current exchange rate regime matters.

The yuan has been more less stable against the CFETS basket since last July. If the current peg breaks, China will struggle to avoid a major overshoot of its exchange rate.

Christopher Balding recently has argued that the fall in the dollar (on say the Fed’s dollar index) in 2017 is more or less the same as the yuan’s depreciation against the basket—which would make China’s exchange rate regime now more a pure peg against the dollar rather than a true basket peg. Hence the lack of movement against the dollar in past few weeks. Maybe. I though am inclined to think that the yuan’s depreciation against the basket this year just undid the upward drift against the basket that came when the dollar appreciated last year, and China is still aiming to keep the currency more or less stable against the basket, not stable against the dollar. Time will tell.

Right now, the exact nature of China’s peg now matters less than China’s ability to maintain some kind of peg, and thus to avoid a sharp depreciation. If there is a depreciation, either the world will absorb a new wave of Chinese exports—a 10 percent real effective exchange rate depreciation should raise China’s real trade balance by about 1.5 percent of China’s GDP, or by roughly $180 billion (using this IMF study as a baseline for the estimate, it is summarized here)—or a wave of protectionist action will limit China’s export response, and in the process threaten the global trading rules.* Neither is a good outcome.

The data for the next few months will be critical. China does seem to have tightened its outflow controls—despite the official denials. FDI outflows certainly have slowed. Hopefully the screws will be placed on a few other categories of outflows—there are plenty of categories in the balance of payments that show a buildup of foreign assets that, in my view, should be controllable. The rise in Chinese bank loans to the world, for example.

I also still think the yuan’s movement against the dollar is an important driver of outflows, so a sustained period of stability in the yuan’s exchange rate versus dollar—whether because the broad dollar is falling and that means the yuan needs to rise to maintain a basket peg, or simply because China starts to prioritize stability versus the dollar—should lead to a reduction in pressure.** Finally China does seem to be tightening its domestic policy, at least a bit. Higher money market rates should also help support the yuan.

The proxies for intervention for January do suggest some reduction in pressure in January—though pressure by no means entirely went away.

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

by Brad Setser

$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

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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China’s Reserves Fell by Around $45 Billion in December (Using the PBOC Data)

by Brad Setser

The pace of decline in China’s foreign reserves matters.

Not because China is about to run out.

But rather because China will at some point decide that it doesn’t want to continue to prioritize “stability” (against a basket) and will instead prioritize the preservation of its reserves, and let the yuan adjust down. Significant voices inside China are already making that argument.

And I fear that if the yuan floats down, it will stay down. China will want to rebuild reserves, and—if exports respond to the weak yuan—(re)discover the joys of export-led growth. Relying on exports is easier than fighting the finance ministry’s opposition to a more expansive (on-budget) fiscal policy, or seriously expanding the provision of social insurance to bring down China’s savings.

I thus disagree with those who argue that the “China” shock is over. It depends a bit on the exchange rate. China’s exports of apparel and shoes have probably peaked. But China’s exports of a range of machinery and capital goods continue to remain strong—and at a weaker exchange rate, China could supply more of the components that go into our electronic devices, and export far more auto parts, construction equipment parts, engines, generators, and even finished autos than it does now. “Mechanical” engineering writ large continues to be a significant part of the U.S. economy, and even more so the European economy.


One of the main indicators—PBOC balance sheet reserves—that I follow for tracking China’s reserve sales is now out for December, and it points to around $45 billion in sales. I prefer to look at all the foreign assets the PBOC reports on its balance sheet rather than just its reported foreign exchange reserves. That variable was down $43 billion in December, and $133 billion for q4. Actual foreign exchange reserves fell by a bit more—$46 billion in December and $141 billion in q4. The difference between foreign exchange reserves and all of the PBOC’s foreign assets is primarily the foreign exchange the banks hold at the PBOC as a result of their reserve requirement.
The loss of reserves in December was a bit smaller than in November. But only just. The average monthly fall in q4 was over $40 billion.

That is a pace that is ultimately unsustainable. I think China would be fine with $2 trillion in reserves, given how little foreign debt it holds. Others say $2.5 trillion. If reserves are falling by a steady $40 billion a month/$500 billion year, it is only a matter of time before China hits its limit. With China, it may be a long time though…

However, there are two reasons why I am not yet convinced that it is only a matter of time before outflows overwhelm the PBOC’s reserves and other exchange rate defenses.

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China’s Q3 Balance of Payments Data Helps Explain Why Q3 Reserves Fell So Much

by Brad Setser

I want to step back a bit from the rather extraordinary moves in the offshore yuan market over the past few days. It seems quite clear that China’s authorities felt the need to signal that the yuan isn’t currently a one way bet against the dollar. And stepping back in this case means taking a deep dive into the details of the balance of payments data — details that come out with a quarter lag, and thus provide information that is stale from the point of view of a forward-looking market. A lot, and I mean a lot, changed in the fourth quarter.

I generally like it when China’s data series line up. Line up with each other. And, when possible, when China’s data also lines up with data reported by China’s trading partners.

So I have been bothered for some time by the large discrepancy between the fall in China’s foreign exchange reserves (as reported on the PBOC’s balance sheet, $108 billion in the third quarter) and the much smaller net sales of foreign exchange by China’s banks (as reported in the FX settlement data, $50 billion in the third quarter without adjusting for the forwards reported in the settlement data, $63 billion with the forward adjustment). Fx settlement includes all the banks, not just the central bank. Historically, though, it has been very correlated with overall reserves.

The initial balance of payments (BoP) data for the third quarter showed large reserves sales ($136 billion), sales on a scale that was consistent with the PBOC balance sheet numbers. The BoP reserves sales thus seemed to suggest a big pickup in capital outflows in the third quarter.


However, the detailed balance of payments data suggests that the signal from the FX settlement data may be more accurate. Much of the q3 fall in China’s reserves seems tobe explained by the buildup of foreign assets by other state controlled financial institutions, not “private” capital outflows. I see a likely increase of around $85 billion in the foreign assets of state institutions other than the PBOC in q3.

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China’s November Reserve Drain

by Brad Setser

The dollar’s rise doesn’t just have an impact on the United States. It has an impact on all those around the world who borrow in dollars. And it can have an enormous impact on those countries that peg to the dollar (Saudi Arabia is the most significant) or that manage their currency with reference to the dollar. China used to manage against the dollar, and now seems to be managing against a basket. But managing a basket peg when the dollar is going up means a controlled depreciation against the dollar—and historically that hasn’t been the easiest thing for any emerging economy to pull off.

And China’s ability to sustain its current system of currency management—which has looked similar to a pretty pure basket peg for the last 5 months or so—matters for the world economy. If the basket peg breaks and the yuan floats down, many other currencies will follow—and the dollar will rise to truly nose-bleed levels. Levels that would be expected to lead to large and noticeable job losses in manufacturing sectors in the U.S. and perhaps in Europe.

Hence there is good reason to keep close track of the key indicators of China’s foreign currency intervention.


The two main indicators I track are now both available for November:

The PBOC’s yuan balance sheet shows a $56 billion fall in foreign exchange reserves, and a $52-53 billion fall in all foreign assets (other foreign assets rose slightly). I prefer the broader measure, which captures regulatory reserves that the big banks hold in foreign currency at the PBOC.

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The November Fall in China’s Reserves and Rise in China’s Real Exports

by Brad Setser

China’s reserves fell by $69 billion in November.

With the notable exception of Sid Verma and Luke Kawa at Bloomberg, Headlines generally have emphasized the size of the fall

The Financial Times was pretty restrained compared to the norm, and the FT still highlighted that the November fall was “the largest drop since a 3 per cent fall in January.”

But the fall was actually a bit smaller than what I was expecting.

Valuation changes on their own knocked $30 billion or so off reserves (easy math—$1 trillion in euro, yen and similar assets, with an average fall of 3 percent in November).

It isn’t quite clear how China books mark-to-market changes in the value of its bond (and equity portfolio).

My rough estimate would suggest mark to market losses on China’s holdings of Treasuries and Agencies of about 1.5 percent, or $20 billion (Counting the agency portfolio and Belgian custodial book, per my usual adjustment). Bunds and OATs (French government bonds) also fell in value—but SAFE likely has a couple hundred billion in equities too, and their value rose. But it isn’t clear that all of China’s assets are marked to market monthly, so there is a bit of uncertainty here not just about the overall performance of the portfolio, but also how the portfolio’s value is reported.

Sum it all up and it is possible valuation knocked somewhere between $30 and $50 billion off China’s headline reserves.

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Do Not Tell Anyone, But the Case For Naming Taiwan a Manipulator Is Stronger than the Case For Naming China

by Brad Setser

Taiwan has an extremely large current account surplus. Over 14 percent of GDP in 2015, and over 10 percent of GDP since 2012. (See the WEO data or this chart). Relative to its GDP, Taiwan’s current account surplus is far bigger than China’s current account surplus is relative to its GDP.

Taiwan’s central bank clearly has been buying foreign currency in the foreign exchange market. The balance of payments data shows between $10 and $15 billion of purchases a year in recent years, and roughly $3 billion of purchases a quarter this year (data here).


And Taiwan’s government clearly has been encouraging private capital outflows—notably from the the life insurance industry—largely by loosening prudential regulation, and allowing the insurers to take more foreign currency risk. Private outflows help limit the need for central bank intervention to keep the currency down, but also require private institutional investors to take on ever more foreign currency risk.

China by contrast has been selling foreign exchange reserves in the market to prop its currency up. Right now, the case that China is managing its currency in ways that are adverse to U.S. trade interests is not strong.

Plus, Taiwan’s real effective exchange rate—using the BIS data—has depreciated significantly over the past ten-plus years, unlike China’s real effective exchange rate. The fact that a weaker real exchange rate has gone hand in hand with the rise in Taiwan’s surplus shouldn’t be a surprise, but there are still a surprising number of folks who believe that real exchange rates don’t matter for trade in an era of global supply chains. In Taiwan’s case, the correlation between a weaker currency and a bigger current account surplus is clear.


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China’s October Reserve Sales, And A New Reserves Puzzle

by Brad Setser

My preferred indicators of Chinese intervention are now available for October, and they send conflicting messages.

The changes in the balance sheet of the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) point to significant reserve sales (the data is reported in yuan, the key is the monthly change). PBOC balance sheet foreign reserves fell by around $40 billion, the broader category of foreign assets, which includes the PBOC’s “other foreign assets”—a category that includes the foreign exchange the banks are required to hold as part of their regulatory requirement to hold reserves at the central bank—fell by only a bit less. $40 billion a month is around $500 billion a year. China uniquely can afford to keep up that pace of sales for some time, but the draw on reserves would still be noticeable.

The foreign exchange settlement data for the banking system—a data series that includes the state banks, but historically has been dominated by the PBOC—shows only $10 billion in sales, excluding the banks sales for their own account, $11 billion if you adjust for forwards (Reuters reported the total including the banks activities for their own account, which raises sales to $15 billion). China can afford to sell $10 billion a month ($120 billion a year) for a really long time.

The solid green line in the graph below is foreign exchange settlement for clients, dashed green line includes an adjustment for the forward data, and the yellow line is the change in PBOC balance sheet reserves.*


As the chart illustrates, the PBOC balance sheet number points to a sustained increase in pressure over the last few months after a relatively calm second quarter. The PBOC balance sheet reserves data also corresponds the best with the balance of payments data, which showed large ($136 billion) reserve sales in the third quarter.

Conversely, the settlement data suggests nothing much has changed, and the PBOC remains in full control even as the pace of yuan depreciation against the dollar has picked up recently and the yuan is now hitting eight year lows versus the dollar (to be clear, the recent depreciation corresponds to the moves needed to keep the yuan stable against the basket at this summer’s level; the yuan is down roughly 10 percent against the basket and against the dollar since last August).

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Inflows from Private Bond Investors Into the U.S.

by Brad Setser

The global capital flows story these days is complex. I wanted to build on Landon Thomas’ article with a set of charts drawing out how I think large surpluses in Asia and Europe are now influencing the TIC data. Obviously, this is a more technical post.

Asia’s surplus is big. In dollar terms, the combined current account surplus of China, Japan, and the NIEs (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) is back at its pre-crisis levels. China’s surplus is a bit smaller in 2007, but Korea and Taiwan are clearly running bigger surpluses. Yet unlike in the past, very little of Asia’s surplus is going into a reserve buildup. China is obviously selling, and its selling overwhelms intermittent purchases by Korea (Korea sold in q1 2016, but bought in q3) and Taiwan. The outflow of savings from Asia is currently overwhelmingly a private flow.

That is a change. And frankly it makes the impact of Asia’s surplus on global markets harder to trace. The Bank for International Settlement (BIS) data shows that much (I would say most) of the “capital outflow” from China over the last four quarters has actually gone to paying down China’s external bank debt, not to build up assets. It thus just becomes a new source of liquidity for the global banking system (once a dollar loan is repaid, the bank is left with a dollar—which has to be parked somewhere else).

And of course the eurozone and northern Europe also run substantial surpluses. Negative rates and ECB asset purchases in effect work to push investors out of super low-yielding assets in Europe, and into somewhat higher yielding assets outside the eurozone.*


The combined surplus of China, Japan, the NIEs, the eurozone, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland was close to $1.2 trillion in 2015. That is a big sum; one that has to leave traces in the global flow data. The U.S. current account deficit isn’t as big as it was prior to the crisis (and it is smaller than the UK’s current account deficit), but it is still financed, in part, by inflows from abroad into the U.S. bond market.

Total inflows from private purchases of U.S. bonds by foreign investors—together with the inflow from American investors selling their existing stock of bonds abroad and bringing the funds home—actually look to be at a record high in the TIC data (in dollar terms, not when scaled to U.S. GDP). $500 billion in inflows from foreign purchases of Treasuries, Agencies, and corporate bonds by private investors abroad, and $250 billion in financing from Americans bringing funds previously invested in foreign bonds home.

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