Brad Setser

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Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

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Showing posts for "central bank reserves"

Is The Dirty Little Secret of FX Intervention That It Works?

by Brad Setser

Foreign exchange intervention has long been one of those things that works better in practice than in theory.*

Emerging markets worried about currency appreciation certainly seem to believe it works, even if the IMF doesn’t.**

Korea a few weeks back, for example.

Korea reportedly intervened—in scale and fairly visibly—when the won reached 1090 against the dollar in mid-August:

“Traders said South Korean foreign exchange authorities were spotted weakening the won “aggressively,” causing them to rush to unwind bets on further appreciation. On Wednesday (August 10), according to the traders, authorities intervened and spent an estimated $2 billion when the won hit a near 15-month high of 1,091.8.”

USDKRW-last-60days

And, guess what, the won subsequently has remained weaker than 1090, in part because of expectations that the government will intervene again. And of course the Fed.

And that is how I suspect intervention can have an impact in practice. Intervention sets a cap on how much a currency is likely to appreciate. At certain levels, the government will resist appreciation, strongly—while happily staying out of the market if the currency depreciates. That changes the payoff in the market from bets on the currency. At the level of expected intervention; appreciation becomes less likely, and depreciation more likely.***

1090 won-to-the-dollar incidentally is still a pretty weak level for the won, even if the Koreans do not think so. The won rose to around 900 before the crisis, and back in 2014, it got to 1050 and then 1000 before hitting a block in the market. In the first seven months of 2016, the won’s value, in real terms, against a broad basket of currencies was about 15 percent lower than it was on average from 2005 to 2007.

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$3.2 Trillion (Actually a Bit More) Isn’t Enough? The Fund on China’s Reserves

by Brad Setser

China is running a persistent current account surplus, one that could be larger than officially reported (the huge tourism deficit looks a bit suspicious).

If China paid off all its external debt, it would still have around $2 trillion in reserves.* If it paid off all its short-term debt, it would have $2.5 trillion in reserves.

And China has a very low level of domestic liability dollarization (3 percent of total deposits are in foreign currency)

True, $3.2 trillion ($3.3 trillion if you include the PBOC’s other foreign assets, as you should, and as much as $3.5 trillion if you include the China Investment Corporation’s foreign portfolio, which is more debatable) isn’t $4 trillion.**

But much of the fall in reserves over the last 18 months has stemmed from the use of reserves to repay China’s short-term external debt. The IMF projects that China’s short-term external debt will have fallen from $1.3 trillion in 2014 to just over $700 billion by the end of this year.

Reserves are down, but—from an external standpoint—China’s need for reserves is also down. The two year fall in short-term debt is actually about equal to projected drop in reserves.

The Fund though sees things a bit differently. Buffers, according to the Fund’s staff report, are now low, and need to be rebuilt. Some in the market agree.

And that gets at a critical issue for China, and a critical issue for assessing reserve adequacy more generally. Just how many reserves do countries like China, need?

For China, two “traditional” indicators of reserve adequacy—reserves to short-term debt and reserves to broad money—point in completely different directions.

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The Absence of Foreign Demand for Treasuries in the TIC data Is a Bit Misleading

by Brad Setser

A common explanation for low Treasury yields is that low rates outside the United States have piled into the U.S. market, as investors in Europe, Japan and elsewhere look to the United States for a reasonable mix of safety and yield.

That is part of what Gavyn Davies, in one of his typically thoughtful posts, argues that the Fed has learned over the past year. The United States is no longer a (monetary) island, the rest of the world matters. Of course, what Lael Brainard called the elevated sensitivity of exchange rate moves to monetary surprises is also a part of the global story. It isn’t just a flows story. An awful lot of the tightening in U.S. financial conditions that occurred in anticipation of the Fed raising rates came through dollar appreciation; too much in my view.

The apparent problem with this the “foreign demand is holding down Treasury yields” thesis: Foreign investors pretty clearly have sold Treasuries over the past 12 months. And not just a few Treasuries. Net foreign sales of long-term Treasuries over the last 12 months of data are around $250 billion.

So what is going on?

long-term-tic-bond-flows

It is actually pretty simple, in my view. Treasury sales in the Treasury International Capital (TIC) data (and also, I suspect, most of the sales of U.S. equities) are linked to the fall in global reserves.

Over the last 12 months China has sold several hundred billion of reserves (though most of those sales were in the fall of 2015 and early 2016, recent sales are more modest), the Saudis have been selling and Japan—for reasons of its own—has been selling securities while increasing its deposits (Japan has reduced its long-term securities holdings by a bit over $100 billion over the last two years, while raising its short-term deposits by a similar amount, according to the SDDS data).

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China’s July Reserve Sales: Bigger, But Still Not That Big

by Brad Setser

The proxies for China’s foreign exchange intervention in July are now available, and they point to $20 to $30 billion of reserve sales.

The PBOC’s foreign assets fell by about $23 billion (The PBOC’s foreign reserves, as reported on the PBOC’s renminbi balance sheet, fell by $29 billion; I prefer the change in the PBOC’s foreign assets though, as foreign assets catches the foreign exchange that banks hold at the PBOC as part of their reserve requirement).

FX settlement with non-banks shows net sales of around $20 billion. Throw in the change in forwards in the settlement data, and total sales were maybe $25 billion.

All the proxies show more variation than appeared in headline reserves, which only fell by $5 billion. I trust the proxies.

The bigger story, I think, is two-fold.

One is that there is still a correlation between FX sales and moves in the yuan against the dollar. In June and July the yuan slid against the dollar, and the magnitude of FX sales increased. That fits a long-standing pattern.

china-fx-settlement-vs-cny

The second, and far more important point, is that the magnitude of sales during periods when the yuan is depreciating against the dollar are significantly smaller than they were last August, or back in December and January.

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China Sold Reserves in June, Just Not Very Many

by Brad Setser

Both of the key proxies for China’s actual intervention in June are out.

The PBOC’s balances sheet shows a $15 billion dollar fall in reserves.

And the State Administration on Foreign Exchange (SAFE) data on foreign exchange settlement by the banking system (the PBOC is treated as part of the banks) shows $18 billion in sales from the banking system (using sales for clients, not net settlement).

They paint a consistent picture. The gap between the modest sales reported in the data and the rise in headline reserves ($13.4 billlion) is almost certainly from the mark-to-market gains on a portion of SAFE’s book. The portfolio of high quality bonds should have increased in value in June. Friends who read Chinese say SAFE has admitted as much on its website.

The more interesting thing to me is how modest the sales were, at least when compared to other periods of depreciation (against the dollar) in the last two years.

FX-Settlement-CNY-June

Either the carry trade unwind is over or the controls work. Or somehow this most recent depreciation hasn’t produced expectations for further depreciation, even though the crawl down against the basket has been pretty stable.

It is a puzzle, at least to me.

For the conspiratorially minded, the banks do look to have sold foreign exchange from their own accounts in June, as they did last August and this January. But the sales from their own account were modest—$5 billion versus $85 billion last August and $15 billion in January. And the settlement data for forwards also shows a modest reduction in the net forward book of the banks in June. Net of the change in forwards, total sales in the settlement data look to be just under $15 billion.

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How Many Reserves Does Turkey Need? Some Thoughts on the IMF’s Reserve Metric

by Brad Setser

Turkey has long ranked at the top of most lists of financially vulnerable emerging economies, at least lists based on conventional vulnerability measures. Thanks to its combination of a large current account deficit and modest foreign exchange reserves, Turkey has many of the vulnerabilities that gave rise to 1990s-style emerging market crises. Turkey’s external funding need—counting external debts that need to be rolled over—is about 25 percent of GDP, largely because Turkey’s banks have a sizable stock of short-term external debt.

At the same time, these vulnerabilities are not new. Turkey has long reminded us that underlying vulnerability doesn’t equal a crisis. For whatever reason, the short-term external debts of Turkey’s banks have tended to be rolled over during times of stress.*

And, fortunately, those vulnerabilities have even come down just a bit over the last year or so. After the taper tantrum, Turkey’s banks even have been able to term out some of their external funding by issuing bonds to a yield-starved world in 2014, and by shifting toward slightly longer-term cross-border bank lending in 2015 and 2016 (See figure 4 on pg. 35 of the IMF’s April 2016 Article IV Consultation with Turkey) And while the recent fall in Turkey’s tourism revenue doesn’t look good, Turkey also is a large oil and gas importer. Its external deficit looks significantly better now than it did when oil was above a hundred and Russian gas was more expensive.

external-borrowing-vs-fx-reserves

Turkey doesn’t have many obvious fiscal vulnerabilities; public debt is only about 30 percent of GDP. Its vulnerabilities come from the foreign currency borrowing of its banks and firms.

There is one more strange thing about Turkey. Its banks have increased their borrowing from abroad in foreign currency after the global financial crisis, but there hasn’t been comparable growth in domestic foreign currency lending. Rather, the rapid growth has come in lending in Turkish lira, especially to households.

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A Simple Explanation for the Rise in China’s Reserves in June?

by Brad Setser

There are plenty of possible explanations for the surprise jump in China’s headline reserves in June.

A high allocation to yen (up around 6.5 percent), for example, or a low allocation to pounds (down nearly 8 percent).

Headline reserves are reported in dollars, and thus change when dollar value of euros, pounds, yen, and other currencies held in a typical reserve portfolio change.

But, absent a much bigger allocation to yen than to pounds, it is hard to see how currency moves in June can explain the $13.5 billion increase in headline reserves. My simple valuation adjustment actually churns out a tiny valuation loss from currency moves, so it implies a slightly higher underlying pace of reserve accumulation than the rise in headline reserves.

However, some countries—following the IMF’s SDDS standard—also report the market value of their securities portfolio. And rises in the value of a portfolio that consists primarily of bonds could easily explain the rise in China’s June reserves.

A two-year Treasury should have increased in value by about half a point, and a five-year Treasury rose by almost two points. I get bond valuation gains of very roughly $15 to $20 billion on a stylized version of China’s U.S. Treasury portfolio,* and there should also be gains on China’s euro portfolio and other fixed income assets. 5 year bunds were up a bit under a point. Extrapolating a bit, across all currencies bond market gains could have added something like $25 billion to the value of a bond portfolio that likely tops $2.5 trillion by a significant margin (not all of China’s reserves are in bonds).

Of course, it is also possible China also might have started to buy dollars in the market. This though feels like a stretch — most observers suspect China’s central bank is still selling dollars through the state banks, at least in the offshore market in Hong Kong. China seems to have wanted to make sure the CNY’s depreciation against the dollar in June was orderly, and that the CNH moved in line with the CNY. This recent Reuters article, for example, hints that China still is selling foreign currency (“further weakness was capped as the central bank was suspected of intervention to offset massive dollar demand from banks’ clients, traders said”).

The uncertainty about the sign of China’s activity in the market makes the foreign exchange settlement and the PBOC balance sheet data that will be released toward the end of the month all the more important. The settlement data and the PBOC’s balance sheet data often provide a cleaner read on China’s actual intervention than the change in headline reserves.

[*] Ballpark math: if China held around $1.5 trillion in U.S. Treasuries (I added Agencies to my actual estimate and rounded a bit), with two-thirds at an average maturity of two years and one-third at an average maturity of 5 years (to fit with the data showing total returns on both maturity buckets) the mark to market gain on its Treasuries would be around $15 billion. If two-thirds were in five-year bonds and only a third in two-year bonds, that would be $20 billion. All this is very rough. Precise estimates here would stretch the technology a bit too far, given all the uncertainty about China’s reserve portfolio. Most Treasuries held in central bank reserves, according to the Treasury data, have a maturity of less than five years; see pp. 24-25 of this Treasury report.

More on China’s May Reserves

by Brad Setser

The best available indicators of China’s activity in the foreign exchange market—the People’s Bank of China’s (PBOC) balance sheet data, and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange’s (SAFE) foreign exchange settlement data—are out. They have confirmed that China did not sell much foreign currency in May.

RMB_new

The PBOC’s balance sheet data shows a fall of between zero and $8 billion (I prefer the broadest measure—foreign assets, to foreign reserves, and the broader measure is flat). And SAFE’s data on foreign exchange (FX) settlement shows only $10 billion in sales by banks on behalf of clients, and $12.5 billion in total sales—both numbers are the smallest since last June.

The settlement data that includes forwards even fewer sales, as the spot data included a lot of settled forwards.

A couple of weeks ago I noted that May would be an interesting month for the evolution of China’s reserves.

May is a month where the yuan depreciated against the dollar. The depreciation was broadly consistent with the basket peg. The dollar appreciated, so a true basket peg would imply that the yuan should depreciate against the dollar.

And in the past any depreciation against the dollar tended to produce expectations of a bigger move against the dollar, and led to intensified pressure and strong reserve sales.

That though doesn’t seem to have happened in May. All things China have stabilized.

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A Bit More on Chinese, Belgian and Saudi Custodial Holdings

by Brad Setser

Marc Chandler asked why I chose to attribute Belgium’s holdings to China rather than any of the other potential candidates—notably the Gulf and Russia.

The answer for Russia is pretty straightforward. Russia’s holdings of Treasuries (and in the past Russia’s holdings of both Treasuries and Agencies) tend to show up in the U.S. custodial data. Russia holds around $275 billion in securities in its reserves, and it holds a relatively low share of its reserves in dollars (40 percent still?). $85 billion in Treasuries (in March) is more or less in line with expectations. There are maybe a few billion missing, but there also is no need to search for large quantities of missing Russian dollar-denominated reserve assets.

Differentiating between the Gulf and China is a bit harder. Both are to a degree “missing” in the custodial data. Both China’s and the Gulf’s custodial holdings are a bit lower than would be expected based on the size of their reserves, and for the Gulf, the size of their reserves and sovereign fund. Both are big players, so both could conceivably account for one of the key features of Belgium: the rapid rise and then the rapid fall in Belgian’s custodial holdings.

So why China?

Consider a plot of Saudi Reserves—looking only at the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency’s (SAMA) holdings of securities. I also plotted the change that would be expected if say 75 percent of SAMA’s securities were in dollars, just as a reminder that the full change is the upper limit. SAMA also has a lot of deposits, but they aren’t relevant here.

Saudi Arabia

It is fairly clear that the changes in Belgium’s custodial holdings are a loose fit at best for SAMA’s security holdings. The big run-up in the Belgian account actually came when the pace of Saudi reserve growth was slowing. And the drawdown in Saudi reserves started a bit before the drawdown in Belgium, and has been more steady.

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How Many Treasuries Does China Still Own?

by Brad Setser

Quick answer. A lot. Between $1.3 trillion and $1.4 trillion, or about 40 percent of China’s reserves. The last year has made it abundantly clear that Belgium’s holdings of Treasuries aren’t from Belgian dentists. China’s reserves started to fall last summer. Yet China’s reported holdings of Treasuries in the custodial data barely budged. Belgium’s holdings, by contrast, fell by around $200 billion. It is now standard among those who care about this stuff to add Belgium’s holdings (between $80 and $90 billion in long-term Treasuries, and $154 billion if you count Treasury bills) to those of China ($1245 billion).

A more interesting question, one that takes a bit more technical wizardry to report, is how many U.S. assets China holds. The right answer, I think, is at least $1.8 trillion and perhaps more. That is somewhat less than China used to hold—but still quite a lot. In addition to Treasuries, China has $200 billion or so in Agencies, and $200 billion or so in U.S. equities, and close to $100 billion on deposit in U.S. banks. That is more or less in line with expectations for a country with $3.2 trillion in reserves.

ONE

I actually lied about the technical wizardry required. Now that the Treasury reports monthly custodial holdings of all kinds of debt along with custodial holdings of U.S. equities, the amount of skill required isn’t very high. You just need to know where to look. (Historical data is here)

I do still have a few tricks up my sleeve. After all, the trick to Treasury International Capital (TIC) watching is looking at changes over time, and trying understanding the resulting patterns. The art comes in making the adjustments needed to make the custodial data better map to the transactional data.

If you want a continuous time series that goes back to the start of China’s reserve accumulation, you need to extrapolate between the annual custodial surveys from 2002 to 2012. Using, in broad terms, the methodology outlined here, that can be done with a fair amount of sweat, toil, and tears. After 2012, the Treasury provides a continuous monthly data series.

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