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.