Brad Setser

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The evolution of the United States’ external balance sheet in the last decade (wonky)

by Brad Setser

On Friday I tried to show why the US net international investment position deteriorated in 2008 – and also why it didn’t deteriorate in the previous years. Even after the market and currency gains of the past evaporated in 2008, the US net debt isn’t quite as big as an analyst who looked at the United States large cumulative current account deficit would expect. Some of the debt that the US thinks it sells to the rest of the world every year seems to disappear when the US goes out and tries to count the total amount owes the world – and how much equity in US companies have been sold to foreign investors.*

Yet even if the US data doesn’t show quite as much debt as it probably should, it still tells a lot going about what was on in the US – and the global – economy in the run up to the crisis.

It is consequently tempting to try to do a bit of forensic accounting to help understand how vulnerabilities built up. One thing quickly becomes clear. The US was piling up external debts in the run-up to the crisis even if the United States’ net international investment position wasn’t deteriorating.

The data in the NIIP can be disaggregated into debt and equity fairly easily. It is also fairly easy to separate out net official and net private claims. There isn’t a separate breakout for “official” investments in equities – as central bank and sovereign funds’ equity investments are aggregated together with their investments in US corporate bonds. But the US survey data indicates that official holds of equities were over three times official holdings of corporate bonds in the middle of 2008, so I don’t feel too bad considering “other official assets” a proxy for central bank and sovereign funds’ investment in US equities.

But don’t get bogged down in the details. There is no doubt that the US was clearly racking up debts to both official and private creditors in the run up to the crisis. Net US external debt (US borrowing from the world, net of US lending to the world) is now close to 40% of US GDP — a fairly high level for a country with a modest export sector.

2008-niip-net-14

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Near-record growth in the custodial holdings at the Fed; ongoing angst about the dollar’s role as a reserve currency …

by Brad Setser

Central banks haven’t lost their appetite for Treasuries. At least not shorter-dated notes. John Jansen noted before yesterday’s 2-year auction “the central banks love that sector [of the curve].” And the auction result certainly didn’t give him cause to backtrack. Indirect bids — a proxy for central banks — snapped up close to 70% of the auction. Jansen again:

The Treasury sold $ 40 billion 2 year notes today and the bidding interest from central banks was frantic. The indirect category of bidding ( which the street holds is a proxy for central bank interest) took 68 percent of the total. That leaves about $ 13 billion for the rest of us.

Central banks also seem increasingly interested in five year notes. Indirect bids at today’s five year auction were quite high as well.*

Strong central bank demand for Treasuries shouldn’t be a real surprise. Reserve growth picked up in May: look at Korea, Taiwan, Russia and Hong Kong. There are even rumblings – based on the data that the PBoC puts out — that Chinese reserve growth picked up as well. The rise in reserve growth fits a long-standing pattern: emerging markets tend to add more to their reserves — and specifically their dollar reserves — when the euro is rising against the dollar. A fall in the dollar against the euro often indicates general pressure for the dollar to depreciate — pressure that some central banks resist (Supporting charts can be found at the end of a memo on the dollar that I wrote for the Council’s Center for Preventative Action).

And the Fed’s custodial holdings (securities that the New York Fed holds on behalf of foreign central banks) have been growing at a smart clip. Recent talk about a shift away from a dollar reserves by a few key countries actually coincided with a surge in the Fed’s custodial holdings. Over the last 13 weeks of data, central banks added $160 billion to their custodial accounts, with Treasuries accounting for all the increase.

frbny-mid-june-09-2

$160 billion a quarter is $640 billion annualized — a pace that if sustained would be a record. Of course, $640 billion in central bank purchases of Treasuries would still fall well short of meeting the US Treasuries financing need. The math only works if Americans also buy a lot of Treasuries. That is a change.

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I am pretty sure China didn’t sell Treasuries in April (or May, for that matter)

by Brad Setser

The fall in China’s recorded Treasury holdings in April has attracted a fair amount of attention. Too much, in my view. Best that I can tell, China shifted from bills to short-dated notes in April rather than actually reducing its overall Treasury portfolio. It just so happens that China buys all its short-term bills in ways that show up in the US TIC data, but only a fraction of its longer-term notes in ways that show up in the US TIC data. A shift from bills to notes then could register in the US data as a fall in China’s total Treasury holdings and a rise in the UK’s holdings.

This is actually a well established pattern. The past five surveys of foreign portfolio investment in the US have all revised China’s long-term Treasury holdings up (in some cases quite significantly) even as they revised the UK’s holdings down. The following graph shows the gap between Chinese long-term Treasury purchases in the TIC data and China’s actual purchases of long-term Treasuries– as revealed in the survey. With the help of Arpana Pandey, I have smoothed out the impact of the survey revisions. But when there is a hard data point — say June 2006 — the y/y increase in China’s Treasury holdings in the adjusted series should match the increase in the survey.

china-april-tic

The last survey data point though comes from June 2008, so the subsequently data includes some estimates — specifically estimates of the share of the UK’s Treasury purchases that should be attributed to China. I am pretty confident though that it is no more inaccurate than the published US TIC data, which systematically under counted Chinese purchases of long-term bonds over the last five years

Here are three signs to watch to know when China really is reducing its US holdings.

First, the TIC data should show a fall in China’s holdings, i.e. net sales of Treasuries.

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Today’s balance of payments release was overshadowed …

by Brad Setser

Events in Iran (rightly) dominate the headlines, along with the Obama Administration’s plans to revamp the United States’ system of financial regulation.

And it doesn’t take much to overshadow the release of the United States’ balance of payments data, as it largely tells us things that we already know — whether from the trade data (the trade deficit is way down) or the TIC data (private investors didn’t put much money in the US in q1).

But there are still stories to be found in the balance of payments data. Give the US a bit of credit. No other country releases as much detail about its balance of payments as the United States. Play with the interactive tables for a while; it is hard not to be impressed.

I have a particular reason to pay attention to those details. I have long argued — actually screamed at the top of my lungs to anyone who would listen — that central banks and sovereign funds were the main source of financing for the US current account deficit from the start of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2008. And at long last, I can now point to a genuine official data release to support my argument. The BEA (finally) revised its estimates for official inflows over this period. Guess what? The BEA now thinks that official inflows are a lot higher than they used to be.

current-account-q1-09-1

Total inflows — according to the revised data — peaked at around $700 billion in third quarter of 2008. That fits what we know about global reserves far better than the unrevised data; the enormous increase in the pace of reserve growth dominated in change in the dollar’s share of total reserves. Studies that use the unrevised data — essentially any study that works off the monthly TIC data series — to argue that the fall in central bank inflows after 2004 had no impact on yields so central banks had no impact on the market need to be revised. It turns out that there really was no sustained fall off in central bank demand for US assets. The recent $700 billion peak easily exceeds the $400 billion 2004 peak.

A lot of ink has been spilled analyzing whether the recent crisis has reduced US global power. That framing though misses a key point, namely, that the pre-crisis world — one where the US relying ever more on a small set of governments to finance a large trade deficit — wasn’t exactly on a favorable trajectory for the United States.

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Read Brender and Pisani’s “Globalised finance and its collapse”

by Brad Setser

I highly recommend Anton Brender and Florence Pisani’s recent monograph, “Globalized finance and its collapse.” In a lot of ways, it is something that I wish I could have written. I don’t agree with every detail, but in my view they get the broad story right.

Brender and Pisani both teach at Paris-Dauphine. But Anglo-Saxon chauvinism shouldn’t get in the way of appreciating quality work. And in this case, there is no excuse: the translation (by Francis Wells) is superb.

In some deep sense, Brender and Pisani have updated the core arguments of Martin Wolf’s Fixing Global Finance (also highly recommended) to reflect many of the things what we all have learned in the last nine months of crisis.

Like Martin Wolf, Brender and Pisani recognize that globalization took an unusual turn over the past several years: the globalization of finance resulted in a world where the poor financed the rich, not one where the rich financed the poor. And what’s more, this “uphill” flow was essentially a government flow. Despite the talk of the triumph of private markets over the state a few years back, the capital flow that defined the world’s true financial architecture over the past several years was the result of the enormous accumulation of foreign exchange reserves in the hands of the central banks of key Asian and oil-exporting economies.

Dooley and Garber recognize this. They don’t pretend that private investors in the emerging world drove the uphill flow of capital. But Dooley and Garber also assert that there is no connection between this uphill flow and the current crisis. In a March Vox EU piece they wrote:

“We have argued that the decisions of governments of emerging markets to place an unusually large share of domestic savings in US assets depressed real interest rates in the US and elsewhere in financial markets closely integrated with the US … Low risk-free real interest rates that were expected to persist for a long time, in the absence of a downturn, generated equilibrium asset prices that appeared high by historical standards. These equilibrium prices looked like bubbles to those who expected real interest rates and asset prices to return to historical norms in the near future … Along with our critics, we recognised that if we were wrong about the durability of the Bretton Woods II system and the associated durability of low real interest rates, the decline in asset prices would be spectacular and very negative for financial stability and economic activity … This is not the crisis that actually hit the global system. But the idea that an excessive compression of spreads and increased leverage were directly caused by low real interest rates seems to us entirely without foundation.” Emphasis added.

It actually isn’t that hard to find examples of how low returns on “safe” investments induced more risk-taking throughout the system, especially private intermediaries started to believe in the essential stability of Bretton Woods 2. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that many bond funds underperformed their index in 2008 because their managers had been taking on more risk to juice returns in the good years, and thus went into the crisis underweight the safe assets that central banks typically hold. US money market funds that lend ever-growing sums to European commercial banks were making a similar bet. As were the European banks that relied on wholesale funding to cover their growing portfolios of risky dollar debt. The inverted yield curve forced vehicles that borrow short and lend long to either go out of business or take ever more credit risk — and as volatility fell and spreads compressed, there was a constant temptation to take on more leverage to keep profits up. The pressures to take more risk were there.

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Three quick points on the April TIC data

by Brad Setser

One. This was a very weak report. Very modest demand for US financial assets from the rest of the world is creating ongoing pressure for the US to adjust — that is for the US trade deficit to fall. Net TIC flows — counting short-term flows — were negative. And unlike in January and February, the negative flow wasn’t coming from large bank flows stemming from the repayment of the Fed’s swap lines (i.e. change in banks’ own dollar denominated liabilities per line 29). Private US purchases of foreign equities ($9.2 billion) exceed purchases of US equities by private investors abroad ($3.7 billion). Americans also bought $13.8 billion of foreign bonds, while — if purchases of Treasuries are set aside — private investors abroad were selling US bonds. That isn’t a good combination for a country with an ongoing trade deficit: Americans wanted to invest abroad more than the rest of the world wanted to invest in the US.

Two. Official investors are shifting out the yield curve — i.e. buying short-term notes rather than just buying short-term bills. The TIC data release shows that central banks bought $17.1 billion of longer-term Treasury notes while reducing their bill holdings by $12.1 billion. That implies a (modest) net $5 billion increase in central bank holdings of Treasuries.
But we also know that this is too low a figure. Central banks holdings of Treasuries at the New York Fed rose by $31.8 billion in April. And a familiar pattern reasserted itself in the data: large purchases of Treasury notes ($22.4 billion) by investors in the UK. A lot of those notes — based on past patterns – were then sold to central banks and then shifted over to the New York Fed. I would then estimate — based on the TIC data — that the real rise in official holdings of Treasuries is close to $27 billion, which fits the custodial data.

Three. The apparent fall in China’s holdings of Treasuries is sure to attract a lot of attention. China’s bill holdings fell by $14.79 billion, while its long-term Treasury purchases were only $10.33 billion. That seems to imply a $4 billion plus fall in China’s Treasury holdings. Looking at the ensemble of China’s US portfolio doesn’t change the picture. Total short-term holdings fell by $22.2 billion, more than offsetting China $7.6 billion in purchases of all US long-term assets (China sold Agencies and corp bonds).

I don’t buy it. This is a case where it helps to know the pattern of past revisions — especially the pattern of past revisions when oil prices have been low. In such periods, China tends to account for a very large share of purchases through the UK. In other words, some of the $22.4 billion of Treasury bonds initially sold to UK banks were then sold to China’s central bank. From mid-2006 to mid-2007, about 2/3s of the UK’s purchases of Treasuries were ultimately reassigned to China. I would expect the something similar is happening now — all of China’s bill holdings tend to appear in the US data in real time, but only a fraction of China’s long-term purchases tend to show up directly in the US data.

After adjusting for China’s purchases through the UK, I would guess that China’s total Treasury portfolio inched up in April. Consider the following graph, which shows the UK’s long-term holdings, China’s recorded Treasury holdings, and the Setser/ Pandey estimate for China’s true Treasury holdings.

china-tic-may

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Just who bought all the Treasuries the issued in late 2008 and early 2009?

by Brad Setser

As Dr. Krugman notes, the Fed’s flow of funds data leaves little doubt that — at least during the first quarter — the rise in public borrowing was fully offset by a fall in private borrowing. An updated version of the chart I posted last week comparing government and private borrowing can be found on the website of the Council’s Center for Geoeconomic Studies.

Total US borrowing by the non-financial sector (annualized) was under $1.4 trillion in the first quarter — down from $1.9 trillion in calendar 2008 and $2.5 trillion in calendar 2007. In the first quarter, Americans borrowed less, at an annualized rate than they did in 2003.

The federal government borrowed over $1.4 trillion – -and if throw in state and local governments, total public borrowing topped $1.55 trillion. That isn’t a small sum. But households were borrowing (they actually paid down their outstanding debt in the first quarter). And modest borrowing by corporations was offset by a fall in borrowing by noncorporate business. Firms and households combined to reduce their borrowing by a bit less than $200 billion ($184.1 billion). To put that in perspective, households and firms borrowed over $2 trillion in 2006. That is an epic fall.

Borrowing less in aggregate translated into borrowing less from the rest of the world. If the flow of funds is right, the current account deficit in the first quarter in the first quarter was under $300 billion dollars ($293 billion according to table F107). $300 billion is closer to 2% of US GDP than 3% of US GDP. The result, obviously, is less need to borrow from the rest of the world — or to sell equity to foreign investors — to finance the United States import bill.

Who bought all the Treasuries the US government has issued in the last four quarters of data (q2 2008 to q1 2009)? Foreign demand for Treasuries — as we have discussed extensively — hasn’t disappeared, unlike foreign demand for other kinds of US debt. But foreign demand hasn’t increased at the same pace as the Treasury’s need to place debt. The gap was filled largely by a rise in demand for Treasuries from US households.

treasury-demand-q1-09-1

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The return of Bretton Woods Two? (or Bretton Woods 2.1?)

by Brad Setser

If you read the headlines earlier this week, you might well have concluded that the dollar’s days as the world’s leading reserve currency are numbered. Yu Yongding of China’s Academy of Social Sciences suggested that China should shift away from the dollar.* He isn’t alone. China’s population is no longer convinced that US Treasuries should be counted among the world’s safest asset.** Try feeding that into the Caballero, Farhi and Gourinchas model.***

On the other hand, if you ignore the headlines and just look at cold hard numbers, you likely would conclude that central bank demand for dollars has picked up — not slowed down. The Fed’s custodial holdings aren’t a perfect proxy for the growth in the world’s dollar reserves. Countries can hold their dollars elsewhere. But they are decent proxy — and data from the custodial accounts, unlike the IMF’s more comprehensive data, are available in close to real time. And over the last four weeks, central banks have added $71.36b to their custodial accounts at the Fed. Their Treasury holdings are up even more: $74.62b.

Those numbers, annualized, imply $900-1000 billion of demand for US financial assets — mostly Treasuries — from the world’s central banks. That isn’t a small number. It is close to half of the Treasury’s likely net issuance this year. It would go along way toward answering the question of who will absorb the expected increase in Treasury supply.

Last fall — and even in January — the rise in the Fed’s custodial accounts seemed to reflect funds that were being withdrawn from the international banking system. Not anymore. A host of indicators suggest that the banking system has stabilized. European banks aren’t scrambling for dollar financing. The Fed’s swap lines are shrinking. Bank stocks have rallied. And nearly every Asian economy that has reported its end-May reserves has reported a big increase. And it isn’t just that the dollar value of Asia’s euros and pounds has increased.

And with oil now back above $70 before global activity has rebounded (Mark Gongloff calls it a few form of decoupling: “decoupling” once described the hope that emerging markets could grow without developed markets. Now it could refer to commodities and economic fundamentals”) a host of oil-exporting economies are likely to start adding to their reserves as well.

Bretton Woods Two has come storming back. As Tim Duy notes, it increasingly looks like 2007 all over again.

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Record demand, record angst

by Brad Setser

The bond market vigilantes are (supposedly) back. And this time, they aren’t just Wall Street traders. America’s foreign creditors are no longer willing to provide endless amounts of long-term credit to the US at low rates. So argues Mark MacQueen of Austin, Texas- based Sage Advisory Services (via Bloomberg):

“The vigilante group is different this time around … It’s major foreign creditors. This whole idea that we need to spend our way out of our problems is being questioned.”

From all this talk, you would never know that the world is actually still buying record amounts of US Treasuries. In fact, Treasuries are the only US financial asset that the rest of the world is still buying in large quantities. Demand for Agencies — and asset backed securities — has fallen off a cliff. Demand for equities has been anemic (though the last data point comes from March). By contrast, the 52 week increase in the New York Fed’s custodial holdings is way, way up.

fed-custodial-holdings-end-may-09

Over the last four weeks of data — basically the month of May — central bank Treasury purchases topped $70 billion even as their Agency holdings inched up. That is a big sum, almost a record sum. It implies that the rest of the world is currently shifting their US portfolio into Treasuries, not moving out of them.

fed-custodial-holdings-end-may-09-2

To be sure, not all is well.

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The Treasury market, in a world no longer dominated by central bank reserve managers

by Brad Setser

In case you haven’t heard, the Treasury market – and the mortgage market — had a bad day. Ten-year Treasury yields are back at their November 2008 levels (long-term Treasury yields didn’t fall immediately after Lehman). 3.7% for ten year money isn’t all that high a rate. Especially for a country with a substantial fiscal deficit. But it isn’t 2% either.

What happened?

In very broad terms, rising supply met falling demand from one important subset of the market. Bringing in new (private) money has required higher yields.

The supply of longer-term Treasuries is increasingly rapidly. Until I looked closely at the data – from the monthly statement of the public debt — I hadn’t realized that the big increase in outstanding supply of longer-dates Treasuries only really came in 2009. The surge in Treasury issuance in 2008 was almost entirely short-term bills.

treasury-issuance-thru-april-09-1

Over the last 12 months of data (data through the end of April, May data will be out soon), the US issued $735 billion of notes, bonds and TIPs.* In calendar 2008, the increase in supply of longer-term Treasuries was about $400b – a large sum, but easily within the realm of historical experience.

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