Brad Setser

Follow the Money

Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

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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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The Leak in China’s Controls From Hong Kong Imports Is Still Small

by Brad Setser

The jump in China’s imports from Hong Kong has generated a bit of attention recently.

Monthly imports have gone from around $1 billion this time last year to around $3 billion. It is very reasonable to think that this rise reflects a new way of getting money out of China, rather than a change in the underlying pattern of trade.

GoodImports

But plots showing that imports have risen by a some crazy percent miss something important. The magnitudes of the over-invoiced imports are still small. Annualized, the $2 billion monthly difference is about $25 billion.

The likely over-invoicing of imports through Hong Kong is also still significantly smaller than the over-invoicing of exports through Hong Kong back in late 2012 and early 2013. In March 2013, exports to Hong Kong were almost $25 billion higher than in March 2012, and first quarter 2013 exports to Hong Kong were up almost $50 billion year-over-year. The implied annual pace of inflows then was close to $200 billion. That was big enough to inflate the overall level of exports in 2013, and thus it had a rather meaningful impact on the year-over-year growth in China’s exports in 2014.

GoodExp

And if you are really looking for hidden capital outflows, I personally would focus on the tourism accounts more than goods imports from Hong Kong. Imports of travel services rose by about $100 billion in 2014, jumping $128 billion in 2013 to $236 billion in 2014.* The 85 percent annual rise in travel spending reported in the 2014 balance of payments far exceeded the at-most 20 percent increase in the number of Chinese tourists** travelling abroad. Travel imports jumped another $50 billion in 2015 to $292 billion—real money, and a two-year increase of well over 100 percent.

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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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China’s May Reserves

by Brad Setser

The change in China’s headline reserves is actually one of the least reliable indicators of China’s true intervention in the foreign currency market. Valuation changes create a lot of noise. And it is always possible for China to intervene in ways that do not show up in headline reserves. Last fall, for example, much of the intervention came from changes in the banks’ required foreign currency reserves.

The change in the foreign assets on the PBOC’s balance sheet, and the State Administration on Foreign Exchange’s (SAFE) foreign exchange settlement data are more useful.

Still, there is valuable information in today’s release. The roughly $30 billion fall in reserves to $3,192 billion (not a very big sum) is more or less explained by a $20 billion or so fall in the market value of China’s euros, yen, pounds, and other currency holdings. Actual sales appear to have remained low.

That is interesting and perhaps a bit surprising, as the yuan depreciated in May against the dollar. And in past months, yuan depreciation against the dollar has been associated with large sales of dollars, and strong pressure on the currency.

CNY v Basket

We need the full data on China—the “proxies” for true intervention that should be released over the next couple of weeks—to get a complete picture. But if it is confirmed that China’s reserve sales were indeed modest, I can think of three possible explanations:

1) Renewed enforcement of controls on the financial account are working. They limited outflows.
2) Chinese companies have mostly finished hedging their foreign currency debts. They now have had three quarters to pay it down, or to hedge. And it certainly seems from the balance of payments data in late 2015 that Chinese banks and firms were paying back their cross-border loans with some speed.
3) Managing against a basket (at least some of the time) is working. The depreciation against the dollar came in the context of the yuan’s appreciation against the basket, and thus did not generate expectations that the move against the dollar was the first step in a much bigger devaluation.

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What Drove China’s Large Reserve Sales?

by Brad Setser

China never was going to transition from one of the most heavily managed currencies in the world to a free float overnight. The critical question always has been how China is going to manage its currency, not whether China will manage its currency. The “market” in China has effectively been a bet on where the People’s Bank of China (PBOC)—and its various masters—wanted the currency to go. The reform last August did not change that.

And China made its task more difficult last August by trying to get rid of one of its tools for managing market expectations—the daily fix of the level for yuan against the dollar, which in theory, though rarely in practice, sets the yuan’s daily trading band—precisely when it moved to destabilize market expectations. Both the spot (the “market” price for China’s currency) and the fix (the PBOC’s reference rate) had been remarkably stable in the three to four months prior to China’s August currency reform. Depreciating the fix to the weaker spot price sent a signal, even if the actual initial move was rather small. In a different world, it would be interesting to game out what might have happened had China guided the spot up toward the fix first. Signals matter.

Take 8

OK, glad I got that off my chest.

Last week’s well-sourced Wall Street Journal story on the PBOC was interesting to me for its information on the domestic politics of the Chinese currency, not for the news that China’s currency is “back under tight government control.” For those who like stories on China’s internal currency politics, I suspect it is up there with the Reuters story from last August highlighting the political pressures on the PBOC.

And it raises one of the most critical ongoing questions in the global economy: what has driven large-scale Chinese reserve sales?

There are two theories.

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China Is Pivoting Away From Imports, Not Just Rebalancing Away From Exports

by Brad Setser

China’s stated policy goal is to rebalance away from both investment and exports.

That is not all that easy to do.

After the crisis, China rebalanced away from exports (exports fell significantly as a share of China’s GDP, and China’s manufacturing trade surplus also fell relative to China’s GDP) mostly by juicing up investment (investment rose from around 45 percent of GDP to 50 percent of GDP; see Figure 19 of this Goldman Investment Strategy report, among other sources).

Downsizing investment typically means slower growth, and more of a temptation to look to exports for growth.

No matter. Over the past few years, China does seem to have become less reliant on exports for growth. Since 2012, exports of manufactured goods (*) have fallen from 23 to 19 percent of China’s GDP.

China’s manufacturing surplus though has hardly moved since 2012 — the manufacturing surplus was 9 percent of China’s GDP in 2012, dipped under 8.5% of China’s GDP in late 2013, then rose to 9 percent in 2014. Even with the recent export slump, it has remained close to 9 percent.

The explanation for the ongoing surplus is straight forward: China’s imports of manufactures have also been moving down.

They have gone from 14 to 11 percent of GDP since 2012, and are way down from their peak back in 2003.

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It Has Been a Long Time

by Brad Setser

I stopped blogging almost seven years ago.

My interests have not really changed too much since then. There was a time when I was far more focused on Europe than China. But right now, the uncertainty around China is more compelling to me than the questions that emerge from the euro area’s still-incomplete union.

Some of the crucial issues have not changed. The old imbalances are starting to reappear, at least on the manufacturing side. China’s trade surplus is big once again—even if the recent rise in the goods surplus (from less than $300 billion a couple years back to around $600 billion in 2015) has not been matched by a parallel rise in China’s current account surplus. The U.S. non-petrol deficit is also big, and rising quite fast.

But some big things have also changed.

The United States imports a lot less oil, and pays a lot less for the oil it does import. That has held down the overall U.S. trade deficit.

Oil exporters have been facing a gigantic shock over the last year and a half, one that is putting their (sometimes) considerable fiscal buffers to the test. Even if oil has rebounded a bit, at $50 a barrel the commodity exporting world is hurting.

Looking back to 2006, 2007, and 2008, one of the most surprising things is that Asia’s large surplus coincided with rising oil prices and a large surplus in the major oil exporters. High oil prices, all other things equal, should correlate with a small not a large surplus in Asia.

The global challenge now comes from the combination of large savings surpluses in both Asia and Europe rather than the combination of an Asian surplus and an oil surplus.

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China, new financial superpower …

by Brad Setser

One of the biggest economic and political stories of this decade has been China’s emergence as the world’s biggest creditor country. At least in a ‘flow” sense. China’s current account surplus is now the world’s largest – and its government easily tops a “reserve and sovereign wealth fund” growth league table. The growth in China’s foreign assets at the peak of the oil boom – back when oil was well above $100 a barrel – topped the growth in the foreign assets of all the oil-exporting governments. Things have tamed down a bit – but China still is adding more to its reserves than anyone else.

Yet China is in a lot of ways an unusual creditor, for three reasons:

One, China is still a very poor country. It isn’t obvious why it makes sense for China to be financing other countries’ development rather than its own. That I suspect is part of the reason why China’s government seems so concerned about the risk of losses on its foreign assets.

Two, almost all outflows from China come from China’s government. Private investors generally have wanted to move money into China at China’s current exchange rate. The large role of the state in managing China’s capital outflows differentiates China from many leading creditor countries, and especially the US and the UK. Of course, the US government organized large loans to help Europe reconstruct in the 1940s and early 1950s, and thus the US government played a key role recycling the United States current account surplus during this period. But later in the 1950s and in the 1960s, the capital outflows that offset the United States current account surplus (and reserve-related inflows) largely came from private US individuals and firms. And back in the nineteenth century, private British investors were the main financiers of places like Argentina, Australia and the United States. We now live in a market-based global financial system where the biggest single actor is a state.

Three, unlike many past creditors, China doesn’t lend to the world in its own currency. It rather lends in the currencies of the “borrowing” countries – whether the US dollar, the euro, the British pound or the Australian dollar. That too is a change from historical norms. Many creditor countries have wanted debtors to borrow in the currency of the creditor country. To be sure, that didn’t always work out: it makes outright default more likely (ask those who lent to Latin American countries back in the twentieth century … ). But it did offer creditors a measure of protection against depreciation of the debtor’s currency.

This system was basically stable for the past few years – though not with out its tensions. Now though there are growing voices calling for change.

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China linkfest

by Brad Setser

Qing Wang of Morgan Stanley: “Given China’s high national savings rate, from the perspective of the economy as a whole, there are only three forms in which China can deploy its savings: 1) onshore physical assets; 2) offshore physical assets; and 3) offshore financial assets. …. We therefore think that from the perspective of the economy as a whole, the opportunity cost of domestic fixed asset investment, or formation of physical assets onshore, should be the total returns on US government bonds. Put in simple terms, in the debate about over-investment at the current juncture, it actually boils down to an investment decision on building railways in China versus buying US government bonds, given China’s high national savings.

David Pilling: “Far from a sign of strength, Beijing’s accumulation of vast foreign reserves is the side-effect of an economic model too reliant on exports. The enormous trade surplus is the product of an undervalued renminbi that has allowed others to consume Chinese goods at the expense of Chinese people themselves. Beijing cannot dream of selling down its Treasury holdings without triggering the very dollar collapse it purports to dread. Nor are its shrill calls for the US to close its twin deficits – which would inevitably involve buying fewer Chinese goods – entirely convincing. Rather than exposing the superiority of China’s state-led model, the global financial crisis has laid bare the compromising embrace in which the US and China find themselves. ”

Peter Garnham touches on similar themes for the FT.

Philip Bowring on the obstacles (mostly self-created) to internationalizing the renminbi: “China’s expressions of desire to reduce the role of the dollar are anyway contradicted by its actual policy of maintaining a de facto peg to the U.S. currency, meanwhile continuing to accumulate dollars in reserves now totaling $2 trillion. The modest yuan appreciation after 2005 came to a halt more than a year ago as China has sought to sustain exports in the face of the global slump. There is conflict between macro-economic stabilization goals and pressures from industries and employment creation not to put more pressure on exporters. … Nor has there been any significant move towards full convertibility as the financial crisis has, with good reason, made the authorities nervous of liberalization …. any significant use of yuan requires and significant offshore stock of the currency. That is incompatible with China’s expressed desire to reduce its dollar reserve dependence.”

Robert Pozen on the limits of the SDR.

Michael Pettis on his blog and in the Financial Times: ” If the Chinese economy was the biggest beneficiary of excess US consumption growth, it is likely also to be the biggest victim of a rising US savings rate. … Eventually, and maybe this is already happening, the decline in the US trade deficit must result in a decline in China’s ability to export the difference between its growth in production and consumption. When this happens, China’s economy will grow more slowly than Chinese consumption, just as the opposite is happening in the US. Put another way, rather than act as the lower constraint for GDP growth as it has for the past two decades growth in Chinese consumption will become the upper constraint, as for the next several years Chinese consumption necessarily rises as a share of GDP, just as US consumption must decline as a share of US GDP.

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