Brad Setser

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Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

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The Combined Surplus of Asia and Europe Stayed Big in 2016

by Brad Setser

A long time ago I confessed that I like to read the IMF’s World Economic Outlook (WEO) from back to front. OK, I sometimes skip a few chapters. But I take particular interest in the IMF’s data tables (the World Economic Outlook electronic data set is also very well done, though sadly a bit lacking in balance of payments data).*

And the data tables show the combined current account surplus of Europe and the manufacturing heavy parts of Asia—a surplus that reflects Asia’s excess savings and Europe’s relatively weak investment—remained quite big in 2016.

China’s surplus dropped a bit in 2016, but that didn’t really bring down the total surplus of the major Asian manufacturing exporters.

Much of the fall in China’s surplus was offset by a rise in Japan’s surplus. The WEO data tables suggest that net exports accounted for about half of Japan’s 1 percent 2016 growth—Japan isn’t yet growing primarily on the basis of an expansion of internal demand. And the combined surplus of Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong remains far larger than it was before the global financial crisis in 2008. The Asian NIEs (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) collectively now run a bigger surplus than China. As a result, in dollar terms—and also relative to the GDP of Asia’s trading partners—”manufacturing” Asia’s combined surplus hasn’t come down that much over the last ten years.

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When Did China “Manipulate” Its Currency?

by Brad Setser

There is no single definition of manipulation, to be sure—so no way of definitively answering the question. Over the last ten or so years, manipulation has been equated with “buying foreign exchange in the market to block appreciation.” That definition is certainly built into the criteria laid out in the 2015 Trade Enforcement Act. But “buying reserves to block appreciation” wasn’t hardwired into the 1988 act, which has a much more elastic definition of manipulation.

Yet even if the 2015 Trade Enforcement Act isn’t the only possible definition of manipulation, it still provides a bit of guidance – as President Trump implicitly recognized today: “Mr. Trump said the reason he has changed his mind on one of his signature campaign promises is that China hasn’t been manipulating its currency for months.”

The thresholds of being called out for “enhanced analysis” that the Treasury was required to set out in the 2015 act aren’t perfect—no measures are. The threshold for the bilateral trade balance is genuinely problematic. It lets small countries with a propensity to intervene in the foreign exchange market off the hook for one. And even if you think there is sometimes valuable information in the bilateral trade data (many don’t), the bilateral balance really should be assessed on a value-added basis.*

But the current 3 percent of GDP current account surplus and 2 percent of GDP in intervention thresholds are certainly reasonable. Those criteria show that China should have been singled out for “enhanced engagement” from 2005 to roughly 2012, but not since.

But all criteria can be gamed. And I worry a bit that China has been revising its current account data with the goal of keeping the headline external surplus down—it is hard to overstate the number of times the details of China’s services data have been revised since 2014.***

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So, Is China Pegging to the Dollar or to a Basket?

by Brad Setser

Does China manage its currency against the dollar, against a basket, or to whatever is most convenient at any given point time? Cynics have argued that China seems to peg to the dollar when the dollar is going down and the basket when the dollar is going up.

The yuan’s moves in March at least raise the question again, even if the signal is relatively weak.

The yuan has hewed fairly closely to the dollar over the last few weeks. And in March that meant some modest depreciation against the basket (though the depreciation against the basket was partially reversed in the first week of April when the dollar rose). In other words, had China managed more against a basket, the yuan should have appreciated a bit more against the dollar than it did.

Managing the yuan against the dollar is in some ways less risky than managing against a basket, as Chinese residents still seem to focus on the yuan’s value against the dollar. Stability against the dollar so far this year—and tighter controls— has contributed to the relative stability in China’s headline reserves. It is likely that China is no longer selling all that much foreign exchange in the market, though we still need the settlement data and the PBOC balance sheet data to have a clear picture for March.

But I still worry a bit. The risk all along has been that China’s new policy of managing its currency against the basket was masking a policy of managing its currency to depreciate against the basket.

From mid-2015 to mid-2016 China used periods of dollar weakness to depreciate against a basket—and thus created the perception of a one-way bet. China needs to make sure such expectations do not reappear, whether by really managing against the dollar—even if that means following the dollar up—or really managing against a basket.

One last point: it would be a shame if discussions around currency are defined entirely by the question of “manipulation or not.” It would be a stretch to argue that China is manipulating (there are lots of potential ways to define manipulation, but recently it has been defined as buying foreign exchange in the market to hold your currency down and support a large current account surplus — and China clearly has selling foreign exchange in the market to support its currency over the past year, and its stimulus has brought its current account surplus down).

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China’s 2016 Reserve Loss Is More Manageable Than It Seems on First Glance

by Brad Setser

Martin Wolf’s important column does a wonderful job of illustrating the basic risk China poses to the world: at some point China’s savers could lose confidence in China’s increasingly wild financial system. The resulting outflow of private funds would push China’s exchange rate down, and give rise to a big current account surplus—even if the vector moving China’s savings onto global markets wasn’t China’s state. History rhymes rather than repeating.

And I agree with Martin Wolf’s argument that so long as China saves far too much to invest productively at home, it basically is always struggling with a trade-off between accepting high levels of credit and the resulting inefficiencies at home, or exporting its spare savings to the world. I never have thought that China naturally would rebalance away from both exports and investment. After 2008, it rebalanced away from exports—but toward investment. There always was a risk that could go in reverse too.

In one small way, though, I am more optimistic than Martin Wolf.

I suspect that China’s regime was under less outflow pressure in 2016 than implied by the (large) fall in reserves, and thus there is more scope for a combination of “credit and controls” (Wolf: “The Chinese authorities are in a trap: either halt credit growth, let investment shrink and generate a recession at home, a huge trade surplus (or both); or keep credit and investment growing, but tighten controls on capital outflows”) to buy China a bit of time. Time it needs to use on reforms to bring down China’s high savings rate.

All close observers of China know that China has been selling large quantities of reserves over the last 6 or so quarters. The balance of payments data shows a roughly $450 billion loss of reserves in 2016, with significant pressure in q1, q3, and q4. The annualized pace of reserve loss for those three quarters was over $600 billion (q2 was quite calm by contrast).

But close examination of the balance of payments indicates that Chinese state actors and other heavily regulated institutions were building up assets abroad even as the PBOC was selling its reserves. In other words, a lot of foreign assets moved from one part of China’s state to another, without ever leaving the state sector.

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China’s Confusing Trade and Current Account Numbers

by Brad Setser

Has China’s current account surplus disappeared? Should I declare victory and go home? I always have thought a fast-growing, high investment emerging economy should run a current account deficit, not a surplus—

Not yet, I would say.

It is always dangerous to try to assess China’s trade and balance of payments data for the first quarter, and even more so to opine on the basis of numbers from the first two months. China’s q4 to q1 seasonality is vicious, and the data distortions from the lunar new year are real.

But the numbers out now point to some big swings—swings that are worth highlighting. And some real puzzles. I would love to paint a simple picture. But I do not think there is one. The level of chaos in the balance of payments data that the combination of data revisions and real changes seem to have produced is in fact impressive.

Some Wild Numbers


In the fourth quarter of 2016, China trade surplus in goods—measured goods, trackable goods—was about $500 billion (annualized). A bit less if you trust the seasonal adjustments. That is a bit off from its peak level of around $600 billion, but still pretty large. The goods surplus incidentally is the easiest to verify in the counter-party data. It generally isn’t off by that much.

In the fourth quarter of 2016, China’s current account surplus—the surplus on trade in goods and services (e.g. tourism) net of the balance on interest and dividends from cross border investment—was roughly $50 billion (annualized; the non-annualized surplus in q4 was about $12 billion). That is down from $250-$300 billion in the first part of 2016. The q4 gap between China’s goods balance and its current account was absolutely massive—over $400 billion, annualized.

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Auto Trade with China

by Brad Setser

Autos are one of the United States’ most important exports to China—ranking just behind aircraft and soybeans and (at times) non-monetary gold (through Hong Kong).

Broadly speaking, the U.S. exports completed autos to China, and imports auto parts.

But change is in latest end-use data.

U.S. exports of autos to China have stalled after a few years of spectacular growth subsequent to the global crisis, and the U.S. has started to import finished autos from China. GM is now making a Buick for the both the Chinese and the U.S. market in China.

U.S. imports of auto parts remain substantial — though the growth in imports in 2016 was modest, consistent with the broader slowdown in imports of all kinds.

The net deficit in autos and auto parts increased a bit in 2015 — and remained roughly at that level in 2016 (if you exclude tires, imports of tires are falling again).

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China’s Estimated Intervention in February

by Brad Setser

The proxies for Chinese reserve sales show very modest sales in February. Foreign exchange settlement (which includes the state banks) shows $10 billion in sales, and only $2 billion counting forwards. The PBOC’s balance sheet shows similar changes—foreign reserves fell by $8.5 billion and foreign assets fell by $10.6 billion. No wonder the (fx) market is no longer focused on China.

The fall off in foreign exchange sales is particularly impressive given that China didn’t have its usual trade surplus in February, for seasonal reasons (China’s trade often swings into deficit during the lunar new year). Modest reserve sales alongside a monthly trade deficit imply that the pace of capital outflows fell.

The only analytical problem is that the fall in pressure on the renminbi is a bit over-determined.

Controls on outflows were tightened. For real, it seems. That likely helped.

And the yuan was stable against the dollar, broadly speaking. There continues to be a correlation between movements in the yuan and the pace of outflows.

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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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Why Did China’s 2016 Current Account Surplus Fall?

by Brad Setser

Few policies are less liked than China’s 2015/2016 credit-driven stimulus. Even people like me who worried that slamming the brakes on credit, in the absence of more fundamental reforms to lower China’s savings rate, risked creating a shortfall in demand were not exactly enthusiastic supporters. China would be far better off if had used a rise in central government social expenditure to support demand, not yet another wave of off-balance sheet borrowing by local governments and state firms.

But the current pick-up in growth suggests that arguments that (yet another) expansion of credit wouldn’t work were a bit overdone. There are no doubt better ways to support growth than more credit. But growth did responded to the stimulus, even if there is a real debate over just how strong the response was.*

Tilton, Song, Tang, Li, and Wei of Goldman Sachs (in a report summarized here):

“Chinese policy makers wrestled with challenges throughout 2016, but large and sustained policy stimulus eventually fostered recovery. … Our China Current Activity indicator bottomed out at 4.3% in early 2015, recovered to the mid-5 percent range last year, and is now running at 6.9%. Heavy industry … has seen an even more pronounced re-acceleration”

And there is growing evidence, I think, that the pickup in Chinese demand also had positive spillovers for the rest of the world.

China’s current account surplus for 2016 fell more than I expected. To be sure, China’s reported current account is prone to significant revisions, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the (very low) q4 surplus is revised up.

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How Serious Is the Threat to Global Financial Stability From a Border-Adjustment Tax?

by Brad Setser

Neil Irwin’s column on the border-adjustment tax spurred an interesting debate. Irwin notes that a 25 percent rise in the dollar (or even a somewhat smaller rise) would have an impact outside the United States, as the dollar is a global currency.

Dean Baker and Jared Bernstein note that the dollar moves around a lot without destroying the global economy. The projected moves in the dollar are no larger than the dollar’s 20 percent or so move over the last three years. Baker: “Movements of this size happen all the time. They certainly can cause problems, but the financial system generally deals with it.”

Fair enough.*

I still worry though. There is a difference between a 20 percent move (off a long-term low) and a 30 or 40 percent move. And there is a difference between normal exchange rate volatility and large, sustained currency shifts. I would note that the 20 percent rise in the dollar in late 2014 and early 2015 contributed to the change in China’s currency regime—and China’s shift to managing against a basket roiled global markets from August 2015 to February 2016. The world survived, but it wasn’t totally smooth.

Let me focus on two specific reasons for concern:

One. Balance sheet mismatches in emerging economies.**

Two. Dollar pegs, or basket pegs heavily weighted to the dollar.

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