Brad Setser

Follow the Money

Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

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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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Pot calling kettle black?

by Brad Setser

One thing that has puzzled me is that some of the countries that have — implicitly at least — been most critical of the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet during the crisis long have had much larger balance sheets than the US Federal Reserve.

Before the crisis, the Fed’s balance sheet was around 6% of US GDP. Right now, it is around 15% of US GDP. A big increase no doubt. But the balance sheet of the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) is around 70% of China’s GDP. Foreign assets make up about 80% of the PBoC’s balance sheet — or around 55% of China’s GDP. And the PBoC’s estimated holdings of US treasuries and agencies are about equal to 30% of China’s GDP — a level that is far higher, relative to China’s GDP, than the US Fed is ever likely to achieve. The Fed expects its balance sheet to peak at roughly $2.5 trillion, or between 15% and 20% of US GDP.


China consequently presumably knows a thing or two about how to prevent rapid expansion of the central banks balance sheet — including rapid expansion from purchases of long-term US Treasuries and Agencies — from producing unwanted inflation.

The key, of course, is to sterilize the expansion of the central bank’s balance sheet. That means to offset the increase in the banks’ financial assets with an increase in the central banks’ financial liabilities, rather than increase in base money.*

Paul Swartz and Peter Tillman — my colleagues at the Council’s Center for Geoeconomic Studies — have plotted the growth in the balance sheet of the PBoC (relative to China’s GDP) and the growth in the Fed’s balance sheet (relative to US GDP). By China’s recent standards, the expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet isn’t particularly unusual.

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Doesn’t a smaller (external) deficit mean less dependence on (external) creditors, including China?

by Brad Setser

There is a common argument that the US depends more on China now than before because the US needs to issue so many Treasury bonds to finance its fiscal deficit.

I disagree, for two reasons:

First, the trade deficit is down significantly, so the amount that the US needs to borrow from the rest of the world has fallen. That means less dependence on external creditors. The fiscal deficit — obviously — is much bigger now than it was a year ago. But inflows from the rest of the world can finance a private sector deficit as well as a public sector deficit. Private borrowing in the US is way down – and that has pulled total US borrowing from the rest of the world down even as the fiscal deficit rose. After crises in Asia in the 1990s and in Eastern Europe and the US in this decade, there should be little doubt that external deficits that have their roots in excessive private borrowing are also risky.

In my view, the US was more dependent on central banks in general and China in particular for financing back in 2006, 2007 and the first part of 2008 — when the US trade deficit was larger than it is now and emerging market reserve growth was higher than it is now.


Second, the majority of the fiscal deficit isn’t being financed by foreign central banks. That’s a key change. Indeed, the rise in the Treasury’s issuance of long-term debt has come even as central bank demand for long-term debt has fallen. That key fact gets lost amid the general sense that the US must be relying more on China now than in the past because the US government is borrowing more.

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The problem with relying on the dollar to produce a real appreciation in China …

by Brad Setser

Is now rather obvious. The dollar goes down as well as up.

Last fall, demand for dollars rose — in part because Americans pulled funds out of the rest of the world faster than foreigners pulled funds out of the US. The dollar soared. As the crisis abated though, demand for US financial assets fell and Americans regained their appetite for the world’s financial assets. Not surprising, over the last few months, the dollar has depreciated.

And since — at least for now — China’s currency is tightly pegged to the dollar, the RMB also has depreciated. Fairly significantly.

The real exchange rate index produced by the BIS suggests that, in real terms, the RMB is back where it was last June. That is when China more or less gave up on its policy of letting the RMB appreciate against the dollar and went back to something that looks like a simple dollar peg.


Does the RMB’s recent depreciation matter? I think so.

To start, China looks to be leading the world out of the current slump. That normally would result in an appreciating, not a depreciating, currency.

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Two trillion and counting …

by Brad Setser

China’s latest surge in reserves – a surge that look its total holdings over two trillion dollars – didn’t really register in the financial media. China’s first trillion was a big story. The second trillion, not so much. It generated a few news stories and blog posts, but not the kind of big feature stories that accompanied China’s first trillion.*

The second trillion though came remarkably fast. It took a few millennium for China to get its first $1 trillion in reserves (Ok, more like a decade … ). The second trillion took less than three years. Reserves topped $1 trillion in late 2006. They topped $2 trillion in April 2009.

The second trillion would have taken even less time if China hadn’t shifted about $200 billion into the PBoC’s other foreign asset and another $100 billion or so to the CIC (after netting out the funds that flowed back into the PBoC when the CIC bought SAFE’s stakes in the Chinese state banks). If all of China’s foreign assets are counted, China’s foreign portfolio likely topped $ 2 trillion back in June 2008.

But there is another milestone that China is fast approaching — one that should be a big story. On current trends – and, to be sure, a lot could change, especially if China is serious about using its reserves to fuel the outward expansion of Chinese state firms, especially those state firms bidding for the world’s commodity supply – China’s holdings of Treasuries should top $ 1 trillion in about a year.

Chinese purchases of Treasuries, after taking account of China’s likely purchases through London, are once again growing in line with China’s reserve growth. Look at a chart of China’s total holdings of US assets.** Its Treasury holdings picked up in May.


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