Brad Setser

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Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

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One graph to rule them all …

by Brad Setser

If I had to pick a single graph to explain the evolution of the United States’ balance of payments – and thus, indirectly, the entire story of the world’s macroeconomic “imbalances” – this would be it.

cofer-v-us-thru-q1-09

All data is in dollar billions, and is presented as a rolling four quarter sum.*

The red line is the United States current account deficit.

The black line is the United States financing need – defined as the sum of the current account deficit plus US outward FDI and US purchases of foreign long-term securities.** The dip in the total US financing need from mid 2005 to mid 2006 isn’t real. It reflects the impact of the Homeland Investment Act, a holiday on the repatriation of the foreign profits of US multinationals that produced a sharp fall in outward FDI.*** The rise in the United States financing need over the course of 2007 by contrast is real; American investors bought the decoupling story and wanted to invest more abroad.

The shaded area represents official demand for US assets. The inflows from central banks that report data to the IMF and Norway are known. The inflows from central banks that don’t report and other sovereign funds are my own estimates. The key countries that do not report reserves are – in my judgment – China, Saudi Arabia and the other countries in the GCC. I have assumed that the dollar share of their reserves is closer to 70% than 60% (supporting evidence). I by contrast have assumed that the GCC’s sovereign funds have a diverse portfolio.

What does the graph tell us?

In my view, three things:

First, the rise in the US current account deficit from 2002 to 2006 is associated with a rise in official demand for US assets. The quarterly IMF data doesn’t extend back to the late 90s – or to the early 1980s. But trust me, that is a change from past periods when the US current account deficit expanded. To be sure, private investors abroad were also buying US assets. But the rise in the overall US financing need associated with the rise in the current account deficit wasn’t financed by a comparable rise in private demand for US assets.

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The savings glut. Controversy guaranteed.

by Brad Setser

Few topics are quite as polarizing as the “savings glut.” The very term is often considered an attempt to shift responsibility for the current crisis away from the United States.

That is unfortunate. It is quite possible to believe that the buildup of vulnerabilities that led to the current crisis was a product both of a rise in savings in key emerging markets, a rise that — with more than a bit of help from emerging market governments — produced an unnatural uphill flow of capital from the emerging world to the advanced economies, and policy failures in the U.S. and Europe.

The savings glut argument was initially put forward to suggest that the United States’ external deficit was a natural response to a rise in savings in the emerging world – and thus to defuse concern about the sustainability of the United States’ large external deficit. But it was equally possible to conclude that the rise in savings in the emerging world reflected policy choices* in the emerging world that helped to maintain an uphill flow of capital – and thus that it wasn’t a natural result of fast growth in the emerging world. This, for example, is the perspective that Martin Wolf takes in his book Fixing Global Finance. Wolf consequently believed that borrowers and lenders alike needed to shift toward a more balanced system even before the current crisis.

From this point of view, the savings glut in the emerging world — as there never was much of a global glut, only a glut in some parts of the world — was in large part a result of product of policies that emerging market economies put in place when the global economy — clearly spurred by monetary and fiscal stimulus in the US — started to recover from the 2000-01 recession. China adopted policies that increased Chinese savings and restrained investment to try to keep the renminbi’s large real depreciation after 2002 – a depreciation that reflected the dollar’s depreciation – from leading to an unwanted rise in inflation. The governments of the oil-exporting economies opted to save most oil windfall – at least initially. Those policies intersected with distorted incentives in the US and European financial sector – the incentives that made private banks and shadow banks willing to take on the risk of lending to ever-more indebted households (a risk that most emerging market central banks didn’t want to take) to lay the foundation for trouble.

On one point, though, there really shouldn’t be much doubt: savings rates rose substantially in the emerging world from 2002 to 2007. Consider the following chart – which shows savings and investment in emerging Asia (developing Asia and the Asian NIEs) and the oil exporters (the Middle East and the Commonwealth of independent states) scaled to world GDP.

savings-glut-weo-09-6-1-redone

Investment in both regions was way up. But savings was up even more.

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Where is the spillover? China’s stimulus isn’t doing much to support Japanese demand

by Brad Setser

Japan’s exports to China are still way down on a y/y basis in May, despite China’s stimulus.

Shipments to China, Japan’s biggest trading partner, fell 29.7 percent, more than April’s 25.9 percent. Exports to Asia slid 35.5 percent from 33.4 percent a month earlier.

hat tip, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism.

That isn’t good news. US exports to China are also down (15.6% y/y, through in the first four months of 2009, though a bit less in April itself). The eurozone’s exports to China are also down — though the 8% or so fall y/y fall in the eurozone’s exports to China seems a bit more modest than the fall in Japan’s exports to China.

China’s economy may have expanded over the last year, but that expansion clearly hasn’t fed through into more Chinese demand for US, European or Japanese goods.
Not yet at least. Pick your explanation. China’s stimulus may have been directed at domestic producers. The process of substituting Chinese components for Japanese components in China’s exports may be accelerating. Or China’s recovery just may not be quite as robust as some believe.

The best that can be said of Japan’s May trade data is that Japan’s exports to China aren’t down as much as Japan’s exports to the US and Europe.

Shipments to the U.S. fell 45.4 percent in May after dropping 46.3 percent in April, the ministry said. Exports to Europe slid 45.4 percent from 45.3 percent.

The y/y comparison will get more favorable soon. But there is now real way to put all that positive gloss on Japan’s 41% year over year fall in exports. It is an epic fall.

Japan’s May 2009 exports were even a bit lower than its April 2009 exports. There may be some benign explanation for the slight dip in May, but I don’t think there is any way to suggest that the Japan’s May trade data suggests a robust global recovery.

The good and bad news in the World Bank’s China Quarterly

by Brad Setser

The good news in the latest World Bank China Quarterly:

One. China is growing, thanks to China’s government. The World Bank estimates that the government’s policy response will account for about 6 percentage points of China’s 7.2% forecast growth (p. 8). That’s good. There is a big difference between growing as 7% and growing at 1%. This was the right time for China’s government to “unchain” the state banks. Ok, it would have been better if China had allowed its currency to appreciate back in late 2003 and early 2004 to cool an overheated economy instead of imposing administrative curbs on bank credit and curbing domestic demand. Then China might not have ever developed such a huge current account surplus and avoided falling into a dollar trap. But better late than never: this was the right time to lift any policy restraints on domestic demand growth.

China has, in effect, adopted its own version of credit easing. It just works through the balance sheets of the state banks rather than through the balance sheet of the central bank. Andrew Batson:

By some indicators, credit in China is even looser than in the U.S., where the Federal Reserve has extended unprecedented support to private markets. … China’s methods for pumping cash into the economy are quite different from those of other major economies. Its banks, almost all of which are state-owned, made more than three times as many new loans in the first quarter as a year earlier. Central banks in the U.S., Europe and Japan lack such control over lending, and have instead used extremely low interest rates and direct purchases of securities to support credit.

Two. China’s fiscal deficit will be closer to 5 percent of GDP rather than 3 percent of GDP. That’s cause for celebration in my book. Last fall I was worried that the desire to limit the fiscal deficit to three percent of GDP would mean that there was less to China’s stimulus than met the eye (or hit the presses). I was wrong. If the likely future losses on the rapid expansion of bank credit are combined with the direct fiscal stimulus, China almost certainly produced a bigger stimulus program than any other major economy.

Three. China’s current account surplus is now projected to fall in 2009. Exports still haven’t picked up — and we now have data through the first five months of the year. Imports by contrast are starting to pick up. That shows up clearly in a chart of real imports and real exports, a chart that draws on data that that the World Bank’s Beijing office generously supplied me:

china-world-bank-q2-09-1

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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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China’s recovery still isn’t adding (much) to global demand

by Brad Setser

At least not for anything other than commodities, where Chinese demand — and Chinese stockpiling — clearly has had an impact. Exports to China from the US and Korea continue to be pretty weak. Exports from the US have bounced back from their winter lows, but still well below their pre-crisis levels. And exports from Korea to China are still down far more than I would have expected.

korea-us-china-may-09-13

China’s industrial production is up about 10% y/y (9%) even though exports and imports are both down around 25% y/y in nominal terms.

Lets do some very rough ballpark math. I’ll start by assuming that about 40% of China’s industrial production — pre-crisis — was exported. I think that is about right, but I don’t have the actual number. Help here would be appreciated. If industrial production for export was 40% of total production and if it fell by around 25%, the 60% of industrial production that is far domestic use would need to be up around 30% to generate 9% y/y growth.

That is a big increase. And it isn’t totally implausible. Lending and investment are way up. So are stimulus driven auto sales. But it also raises the question of why it took China so long to really stimulate domestic demand if it had such latent capacity to grow without relying on exports.

Let’s also assume that imported components constituted around 60% of Chinese imports (consistent with a world where China accounts for only about half of the value-added in Chinese exports) a year ago. Here imports would fall in line with exports. But to produce an overall 25% fall in imported demand, nominal imports for domestic use also would need to fall by 25%.

Such a fall could come from a 25% fall in the price of the goods China imports for its own use (presumably a basket that includes a lot of commodities). Or from a 10% fall in the goods China imports and a 15% price fall. Or a 35% fall in price and a 10% rise in actual imports.

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Investment up over 30%, imports down 25%?

by Brad Setser

A year ago I marveled at the sheer size of China’s reserve growth. China was adding to its stockpile of foreign exchange at rates that seemed almost unbelievable. That is no longer the case. But in other ways China continues to churn out the kind of data that I never expected to see.

I never, for example, though a country where investment is growing by more than 30% — Andrew Batson reports “Fixed-asset investment, China’s main measure of capital spending, rose 38.7% in May and is up 32.9% for the year so far” — would be spending 25% less on imports. Batson again:

“Merchandise exports in May fell 26.4% from a year earlier, China’s Customs agency said Thursday, accelerating from April’s 22.6% decline as global demand remained weak. China’s imports also extended their fall, dropping 25.2% in May from a year earlier after shrinking 23% in April.”

Investment booms fueled by a surge in domestic lending usually lead to import booms. That was the case with the Asian tigers in the 1990s, the US at the peak of its dot home bubble and the real estate boom in the oil exporters just prior to the crisis. It was also the case in 2003, when a surge in bank lending triggered a surge in investment in China (just as Chinese exports were also surging). But it isn’t the case, at least so far, in China today.

As both Macroman and Edward Hugh have observed, the rebound in Chinese import demand has been rather anemic. May imports were actually a bit lower than April imports.

china-may-09-1

Obviously the data has been shaped by the large fall in commodity prices, which pushes the value of China’s imports down in any y/y comparison. Real exports are certainly down more year over year than real imports.

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The China-Once-Again-Investing Corporation

by Brad Setser

Sundeep Tucker of the FT (drawing on work by Z-Ben advisors) reports that the CIC is ready to allow its external managers to start buying equities:

Early last year CIC picked two or three fund management groups for each of six investment mandates, four equity and two fixed income, with an aggregate sum of $12bn. Only the global fixed income mandate was funded before the shutters came down. The managers of the remaining five mandates have just been notified that they are finally about to be funded, in stages, over the coming weeks. A public announcement is expected imminently, according to Z-Ben Advisors, a Shanghai-based consultancy.

Z-Ben says CIC has also earmarked a further $30bn of its liquid assets for passive mandates, which will also be handed to global portfolio managers over the next 6 to 12 months.

Tucker suggets that the CIC’s decision to ”fund” its external managers is a reaction to the difficulties Chinese firms have faced taking large stakes in Western oil and mining companies. I am a bit skeptical that the connection is that direct. Not unless the CIC was helping to finance Chinalco’s investment, which really would be news.

No doubt Chinese officials are frustrated that “their companies” haven’t been able to complete some high profile transactions. On the other hand, the heavy hand of China’s sate in China’s outward investment was always going to make it difficult to convince other countries that outward investment from Chinese firms is motivated purely by commercial concerns. Call it a cost of an exchange rate regime that gives China’s state a de facto monopoly on most of China’s outward investment.

More importantly, though, China simply doesn’t face the same constraints as countries whose reserves barely cover their external debts and have to maintain a fairly liquid portfolio. The foreign portfolio of China’s government is so large that it really doesn’t really have to pick and choose among strategies. It can do a bit of everything.

SAFE – counting the PBoC’s other foreign assets – and the CIC have between $2.2 and 2.3 trillion to invest abroad. The state banks have a sizeable pool of foreign currency (their foreign assets top $200 billion) as well. Chinalco can easily borrow $19 billion (or more) from the state banks even as the CIC hands roughly $40 billion over to external fund managers to invest. And the CIC can increase its exposure to equities even as SAFE nurses the wounds it incurred after investing $150-200 billion (my estimate) of China’s reserves in US, European and Australian equities before global stock markets turned south.

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The Chinese puzzle: why is China growing when other export powerhouses aren’t?

by Brad Setser

Almost all countries that relied heavily on exports for growth have experienced large downturns. And there economies are still in the doldrums. Except one. China.

Why?

Few questions matter more. Right now, the markets believe that the expansion of Chinese demand will drive the global recovery. Or so it seems.

On the other hand, other countries that relied heavily on exports to drive their growth saw very sharp falls in output. Germany. Japan. A host of smaller economies. Few expect these economies to lead the global recovery.

In general, the crisis has led to large falls in output in countries that relied heavily on capital inflows to finance large currency account deficits (Latvia is the leading example) and in countries that relied heavily on external demand. That stands to reason. The crisis produced a very sharp fall in capital flows, which hurts all those who needed ongoing capital flows (The US is an exception, as US demand for foreign assets fell faster than foreign demand for US assets, so net private flows to the US actually rose during the crisis) And the contraction in trade has been sharper than the contraction in output. That has hurt those who relied more on trade. The fall in Japanese industrial production – -and output – has been incredible steep. And German output has shrunk by more than say French output.

See Wolfgang Munchau.

China doesn’t fit. It is a big exporter. But it hasn’t seen the kind of contraction that other big exporters have experienced.

One possible answer is that demand for Chinese exports has fallen by less than demand for other exports. That clearly is part of the story. US imports from Japan (through March) are down over 40% y/y. US imports from China are only down 11%. But China’s exports still have fallen sharply. They were down 20% y/y in q1 2009 after being up around 20% in q3 2008. So that isn’t the whole story.

Another potential answer is that China never relied all that much on exports for its growth. That is the preferred answer of the Economist. But it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. Chinese exports rose from under $300 billion in 2000 (and 2001) to over $1400 billion in 2008. That is a huge increase, one that was only possible with a huge amount of investment in the export sector.

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