Brad Setser

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Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

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Post-Brexit

by Brad Setser

A few thoughts, focusing on narrow issues of macroeconomic management rather than the bigger political issues.

The U.K. has been running a sizeable current account deficit for some time now, thanks to an unusually low national savings rate. That means, on net, it has been supplying the rest of Europe with demand—something other European countries need. This isn’t likely to provide Britain the negotiating leverage the Brexiters claimed (the other European countries fear the precedent more than the loss of demand) but it will shape the economic fallout.

The fall in the pound is a necessary part of the U.K.’s adjustment. It will spread the pain from a downturn in British demand to the rest of the euro area. Brexit uncertainty is thus a sizable negative shock to growth in Britian’s euro area trading partners not just to Britain itself: relative to the pre-Brexit referendum baseline, I would guess that Brexit uncertainty will knock a cumulative half a percentage point off euro area growth over the next two years.*

Of course, the euro area, which runs a significant current account surplus and can borrow at low nominal rates, has fiscal capacity to counteract this shock. Germany is being paid to borrow for ten years, and the average ten year rate for the euro area as a whole is around 1 percent. The euro area could provide a fiscal offset, whether jointly, through new euro area investment funds or simply through a shift in say German policy on public investment and other adjustments to national policy.

I say this knowing full-well the political constraints to fiscal action. The Germans do not want to run a deficit. The Dutch are committed to bringing an already low deficit down further. France, Italy and especially Spain face pressure from the Commission to tighten policy. The Juncker plan never really created the capacity for shared funding of investment. The euro area’s aggregate fiscal stance is, more or less, the sum of national fiscal policies of the biggest euro area economies.

If I had to bet, I would bet that the euro area’s aggregate fiscal impulse will be negative in 2017—exactly the opposite of what it should be when a surplus region is faced with a shock to external demand. A lot depends on the fiscal path Spain negotiates once it forms a new government, given that is running the largest fiscal deficit of the euro area’s big five economies.

Economically, the euro area would also benefit from additional focus on the enduring overhang of private debt, and the non-performing loans that continue to clog the arteries of credit. Debt overhangs in the private sector—Dutch mortgage debt, Portuguese corporate debt, Italian small-business loans—are one reason why euro area demand growth has lagged.

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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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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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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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The (almost) dollar crisis of 2007 …

by Brad Setser

It is now rather common to argue that those economists who anticipated the crisis anticipated the wrong crisis – a dollar crisis, not a banking crisis. Robin Harding of the FT writes:

“If economists try to predict crises they will get it wrong, and that will reduce their credibility when they try to warn of risks. It was in their warnings that economists failed: plenty talked of ‘global imbalances’ or ‘excessive credit growth’; few followed that through to the proximate sources of danger in the financial system, and then forcibly argued for something to be done about it.”

Free exchange made a similar point last week.

“It’s interesting that he [Krugman] mentions Nouriel Roubini, who is one of several international economists who famously saw some sort of crisis on the horizon but who very much erred in guessing the precipitating factor. I think international macroeconomists have been looking for a dollar crisis for quite some time, and they believed that such a crisis would bring on the meltdown. Instead, the meltdown occurred for other reasons and paradoxically reinforced the position of the dollar (and, for the moment, many of the structural imbalances that have troubled international economists).”

Actually, the crisis has — at least temporarily — reduced those structural imbalances. The US trade deficit is much smaller now than before. And, be honest, the criticism directed at Dr. Roubini should have been directed at me: after 2005, the locus of Nouriel’s concerns shifted to the housing market and the financial sector, while I continued to focus on the risks associated directly with the US external deficit. But it is hard to argue against the conclusion that the current crisis stems, fundamentally, from the collapse in the financial sector’s ability to intermediate the US household deficit – not a collapse in the rest of the world’s willingness to accumulate dollars. The chain of risk intermediation broke down in New York and London before it broke down in Beijing, Moscow or Riyadh.

At the same time, I also think the argument that warnings about “imbalances” (meaning the US trade deficit) were wrong neglects one important thing: there was something of a balance of payments crisis in 2007, although it took a very unusual form. When US growth slowed and global growth did not, private investors (limited) willingness to finance the US deficit disappeared. Consider the following graph, which plots (net) private demand for US long-term financial assets (it is based on the TIC data, but I have adjusted the TIC data for “hidden” official inflows that show up in the Treasury’s annual survey of foreign portfolio investment) against the US trade deficit.

almost-a-dollar-crisis-4

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SAFE, state capitalist?

by Brad Setser

One of the questions raised by the expansion of sovereign wealth funds – back when sovereign funds were growing rapidly on the back of high oil prices and Asian countries’ increased willingness to take risks with the reserves – was whether sovereign funds should best be understood as a special breed of private investors motivated by (financial) returns or as policy instruments that could be used to serve a broader set of state goals. Like promoting economic development in their home country by linking their investments abroad to foreign companies investment in their home country. Or promoting (and perhaps subsidizing) the outward expansion of their home countries’ firms.

Perhaps that debate should be extended to reserve managers?

Jamil Anderlini of the FT reports that China now intends to use its reserves to support the outward expansion of Chinese firms. Anderlini:

Beijing will use its foreign exchange reserves, the largest in the world, to support and accelerate overseas expansion and acquisitions by Chinese companies, Wen Jiabao, the country’s premier, said in comments published on Tuesday. “We should hasten the implementation of our ‘going out’ strategy and combine the utilisation of foreign exchange reserves with the ‘going out’ of our enterprises,” he told Chinese diplomats late on Monday.

A number of countries have used their reserves to bailout key domestic firms – and banks – facing difficulties repaying their external debts. Fair enough. It makes sense to finance bailouts with assets rather than debt if you have a lot of assets.

But China is going a bit beyond using its reserves to bailout troubled firms. It is trying to help its state firms expand abroad The CIC has invested in the Hong Kong shares of Chinese firms, helping them raise funds abroad (in some sense). And now China looks set to use SAFE’s huge pool of foreign assets to support Chinese firms’ outward investment.

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Chinese Handcuffs? No, Chinese trade deficit

by Mark Dow

This is Mark Dow. Brad is away.

China has become the obsession that Japan was back in the 80s. And rightly so. It is a huge place, with a robust secular growth force underlying it (remember the conditional convergence growth hypothesis?). Rumors of China doing this or that have become a daily staple of the market.

Lately, the discussion has focused a lot on their willingness to continue to buy US treasuries. I know Brad does a lot of good work on this issue in this space. Much less attention, it seems to me, has been placed on their need to buy more Treasuries.

It has long been my contention that the large global imbalances were mostly a function of risk appetite and financial innovation leading to an explosion of the money multipliers all over the world—especially in countries with a greater degree of financial sophistication and/or capital account openness (I almost said promiscuity).

Here in the US, we were the leaders. It had less to do with Greenspan, less to do with Congress, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac, and more to do with the private sector taking excessive financial risk. After all, it was a global phenomenon. Over the course of history this tends to happen any time there is a period of macroeconomic stability coupled with the observation that others around us are making money. People tend to pile on and take things too far. It is in our very nature. (I would recommend Akerlof and Shiller’s “Animal Spirits”, or Kindleberger’s “Manias, Panics, and Crashes” for anyone interested in these behavioral phenomena).

In this case, it led to a huge trade imbalance with China. Credit allowed us to consume beyond our means, and demand spilled out over our borders into China. The Chinese obliged and became huge holders of Treasuries. While it is true that the Chinese exchange rate regime was an amplifier of this story, I think it was more of a passenger than a driver. The driver was credit.

Today the credit bubble is popping (whence my view on inflation and the money multiplier). At the same time the Chinese are trying to prop up aggregate demand by controlling the only thing they can: domestic demand. This to me means the imbalances are in the process of going away. In fact, I have long said (and have made a few bets with friends) that the Chinese trade balance will likely be in deficit by the end of this year. This means that the need for China to buy our treasuries will have largely gone away. I realize this may be too aggressive a contention over this time frame, but I am convinced the basic story is right. And to my mind’s eye there isn’t an exchange rate regime or Renminbi level that can stop this from happening.

On Monday I posted a chart of the US trade balance, and we saw in it the dramatic swing that took hold as soon as the credit bubble popped. Overnight, the Chinese trade balance figures came out. Have a look at the chart below. Read more »

2007 all over again? The dollar, central bank reserves and US bonds

by Brad Setser

Lower interest rates in the US than in much of Europe and most emerging economies

Slower expected growth in the US than in the emerging world

Rising oil prices

Falling dollar.

That describes the past week.

But it also describes most of 2007 and the first part of 2008.

In the last WEO (Box 1.4), the IMF argued that the world’s imbalances weren’t at the heart of the recent crisis, as the trigger for the crisis wasn’t a withdrawal of foreign financing to the US. The credit crisis, in other words, wasn’t a dollar crisis.

That argument was a bit overstated. The Bretton Woods 2 system was central to the ability of the United States to sustain a large deficit in the household sector – just as the expansion of the US household deficit was central to the ability of many emerging economies to grow their exports. Absent central bank demand for dollars, the natural circuit breakers would have kicked in earlier, before so much risk accumulated in the financial sector.

Moreover, it ignores the fact that there was something of a dollar crisis from the end of 2006 to early 2008.

When the US slowed and the global economy (and the European economy) didn’t, private money moved from the slow growing US to the fast growing emerging world in a big way. The IMF’s data suggests that capital flows to the emerging world more than doubled in 2007 – and 2006 wasn’t a shabby year. Net private inflows to emerging economies went from around $200b in 2006* to $600b in 2007. Private investors wanted to finance deficits in the emerging world, not the US – especially when US rates were below rates globally. Normally, that would force the US to adjust – i.e. reduce its (large) current account deficit. That didn’t really happen. Why?

Simple: The money flooding the emerging world was recycled back into the US by emerging market central banks. European countries generally let their currencies float against the dollar. But many emerging economies didn’t let their currencies float freely. A rise in demand for their currency leads to a rise in reserves, not a rise in price. As a result, there has been a strong correlation between a rise in the euro (i.e. a fall in the dollar) and a rise in the reserves of the world’s emerging economies. Consider this chart – which plots emerging market dollar reserve growth from the IMF’s quarterly COFER data against the euro … **

dollar-euro-and-fx-reserves-4

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The US doesn’t name China a currency manipulator

by Brad Setser

This wasn’t exactly a surprise, despite Secretary Geithner’s comments in January. The US made a large global stimulus — and a larger IMF — its priority in the G20, not exchange rate reform.

Moreover, this isn’t the right time to force resolution of this issue.

China’s exports to world and US imports from China are both falling. Chinese reserve growth — read the amount of dollars China has to buy to keep its currency from appreciating — has fallen sharply. And perhaps most importantly, the RMB was one of the few emerging market currencies that appreciated during the crisis in real terms.

According to the (recently rebased) BIS real effective exchange rate index, the RMB has appreciated by over 10% since June 2008 — and by almost 18% since December 2007. Other indexes show sligtly smaller real appreciation. But there is little doubt that China appreciated in real terms when many other emerging economies depreciated in real terms. This seems to have been been an important factor in the Administration’s decision. The Treasury noted that the RMB was basically stable when most other emerging currencies fell (“As the crisis intensified, the currency appreciated slightly against the dollar when most other emerging market and other currencies fell sharply against the dollar.”)*

Make no mistake, China’s currency still looks undervalued. It is only a bit higher — according to the BIS index– than it was in 2001 or 2002, back when China was exporting a fraction of what it does now. In other words, the rise in the productivity of China’s economy hasn’t been mirrored by a rise in the external purchasing power of its currency. That is a big reason why China’s current account surplus remains large.

And the underlying issue remains: the biggest driver of moves in China’s real exchange rate remains moves in the dollar. History suggests that China cannot count on dollar appreciation to bring about the real appreciation it and the global economy need if China’s surplus — and thus China’s accumulation of money-losing foreign assets — is going to come down. It will be hard — in my view — to have a stable international monetary system if the currencies of all the major economies but one float against each other. And China is now a major economy by any measure.

But it makes far more sense to have a fight over China’s exchange rate regime when China’s currency is depreciating in real terms and Chinese intervention in the foreign exchange market is rising — not when China’s currency is rising in real terms and Chinese intervention in the foreign exchange market is falling.

Especially when there are a few tentative signs that China’s stimulus may be gaining some traction.

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