The global capital flows story these days is complex. I wanted to build on Landon Thomas’ article with a set of charts drawing out how I think large surpluses in Asia and Europe are now influencing the TIC data. Obviously, this is a more technical post.
Asia’s surplus is big. In dollar terms, the combined current account surplus of China, Japan, and the NIEs (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) is back at its pre-crisis levels. China’s surplus is a bit smaller in 2007, but Korea and Taiwan are clearly running bigger surpluses. Yet unlike in the past, very little of Asia’s surplus is going into a reserve buildup. China is obviously selling, and its selling overwhelms intermittent purchases by Korea (Korea sold in q1 2016, but bought in q3) and Taiwan. The outflow of savings from Asia is currently overwhelmingly a private flow.
That is a change. And frankly it makes the impact of Asia’s surplus on global markets harder to trace. The Bank for International Settlement (BIS) data shows that much (I would say most) of the “capital outflow” from China over the last four quarters has actually gone to paying down China’s external bank debt, not to build up assets. It thus just becomes a new source of liquidity for the global banking system (once a dollar loan is repaid, the bank is left with a dollar—which has to be parked somewhere else).
And of course the eurozone and northern Europe also run substantial surpluses. Negative rates and ECB asset purchases in effect work to push investors out of super low-yielding assets in Europe, and into somewhat higher yielding assets outside the eurozone.*
The combined surplus of China, Japan, the NIEs, the eurozone, Sweden, Denmark, and Switzerland was close to $1.2 trillion in 2015. That is a big sum; one that has to leave traces in the global flow data. The U.S. current account deficit isn’t as big as it was prior to the crisis (and it is smaller than the UK’s current account deficit), but it is still financed, in part, by inflows from abroad into the U.S. bond market.
Total inflows from private purchases of U.S. bonds by foreign investors—together with the inflow from American investors selling their existing stock of bonds abroad and bringing the funds home—actually look to be at a record high in the TIC data (in dollar terms, not when scaled to U.S. GDP). $500 billion in inflows from foreign purchases of Treasuries, Agencies, and corporate bonds by private investors abroad, and $250 billion in financing from Americans bringing funds previously invested in foreign bonds home.