Brad Setser

Follow the Money

Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

When The Trade Data Does Not Add Up

by Brad Setser Monday, October 31, 2016

This is not a post about China, or the various discrepancies in the Chinese data.

It is about a rather puzzling thing that I only noticed as a result of the Brexit debate.

The bulk of the UK’s surplus in services come from trade with non-EU countries (services exports to the EU are large, but so are imports—Tuscan and French vacations?). See this chart (h/t Toby Nangle).

A big part of the non-EU surplus in services comes from the United States. In 2015, the UK reported a 27 billion GBP (just over $40 billion) surplus in services trade with the U.S. and an overall surplus in goods and services with the United States.

The funny thing? The U.S. also thinks it runs a surplus in services trade with the UK. A $14 billion surplus in 2015, for example.

balance

It is pretty hard to square those two data points. UK data is from the Office of National Statistics’ Pink Book, U.S. data is from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), table 1.3 of the “International Transactions” data set.

It turns out that the U.S. thinks it sells more services to the UK than the UK thinks it buys:

us-export-data

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Inflows from Private Bond Investors Into the U.S.

by Brad Setser Wednesday, October 26, 2016

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.*

foreign-private-purchases

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.

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Asia’s Persistent Savings Glut

by Brad Setser Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Back in 2005, when Ben Bernanke first warned of the risk of a global savings glut, the combined savings rate of Asia’s main “surplus” economies (China, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore) equaled 35 percent or so of their collective GDP.

That number now? About 40 percent.

savings-rates-3-regions

That is obviously a lot of savings—savings which either has to finance a very high level of investment at home or has to be exported to the rest of the world. And with low interest rates around the world, the world doesn’t especially need to import savings from Asia right now.

East Asia’s high level of savings is the subject, obviously, of my new CFR working paper.

Much is often made of the small fall in China’s national savings rate. China’s savings rate peaked at a bit over 50 percent of GDP; in 2015 it dipped to 48 percent. A fall, yes, but not a big one. Remember that the flip side of high savings is a low level of consumption; without high levels of investment, domestic demand growth can easily fall short.

In the aggregate data for Asia’s surplus countries, the rise in China’s share of the region’s output more than offsets the (modest) fall in China’s savings rate. The national savings rate in Korea and Taiwan has also increased over the last five years. Hence record regional savings.

In dollar terms, the jump in savings is even more spectacular. Asian surplus economies saved around $2.8 trillion back in 2005. Now they save around $7 trillion. China’s savings have increased from $1 trillion to more than $5 trillion.

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China’s September Reserve Sales (Using the Intervention Proxies)

by Brad Setser Monday, October 24, 2016

The most valuable indicators of China’s intervention in the foreign exchange (FX) market are now out, and both point to a pick-up in sales in September, and more generally in Q3.

china-fx-settlement-v-cny

The data on FX settlement shows $27b in sales in September, and around $50b in sales for Q3. Add in changes in the forwards (new forwards net of executed forwards) reported in the FX settlement data, and the total for September rises to $33 billion, and the total for Q3 gets to around $60 billion. FX settlement is my preferred indicator, though it is always important to see how it lines up with other indicators.

The data on the PBOC’s balance sheet shows a $51 billion fall in reserves in September, and a fall of over $100 billion in Q3. I like to look at the PBOC’s foreign assets as well as reserves, this shows a slightly more modest fall ($47 billion in September), as the PBOC’s other foreign assets continued to rise. But total foreign assets on the PBOC’s balance sheet are still down around $95 billion in q3 (with a bigger draw on reserves than implied by the settlement data, which includes the banking system; chalk the gap between settlement and the PBOC’s balance sheet up as something to watch).

$100 billion in a quarter isn’t $100 billion a month—but it is noticeably higher than in Q2.

All in all, the pressure on China’s “basket peg” or “basket peg with a depreciating bias” exchange rate regime (take your pick on what managing with reference to a basket means, it certainly has meant different things at different points in time this past year) is now large enough to be significant yet not so large as it appears to be unmanageable.

China still has plenty of reserves; I wouldn’t even begin to think that China is close to being short of reserves until it gets to $2.5 trillion given China’s limited external debt, tiny domestic liability dollarization, and ongoing external surpluses. $2.5 trillion would still be the world’s biggest reserve portfolio by a factor of two, it also would be roughly 20 percent of China’s GDP, which would be in line with what many emerging markets hold.

The depreciation in October has been consistent with maintaining stability against the CFETS basket, though stability at a level against the basket that reflects the depreciation that took place from last August to roughly July. The dollar has appreciated against the other major tradeable currencies in October this period, and maintaining stability against the CFETS basket meant depreciating somewhat against the dollar.

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Large Scale Central Bank Asset Purchases, Versus Supply

by Brad Setser and Emma Smith Thursday, October 20, 2016

In earlier posts, Emma Smith and I added up central bank purchases of G-4 government bonds. This includes emerging market, Japanese and Swiss purchases for reserve accumulation and purchases by the Fed, Bank of Japan, European Central Bank and Bank of England during periods of quantitative easing (QE).

In this post we compare our estimates of official demand for U.S., Japanese and European bonds with changes in the supply of safe assets—that is, purchases by central banks relative to net new issuance of government bonds.

If central bank demand for a particular asset is lower than net new issuance, then private sector holdings of government bonds continue to grow but at a slower pace than would otherwise be the case. And if central bank demand for a particular asset exceeds net supply, then private sector investors—such as banks and pension funds—have to reduce their holdings of safe assets, and move into alternative assets.

This is how the portfolio re-balancing transmission channel of asset purchases works: private investors sell to the central bank and are forced to find new places to park their money. Conceptually, it should not matter much if the central bank buying say U.S. assets is the People’s Bank of China or the Fed, at least so long as both are expected to hold on to their purchases for a long-time. When either buys, it reduces the stock of assets in private hands and forces investors to shift into other assets.

Central bank asset purchases aren’t limited to government bonds of course, but, to simplify things, we limited our analysis to new issuance of government bonds. We know this over-simplifies. For example, a lot of “official” demand has gone into Agencies. Before the global crisis Agencies were a favorite of reserve managers globally. But adding in the Agencies to net supply takes a bit (ok, a lot) more work. The Fed also bought Agencies, but Fed holdings of Agencies and Treasuries are reported separately on their balance sheet. The numbers below only count the Fed’s Treasury portfolio.

In the U.S., the supply of Treasuries has exceeded central bank demand since 2010. This is largely because the U.S. Treasury ramped up issuance of Treasury securities after the crisis (offsetting, it should be noted, a big fall in private bond issuance). Even as annual net issuance of Treasuries slowed from its peak of around $1.7 trillion to a little over $600 billion, it has remained above official purchases. Right now there isn’t any official bid for U.S. bonds. Reserve managers on net have been selling and the Fed hasn’t been buying.

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Large Scale Central Bank Asset Purchases, by Currency

by Brad Setser and Emma Smith Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In an earlier post, I added reserve purchases by the world’s major emerging market central banks, Japan and Switzerland to the bonds purchases by the Fed, the BoJ, the ECB and Bank of England. I wanted to highlight that the central banks of the world were buying a lot of U.S. and European bonds before the big central banks started quantitative easing (QE). China and others bought a ton of bonds prior to the global crisis.

Emma Smith, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, helped me with the data work for that post; she and I are jointly writing the follow up posts.

In addition to looking at the total number of G-4 bonds bought by the world’s central banks—counting bonds bought in large scale asset purchase programs (QE) alongside estimated reserve purchases—it is interesting to look at central bank purchases by currency. QE results in the purchase of your own country’s bonds; reserve purchases mean you need to invest in bonds issued by someone else—e.g. both the Fed and the PBOC have bought large quantities of U.S. Treasuries and Agencies at different times over the last fifteen years.

Take central bank purchases of dollar bonds. The chart below relies on the Fed’s data on its purchases, and an estimate of the dollar bond purchases implied by global reserve growth.

Before the global crisis, central bank purchases of dollar bonds came from reserve managers. Their accumulation of dollar assets picked up from around 2003—coinciding with the dollar’s depreciation against the euro, the beginning of the rise in China’s current account surplus and a pickup in capital flows to a range of emerging economies. In early 2008, the Fed was actually selling a portion of its bond portfolio—it didn’t want its balance sheet to expand as its lending to the world’s banks rose in the run-up to the global crisis—and after Lehman, reserve managers started to sell. But the Fed soon reversed course, and started purchasing large amounts of Treasuries and Agencies in its QE programs. And emerging economies recovered and resumed large scale intervention of their own—albeit at a lower level than pre-crisis—taking central bank demand to new highs.

usd

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China: Too Much Investment, But Also Way Too Much Savings

by Brad Setser Monday, October 17, 2016

Most analysis of China’s economy emphasizes the risks posed by China’s high level of investment, and the associated rise in corporate debt.

Investment is an unusually large share of China’s economy. That high level of investment is sustained by a very rapid growth in credit, and an ever-growing stock of internal debt. Corporate borrowing in particular has increased relative to GDP. Not all this investment will generate a positive return, leaving legacy losses that someone will have to bear. Rapid credit growth has been a fairly reliable indicator of banking trouble. China is unlikely to be different.

Concern about the excesses from China’s investment boom permeate the IMF’s latest assessment of China, loom large in the BIS’s work, and the blogosphere. Gabriel Wildau of the Financial Times:

“Global watchdogs including the International Monetary Fund and the Bank for International Settlements (not to mention this blog) have become increasingly shrill in their warnings that China’s rising debt load poses global risks.”

Yet I have to confess that defining China’s primary macroeconomic challenge entirely as “too much debt financing too much investment” makes me a bit uncomfortable.

Investment is a component of aggregate demand. Arguing that China invests too much comes close to implying that, as a result of its credit boom/ bubble, China is providing too much demand to its own economy, and, as a result, too much demand for the global economy.

That doesn’t seem entirely right.

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Chinese Exports and Imports Are Growing in 2016 (In Real Terms)

by Brad Setser Friday, October 14, 2016

I liked John Authers’ FT column on China, and basically agree with it.

The chart showing the correction in the yuan’s value against a broad trade-weighted index is especially helpful. A lot depends on the particular index you use, but there should be no doubt that a significant part of the yuan’s broad appreciation in late 2014 has now been reversed.

I did take issue with one point. Authers writes that both Chinese exports and imports are on a declining trend.

“Chinese exports dropped noticeably last month (causing a frisson in global markets). Meanwhile, imports ticked up, suggesting at least some life in the Chinese economy. Both imports and exports are on a steadily declining trend, so China’s economy is slowing down.”

That is true in dollar terms, but not in “volume” (or real) terms.

china-trade-volume-indexes

Using China’s own data for the year to August, exports are up a modest 1.8 percent (versus the same period a year ago), and imports are up 3.4 percent. Throw in an estimate for September’s volumes (-1 percent on exports, + 1 percent on imports: this is without any adjustment for working data) and the numbers dip a bit, but still positive year over year (1.5 percent for exports, 3.1 percent for imports).

On the export side, q1 was bad—export volumes were down a couple of points (the 2014 q1 base was a pretty good, which is part of the story. But I think q2 and q3 both show roughly 3 percent y/y growth in export volumes—a strong August is offset by a weak September.

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Splitting out Emerging Economies Changes the Picture on Global Trade

by Brad Setser Friday, October 14, 2016

The Financial Times’ Big Read feature on hidden trade barriers included a chart showing the growth in trade relative to the growth of the world economy. The graph showed, accurately, that trade is now growing a bit more slowly than the world economy.

The question is why.

A relatively simple adjustment helps answer the question.

Look at a plot of import growth (goods only in this graph, but it doesn’t change if you use goods and services) against growth in the advanced economies, using the IMF’s WEO data set.

ae

And now consider the same plot for the emerging economies.

em

Eyeball economics tells us that import growth has really slowed in the emerging economies, both absolutely and relative to growth. 2015 emerging market import growth sort of look like 1998, and that wasn’t a good year for the emerging world. Advanced economy imports by contrast grew a bit faster than overall growth. Much more sophisticated economics tells a similar story.

Europe is actually pulling its weight here. Eurozone imports have picked up along with the modest revival in eurozone demand over the last couple of years. The problem in the eurozone is that the demand recovery has been weak more than anything else.

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China September Exports: Not Quite as Bad as They Seem?

by Brad Setser Thursday, October 13, 2016

The 5.6 percent fall—in the yuan data—in China’s September exports was a surprise. Exports had been rising in yuan terms, and in volume terms, since March. I expected the rise to continue, largely because the pickup in volumes is consistent with the expected impact of the 8 percent fall in the broad yuan (using the BIS index) since last July.

And I am very conscious of the risk of interpreting data to fit your prior beliefs, and thus missing a new signal.

That said, I do think there are a couple of reasons why the fall in exports may not be indicative of a shift in trend.

The first is straightforward: there was one fewer working days in China this September than last September (22 versus 21; data are here). Nominal exports, in yuan, per working day, fell by 1 percent.

This argument should not be overstated. There were more working days this August than last August, so nominal exports, in yuan, per working day, were down in August.

The more important reason is a bit more complicated. Chinese export prices jumped last September, in the immediate aftermath of the yuan’s August depreciation. Each dollar in exports generated more yuan. Over time, though, export prices have come down. They are now lower than their pre-August devaluation levels.

china-trade-prices

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