Brad Setser

Follow the Money

Cross border flows, with a bit of macroeconomics

How Many Treasuries Does China Still Own?

by Brad Setser Thursday, June 9, 2016

Quick answer. A lot. Between $1.3 trillion and $1.4 trillion, or about 40 percent of China’s reserves. The last year has made it abundantly clear that Belgium’s holdings of Treasuries aren’t from Belgian dentists. China’s reserves started to fall last summer. Yet China’s reported holdings of Treasuries in the custodial data barely budged. Belgium’s holdings, by contrast, fell by around $200 billion. It is now standard among those who care about this stuff to add Belgium’s holdings (between $80 and $90 billion in long-term Treasuries, and $154 billion if you count Treasury bills) to those of China ($1245 billion).

A more interesting question, one that takes a bit more technical wizardry to report, is how many U.S. assets China holds. The right answer, I think, is at least $1.8 trillion and perhaps more. That is somewhat less than China used to hold—but still quite a lot. In addition to Treasuries, China has $200 billion or so in Agencies, and $200 billion or so in U.S. equities, and close to $100 billion on deposit in U.S. banks. That is more or less in line with expectations for a country with $3.2 trillion in reserves.


I actually lied about the technical wizardry required. Now that the Treasury reports monthly custodial holdings of all kinds of debt along with custodial holdings of U.S. equities, the amount of skill required isn’t very high. You just need to know where to look. (Historical data is here)

I do still have a few tricks up my sleeve. After all, the trick to Treasury International Capital (TIC) watching is looking at changes over time, and trying understanding the resulting patterns. The art comes in making the adjustments needed to make the custodial data better map to the transactional data.

If you want a continuous time series that goes back to the start of China’s reserve accumulation, you need to extrapolate between the annual custodial surveys from 2002 to 2012. Using, in broad terms, the methodology outlined here, that can be done with a fair amount of sweat, toil, and tears. After 2012, the Treasury provides a continuous monthly data series.

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China’s May Reserves

by Brad Setser Tuesday, June 7, 2016

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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The Semi-Surprising Weakness of U.S. Imports

by Brad Setser Friday, June 3, 2016

I suspect the big jobs report meant that last Friday’s trade release got a bit less attention than normal.

The dollar’s strength continues to have the expected impact on real exports, more or less. Excluding petrol, real goods exports are down 2.5 percent in the first four months of the year (relative to the same period in 2016).

And real exports are falling as a share of U.S. GDP. This is pretty common when the real dollar is strong. It also happened in the early part of the 2000s. The real dollar, looking at the BIS data, is about between 10 and 15 percent points higher than it was in early 2014.


I am surprised though at how flat imports continue to be.

Real goods imports are about half a point lower in the first four months of 2016 than in the first four months of 2015 (import prices are down, so the headline fall is over 3 percent). Real goods imports haven’t really changed at all for say the last 15 or so months. They have averaged about $165 billion chained 2009 dollars a month (a bit higher in q2 of last year).

While real GDP growth hasn’t been spectacular, demand has continued to grow. Over the last 3 quarters goods imports added marginally to U.S. growth (meaning imports fell), while final demand increased by about 2 percentage points (at an annualized rate). Looking at the last four quarters, goods imports have subtracted somewhere between 5 and 10 basis points on growth even with final domestic demand increasing by close to 2.5 percentage points of GDP.


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Japan’s First Consumption Tax Hike Was a Demand Disaster

by Brad Setser Thursday, June 2, 2016

Abe’s rhetoric has not been German. Especially not recently.

But his policies over the last two years have been. At least until recently.

The International Monetary Fund’s fiscal department estimates that Japan did a consolidation of over 2 percentage points in 2014 and another half point or so of fiscal consolidation in 2015, net of any gains from lower interest payments.*

Japan has a history of passing lots of highly hyped stimulus packages. But in many cases those stimulus packages just offset the roll-off of past stimulus packages, without generating much net fiscal impulse to the economy.

Postponing the consumption tax hike consequently makes a great deal of sense. Japan’s economy—the domestic side at least—never recovered from the last hike.

Japan GDP

Private consumption demand fell around 1.5 percentage points of GDP immediately after the consumption tax hike, and hasn’t recovered. Annualizing quarter-over-quarter changes in the level of consumption produces noisy headlines every quarter—but the basic trend is clear by now. Even in Japan with its demographics there should be an upward slope to consumption over time in a normally performing economy.

Japan’s 2014 consumption tax hike consequently should rank a bit higher in the various cases used to examine the impact of fiscal austerity.

There was a clear swing toward austerity, and thus a clear contrast. Fiscal policy was modestly expansionary by any measure in 2013.

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What Drove China’s Large Reserve Sales?

by Brad Setser Tuesday, May 31, 2016

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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Dan Drezner Asked Three Questions

by Brad Setser Wednesday, May 25, 2016

He gets three half answers.

Drezner’s first question: “Just how much third-party holdings of U.S. debt does Saudi Arabia have?”

Wish I knew. The custodial data doesn’t really help us out much. $117 billion—around 20 percent of reserves—certainly seems too low. So it is likely that the ultimate beneficiaries of some of the Treasuries custodied in places like London, Luxembourg or even Switzerland (Swiss holdings are bit higher than can be explained by the Swiss National Bank’s large reserves) are in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere in the Gulf.

Europe Custodial Holdings

The Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA) is generally thought to be a bit of a hybrid between a pure central bank reserve manager (which invests mostly in liquid assets, typically government bonds) and a sovereign wealth fund (which invests in a broader range of assets, including illiquid assets). So there is no reason to think that all of SAMA’s assets are in Treasuries.

There are a couple of benchmarks though that might help.

If you sum the Treasury holdings of China and Belgium in the Treasury International Capital (TIC) data (Belgium is pretty clearly China, not the Gulf) and compare that total with China’s reserves, Treasuries now look to be around 40 percent of China’s total reserves. Other countries have moved back into agencies, so Treasury holdings aren’t a pure proxy for a country’s holdings of liquid dollar bonds. But this still set out a benchmark of sorts.

And if you look at the IMF’s global reserves data (sadly less useful than it once was, as the data for emerging economies is no longer broken out separately), central banks globally hold about 65 percent of their reserves in dollars. This also sets out a benchmark. Countries that manage their currencies tightly against the dollar would normally be expected to hold a higher share of their reserves in dollars than the global average, though this imperative dissipates a bit when a country’s reserves far exceeds its short-term needs.

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China Is Pivoting Away From Imports, Not Just Rebalancing Away From Exports

by Brad Setser Tuesday, May 24, 2016

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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The Case for More Public Investment in Germany is Strong

by Brad Setser Monday, May 23, 2016

Last week, Greg Ip of the Wall Street Journal argued that Germany should focus on raising private wages rather than increasing public investment as part of a broader critique of Germany’s inclusion on the Treasury’s enhanced monitoring list. Ip: “Germany’s problem isn’t the public sector, it’s the private sector: Businesses need to invest more and workers need to earn more, and that can’t simply be fixed with more government spending.”

I have a somewhat different view: more public investment is a key part of the policy package needed to support German wages.

Ip is certainly right to highlight that Germany gained export competitiveness by holding down wage growth during the ‘00s. Wages and prices in Germany rose by a lot less than wages and prices in say Spain from 2000 to 2010, contributing—along with rise in global demand for the kind of high-end mechanical engineering that has long been Germany’s comparative advantage—to the development of Germany’s current account surplus. And that process now needs to run in reverse for Germany’s euro area trade partners to gain competitiveness relative to Germany. See Fransesco Saraceno, or Simon Wren-Lewis.

But the changes in German wages and consumer purchasing power needed to allow Europe to rebalance up, with shifts coming from strong wage and demand growth in Germany rather than weakness in wages and demand elsewhere, will not occur in vacuum.

To state the obvious, for Germany’s substantial external surplus to fall either exports need to fall or imports need to rise.

For Germany’s workers, many of whom work in the export sector, to have the confidence to demand higher wages while exports slump they need confidence that domestic demand growth will be there. Put differently, low nominal (Bunds out to 8 years have a negative rate) and negative real rates only will push up wages if either the private or public sector respond to low rates by borrowing more. The domestic side of Germany’s economy may need to run a bit hot to pull workers out of the export sector.

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Bye, Bye Asian Oil

by Brad Setser Friday, May 20, 2016

“Asian Oil Exporters” always was a geographically accurate yet still somewhat misleading subcategory of the Treasury International Capital (TIC) data release.

Technically, the Gulf is in Asia, and Asian oil exporters were a set of countries that could be differentiated from African oil exporters. But the title wasn’t terribly helpful either. Not for a set of countries—the GCC countries (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, and Kuwait), Iraq, and Iran—in what more commonly is called the Middle East.

And, thanks to a wise decision by the U.S. Treasury to release the disaggregated data, it will soon be only of historic interest. The Treasury didn’t just release the current Treasury security holdings (or to be more precise, their holdings of Treasury securities in U.S. custodial accounts) for individual Gulf and Caribbean countries, it also released the historical time series. That is the way to immediately establish the credibility of a data series (Take note, for example, of the difficulty in interpreting China’s Special Data Dissemination Standard [SDDS] release, including the lines on China’s forward book, without back data).

So, shock of all shocks, we now know Iran doesn’t own any Treasuries. At least not any in U.S. custodial accounts.

The real story in the data, though, is the lack of any real story. The Gulf countries do not keep that many Treasuries in U.S. custodial accounts, so there wasn’t much for the disaggregated data to reveal.

That has long been apparent from the aggregated data. The $250 billion or so of Treasuries held by “Asian oil exporters” was small relative to combined reserves of these countries (excluding Iran, for obvious reasons) of around $1 trillion. And after say 2010, the changes in the Gulf’s combined Treasury holdings haven’t even really moved with their reported reserves.


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It Has Been a Long Time

by Brad Setser Wednesday, May 18, 2016

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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