This is Brad Setser once again. Thanks to Rachel Ziemba for filling in while I was away. A couple of regular readers have reported some difficulty posting comments at the cfr.org blog. My apologies for any lost comments. We are working on it. In interim, though, please keep commenting -- some comments seem to be directed into a "awaiting moderation" file for reasons that have yet to be determined but I can moderate them manually.
Back in 2004, it was considered rather stunning when China added close to $100 billion to its reserves ($95 billion) in a single quarter, bring its total reserves up to around $600 billion.. The dollar’s fall against the euro (and associated rise in the dollar value of China’s euros) explains around $15 billion of the rise. But at the time, $80 billion was considered a very large sum for China to have added to its reserves.
Now China has $1756 billion in reserves, after a $74.5 billion April increase. The dollar rose against the euro in April, so the underlying pace of increase – after adjusting for valuation changes – was more like $82 billion.
In a month.
And not just any month – in a month when oil topped $100 a barrel.
$82 billion a month, sustained over a year, is close to a trillion dollars. A trillion here, a trillion there and pretty soon you are talking about real money. If a large share of China’s reserves is going into dollars, as seems likely, this year’s increase in China’s dollar holdings could be almost as large as the US current account deficit.
The fact that one country’s government – and in effect two institutions (SAFE and the CIC) – are providing such a large share of the financing the US needs to sustain large deficits (particularly in a world where Americans want to invest abroad as well as import far more than they export) is unprecedented.
The real surprise in some sense is that the increase in China’s April preserves isn’t that much of a surprise. At least not to those who have been watching China closely.
Wang Tao – now of UBS – estimated that China added $600 billion to its foreign assets in 2007, far more than the reported increase in China’s reserves. Logan Wright (as reported by Michael Pettis) and I concluded that Chinese foreign asset growth – counting funds shifted to the CIC – could have topped $200 billion in the first quarter.
China hasn’t disclosed how much it shifted to the CIC, let alone when it shifted funds over to the CIC. But it seems likely that the surprisingly low increase in China’s reserves in March stems from a large purchase of foreign exchange by the CIC. Indeed, the CIC’s March purchase may have used up all of the RMB 1.55 trillion the CIC initially raised.
As a result, all of the increase in the foreign assets of China’s government seems to have showed up at the PBoC in April. Or almost all. China raised its reserves requirement in April, and the banks may have been encouraged to meet that reserve requirement by holding foreign exchange.
China’s current account surplus – adding estimated interest income to its trade surplus – was no more than $25 billion in April. FDI inflows were around $7.5 billion. Sum it up and it is a lot closer to $30 billion than $40 billion. Non-FDI capital inflows – hot money – explain the majority of the increase.
No wonder Chinese policy makers were so focused on hot money this spring. Hot money flows seem to have contributed to their decision to stop the RMB’s appreciation in April. But interest rate differentials still favor China – so it isn’t clear that a slower pace of appreciation will stem the inflows.
It certainly though helps to sustain the underlying imbalance that has given rise to massive bets on China’s currency.
The scale of China’s reserve growth suggests that China’s government is no longer just lending the US what it needs to buy Chinese goods. And it is now lending the US – and indeed the world – far more than the world needs to buy Chinese goods. Vendor financing is a fair description for China’s reserve growth in 2003 or 2004, but not now.
China’s government is increasingly acting as an international as well as a domestic financial intermediary. It has long borrowed -- whether through the sale of PBoC bills of Finance Ministry bonds to fund the CIC – rmb to buy dollars, effectively taking the foreign currency domestic Chinese savers do not want to take. Now though it is borrowing from the rest of the world to lend to the rest of the world.
Most intermediaries though make money. Or at least try to. By contrast, China’s government is almost sure to lose money on its external financial intermediation. Selling RMB cheap to buy expensive dollars and euros is not a good business model.
China cannot be entirely comfortable with all the money that is pouring into China. But it isn’t at all clear that Chinese policy makers are willing to take the steps needed to shift decisively toward a new set of policies. It is clear that the costs of China’s current policies are rising.
Remember, China looses money on its reserves. More isn’t better.