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June 27, 2013

China Diversifies Forex Reserves. Emerging Market Currencies and Gold may Benefit.

Filed under: Chinese Yuan (RMB) — Tags: , , , , , , , , — admin @ 8:11 pm

China’s foreign exchange reserves continue to surge. As of September, the total stood at $2.64 Trillion, an all-time high. However, it’s becoming abundantly clear that China is no longer content for Dollar-denominated assets to represent the cornerstone of its reserves. Instead, it has embarked on a campaign to further diversify its reserves, with important implications for the currency markets.

China Forex Reserves 2010

Despite China’s allowing the Chinese Yuan to appreciate (or perhaps because of it), hot money continues to flow in – nearly $200 Billion in the the third quarter alone. Foreign investors are taking advantage of strong investment prospects, rising interest rates, and the guarantee of a more valuable currency. In order to prevent the inflows from creating inflation and putting even more upward pressure on the RMB, the Central Bank “sterilizes” the inflows by purchasing an offsetting quantity of US Dollars and other foreign currency.

Since the Central Bank does not release precise data on the breakdown of its reserves, analysts can only guess. Estimates range from the world average of 62% to as high as 75%. At least $850 Billion (this is the official tally; due to covert buying through offshore accounts, the actual total is probably higher) of its reserves are held in US Treasury securities. It also controls a $300 Billion Investment Fund, which has made very public investments in natural resource companies around the world. The allocation of the other $1.5 Trillion is a matter of speculation.

Still, China has stated transparently that it wants to diversify its reserves into emerging market currencies, following the global shift among private investors. Investment advisers praise China for its shrewdness, in this regard: “The Chinese authorities are some of the smartest in the world. If you look at the fundamentals of a lot of these emerging markets, they are considerably better than developed markets. Who wants to be holding U.S. dollars at this stage?” However, these investments serve two other very important objectives.

The first is diplomatic/political. When China recently signed an agreement with Turkey to conduct bilateral trade in Yuan and Lira (following similar deals with Brazil and Russia), it was interpreted as an intention snub to the US, since trade is currently conducted in US Dollars. In addition, by funding projects in other emerging markets through a combination of loans investments, China is able to curry favor with host countries, as well as to help its own economy at the same time. The second is financial: by buying the currencies of trade rivals, China is able to make sure that its own currency remains undervalued. This year, it has already purchased more than $5 Billion in South Korean bonds, and perhaps $20 Billion in Japanese sovereign debt, sending the Won and the Yen skywards in the process.

China’s purchases of Greek and (soon) Italian debt serve the same function. It is seen as an ally to financially troubled countries, while its efforts help to keep the Euro buoyant, relative to the RMB. According to Chinese Premier Wen JiaBao, “China firmly supports Greece’s efforts to tackle the sovereign debt crisis and won’t cut its holdings of European bonds.”

For now, China remains deeply dependent on the US Dollar, and is still very vulnerable to a sudden depreciation it its value. For as much as it wants to diversify, the supply of Dollars and the liquidity with which they can be traded means that it will continue to hold the bulk of its reserves in Dollar-denominated assets. In addition, the Central Bank has no choice but to continue buying Dollars for as long as the RMB remains pegged to it. At some point in the distant future, the Yuan will probably float freely, and China won’t have to bother accumulating foreign exchange reserves, but that day is still far away. For as long as the peg remains in place, the Dollar’s status as global reserve currency is safe.

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Chinese Yuan Will Not Be Reserve Currency? Without Political Reform, the RMB Will Only Claim 3-12% of Global Forex Reserves in 2035.

Filed under: Chinese Yuan (RMB) — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — admin @ 7:16 pm

In a recent editorial reprinted in The Business Insider (Here’s Why The Yuan Will Never Be The World’s Reserve Currency), China expert Michael Pettis argued forcefully against the notion that the Chinese Yuan will be ever be a global reserve currency on par with the US Dollar. By his own admission, Pettis seeks to counter the claim that China’s rise is inevitable.

The core of Pettis’s argument is that it is arithmetically unlikely – if not impossible – that the Chinese Yuan will become a reserve currency in the next few decades. He explains that in order for this to happen, China would have to either run a large and continuous current account deficit, or foreign capital inflows into China would have to be matched by Chinese capital outflows.” Why is this the case? Simply, a reserve currency must necessarily offer (foreign) institutions ample opportunity to accumulate it.

China Trade Surplus 2009 - 2010
However, as Pettis points out, the structure of China’s economy is such that foreigners don’t have such an opportunity. Basically, China has run a current account/trade surplus, which has grown continuously over the last decade. During that time, its Central Bank has accumulated more than $2.5 Trillion in foreign exchange reserves in order to prevent the RMB from appreciating. Foreign Direct Investment, on the other hand, averages 2% of GDP and is declining, not to mention that “a significant share of those inflows may actually be mainland money round-tripped to take advantage of capital and tax regulations.”

For this to change, foreigners would need to have both a reason and the opportunity to hold RMB assets. The reason would come from a reversal in China’s balance of trade, and the use of RMB to pay for the excess of imports over exports, which would naturally imply a willingness of foreign entities to accept RMB. The opportunity would come in the form of deeper capital markets, a complete liberalization of the exchange rate regime (full-convertibility of the RMB), and the elimination of laws which dictate how foreigners can invest/lend in China. This would likewise an imply a Chinese government desire for greater foreign ownership.

China FDI 2009-2010

How likely is this to happen? According to Pettis, not very. China’s financial/economic policy are designed both to favor the export sector and to promote access to cheap capital. In practice, this means that interest rates must remain low, and that there is little impetus behind the expansion of domestic consumption. Given that this has been the case for almost 30 years now, this could prove almost impossible to change. For the sake of comparison, consider that despite two “lost decades,” Japan nonetheless continues to promote its export sector and maintains interest rates near 0%.

Even if the Chinese economy continues to expand and re-balances itself in the process (a dubious possibility), Pettis estimates that it would still need to increase the rate of foreign capital inflows to almost 10% of GDP. If economic growth slows to a more sustainable level and/or it continues to run a sizable trade surplus, this figure would rise to perhaps 20%. In this case, Pettis concedes, “we are also positing…a radical change in the nature of ownership and governance in China, as well as a radical redrawing of the role of the central and local governments in the local economy.”

So there you have it. The political/economic/financial structure of China is such that it would be arithmetically very difficult to increase foreign accumulation of RMB assets to the extent that the RMB would be a contender for THE global reserve currency. For this to change, China would have to embrace the kind of reforms that go way beyond allowing the RMB to fluctuate, and strike at the very core of the CCP’s stranglehold on power in China.

If that’s what it will take for the RMB to become a fully international currency, well, then it’s probably too early to be having this conversation. Perhaps that’s why the Asian Development Bank, in a recent paper, argued in favor of modest RMB growth: “sharing from about 3% to 12% of international reserves by 2035.” This is certainly a far cry from the “10 years” declared by Russia’s finance minister and tacitly supported by Chinese economic policymakers.

The implications for the US Dollar are clear. While it’s possible that a handful of emerging currencies (Brazilian Real, Indian Rupee, Russian Ruble, etc.) will join the ranks of the international currencies, none will have enough force to significantly disrupt the status quo. When you also take into account the economic stagnation in Japan and the UK, as well as the political/fiscal problems in the EU, it’s more clear than ever that the Dollar’s share of global reserves in one (or two or three) decades will probably be only slightly diminished from its current share.

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Chinese Yuan: Appreciation or Inflation? If prices continue to rise, the RMB may not have to.

Filed under: Chinese Yuan (RMB) — Tags: , , , , , , — admin @ 6:10 pm

Based on nominal exchange rates, the Chinese Yuan has appreciated by a modest 2% against the US Dollar since the month of September (when the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) adjusted the currency peg for the first time in nearly two years). If you take inflation into account, however, the Chinese Yuan has risen by much more. In fact, if current trends persist, the Chinese Yuan exchange rate controversy might resolve itself.

CNY USD 1 year chart
Demands from the international community for China to appreciate its currency hinge on two related arguments. The first is that at its current level, the artificially low exchange has allowed China to build up a massive trade surplus. The second is that Chinese prices seem to be lower than they should be (when quoted in other currencies), and the economic principle of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) suggests that for this discrepancy to be eliminated, the Chinese Yuan must rise.

As it turns out, both of these claims are more problematic than they would appear. For example, China’s official trade surplus is already massive, and is steadily increasing. For 2010, it will probably near $200 Billion. However, it turns out that majority of that surplus is being captured by foreign-funded companies: “Their 112.5-billion U.S.-dollar surplus accounts for 66 percent of China’s total surplus over the past 11 months.”

In addition, trade statistics are calculated in such a way that the country that assembles the finished product gets credit for the full export value of that product. By looking specifically at Apple’s popular iPhone, researchers calculated that the product officially contributed $2 Billion to the US trade deficit with China. When the nuances of the iPhone’s supply chain are taken into account, that figure swings to a surplus of $48 million. In both of these cases, the fact that these products are manufactured in China doesn’t detract from US GDP (though it probably does cost the US jobs). Hence, the US probably isn’t hurting as much from the weak RMB to the extent that some lobbyists insist.

iPhone US China trade deficit
As for inflation, the official rate is now 5.1% on an annualized basis. Even if we accept this (and living in China, I can tell you that the actual rate is much, much higher), that means that the value of other currencies is eroding at a much faster rate than is implied by official exchange rates. That’s because a currency is only worth its purchasing power; as prices and wages in China rise, the purchasing power of the US Dollar (and other currencies) falls.

The Chinese government is trying to address the problem in the form of price controls and mandated increases in supply, but it is still reluctant to rein in inflation using conventional monetary policy measures. M2 money supply in China is increasing at a rate of 20% a year, the majority of which is being spent on another boom in fixed asset investment. While the PBOC has responded by increasing the required reserve ratio of Chinese banks, it remains reluctant to raise interest rates lest it contribute to further inflows of “hot money” on more upward pressure on the Yuan. As a result, the consensus among economists is that inflation will continue rising unabated: “We see a strong chance of underlying price pressures continuing to build over the medium-term.”

China inflation rate 2004-2010
Unless circumstances change, then, the argument for further RMB appreciation is somewhat weak. Nonetheless, analysts remain optimistic: “A Bloomberg survey based on the median estimates of 20 analysts predicts the yuan to increase 6.1 percent to 6.28 percent by the end of 2011.” Given that Hu Jintao is schedule to visit the US in January – and China’s fondness for symbolic policy gestures – a token move of 1% or so before then wouldn’t be surprising. As for the predicted 6% rise next year, well, that depends on inflation.

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Chinese Yuan Continues to Tick Up. The Issue of RMB Revaluation Remains Mired in Politics.

Filed under: Chinese Yuan (RMB) — Tags: , , , , , , , , — admin @ 5:11 pm

At the very end of 2010, the Chinese Yuan managed to cross the important psychological level of 6.60 USD/CNY, reaching the highest level since 1993. Moreover, analysts are unanimous in their expectation that the Chinese Yuan will continue rising in 2011, disagreeing only on the extent. Since the Yuan’s value is controlled tightly  by Chinese policymakers, forecasting the Yuan requires an in-depth look at the surrounding politics.

While American politicians chide it for not doing enough, the Chinese government nonetheless deserves some credit. It has allowed the Yuan to appreciate nearly 25% in total, which should be just enough to satisfy the 25-40% that was initially demanded. Meanwhile, over the last five years, China’s trade surplus has fallen dramatically, to 3.3% of GDP in 2010, compared to a peak of 11% in 2007. In fact, if you don’t include trade with the US, its surplus was basically nil this year.

Therein lies the problem. Despite the fact that prices in Chinese exports should have risen 25% (much more if you take inflation and rising wages into account) since 2004, the China/US trade balance has remained virtually unchanged, and its current account surplus has actually widened. As a result, China’s foreign exchange reserves increased by a record amount in 2010, bringing the total to a whopping $2.9 Trillion! (Of course, these reserves should be thought of as a monetary burden rather than pure wealth, to the same extent as the US Federal Reserve Board’s Balance Sheet must one day be wound down. In the context of this discussion, however, that might be a moot point).

Meanwhile, China is trying to slowly tilt the structure of its economy towards domestic consumption, which is increasing by almost every measure. Its Central Bank is also slowly hiking interest rates and raising the reserve requirements of banks in order to put the brakes on economic growth and rein in inflation. Finally, it is trying to encourage internationalization of the Yuan. There now 70,000 Chinese trade companies that are permitted to settle trades in Chinese Yuan. In addition, Bank of China just announced that US customers will be able to open up Yuan-denominated accounts, and the World Bank became the latest foreign entity to issue an RMB-denominated “Dim-Sum Bond.”


There is also evidence that the Chinese Government’s top leadership – with whom the US government directly negotiates – is actually pushing for a faster appreciation of the RMB but that it faces internal opposition. According to the New York Times, “The debate over revaluing the renminbi… has not advanced much partly because of a fight between central bankers who want the currency to rise and ministers and party bosses who want to protect the vast industrial machine that depends on cheap exports for survival.” In fact, the Bank of China (PBOC) recently warned, “Factors such as the country’s trade surplus, foreign direct investment, China’s interest rate gap with Western countries, yuan appreciation expectations, and rising asset prices are likely to persist, drawing funds into the country,” while a senior Chinese lawmaker pushed back that a “rise in the yuan’s value won’t help the country to curb inflation.”

Some analysts expect a big move in the Yuan that corresponds with this week’s US visit by China’s Prime Minister, Hu Jintao. The average call, however, is for a continued, steady rise. “China’s currency will strengthen 4.9 percent to 6.28 by the end of 2011, according to the median estimate of 19 analysts in a Bloomberg survey. That’s over double the 2 percent gain projected by 12-month non-deliverable forwards.” As I wrote in my previous post on the Chinese Yuan, however, it ultimately depends on inflation – whether it keeps rising and if so, how the government chooses to tackle it.

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“Currency Manipulation” Will Continue, Despite G20

Filed under: Chinese Yuan (RMB) — Tags: , , , — admin @ 4:11 pm
Last month, the G20 finally agreed on the specific factors that would be used to determine whether a country was manipulating its currency. Despite being watered-down (by the usual suspects), the so-called “scorecard” is nonetheless extremely substantive. Unfortunately, the resolution will be backed only by “peer pressure,” rather than any kind of real enforcement mechanism, which means that in practice it is basically worthless.
 
While the proximate goal of the resolution is to eliminate exchange rate manipulation, it’s ultimate goal is to minimize the risk of another economic/financial crisis. Towards that end, a country’s “budget deficit levels, the external imbalance and private savings rates” will be closely scrutinized, and will be warned if any of these factors reach levels that are deemed to be unsustainable. The idea is that an early warning system will prevent the global economy from reaching a point of disequilibrium that is so severe that crisis would be impossible to avert.
 
Of course, the problems with this program are manifold. First of all, there are no concrete numbers. For example, it’s not clear how large a country’s national debt or trade deficit has to reach before it receives a phone call and slap on the wrist from the G20. In fact, you could argue that the same imbalances that precipitated the crisis are largely still in place, which means that some countries should have been warned yesterday.
 
Second, there is no meaningful enforcement mechanism. That means that countries that disregard the resolution don’t really have anything to fear, other than the wrath of investors. In other words, if governments and Central Banks know that they can manipulate their exchange rates with impunity, what’s to stop them? Look at Japan: its public debt is the highest in the world. It runs a perennial trade surplus. Its citizens are notorious savers. And yet, when the Yen rose to a record high, which you might expect from such an imbalanced economy, the G7 (in this case) took the unusual step of pushing the Yen down. I’m not saying this wasn’t the right thing to do, but what kind of signal does this send to other rule breakers.
 
While all emerging market countries took an active interest in exchange rates (and seek to exert some control over their currencies), China is certainly Public Enemy #1, and is the clear target of the “currency manipulation” talk. To its credit, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has permitted the Chinese Yuan to appreciate 20% against the Dollar (probably 30% when inflation is taken into account) over the last few years. Meanwhile, both internal government statisticians and the IMF expect its current account surplus to narrow to a mere 5% in 2011, as its economy slowly rebalances.
 
In this sense, I think China is a case in point that the best enforcement mechanism is reality. Specifically, China has reached a point where it cannot continue to pursue an economic policy based on exports, without spurring inflation and causing the inefficient allocation of domestic capital (such as in real estate). It must raise interest rates and accept the continued appreciation of the RMB is an unavoidable byproduct.
 
The same goes for other countries that attempt to hold their currencies down. If they can get away with it, then so be it. If not, I can guarantee that it won’t be the G20 that forces them to change.

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G20 Pressures China, Despite Yuan Appreciation. RMB will Continue to Rise for the Foreseeable Future.

Filed under: Chinese Yuan (RMB) — Tags: , , , , , , , , — admin @ 3:15 pm

Since the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) unfixed the Chinese Yuan in June, it has appreciated 4.5%. Moreover, for a handful of reasons, it looks like China will continue allowing the RMB to appreciate at the same steady pace for the foreseeable future. And yet, the international community continue to use China as a scapegoat for all global economic ills, and are pressuring it to stop trying to control the Yuan altogether.


At the recent G20 conference in China, US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner circumvented China’s request to avoid discussing its currency policy: “Flexible exchange rates help countries better absorb shocks and that the tension between flexible currencies and those that are ‘tightly managed’ is ‘the most important problem to solve in the international monetary system today.’ ” Naturally, Chinese officials countered that the Dollar is to blame for the recent financial crisis and the ongoing economic imbalances.

If China was the only country to attempt to control its currency, perhaps the rest of the world would be willing to overlook it and write it off to ideological differences like they do with many of its protectionist economic policies. In this case, however, China’s tight control of the Yuan has spurred many of the countries with which it competes to similarly intervene in forex markets. In the last week alone, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand are all suspected of buying Dollars to hold down their respective currencies. Meanwhile, Brazil is enhancing its capital controls and Japan stands ready to intervene should the Yen spike again.

To quote Secretary Geithner again, “This asymmetry [between nations that intervene and those that don’t] in exchange rate policies creates a lot of tension. It magnifies upward pressure on those emerging-market exchange rates that are allowed to move and where capital accounts are much more open. It intensifies inflation risk in those emerging economies with undervalued exchange rates. And, finally, it generates protectionist pressures.” In short, when one country decides not to play the rules, other countries are quick to catch on. [To be fair, while the US doesn’t intervene directly on behalf of the Dollar, it still deserves some blame for this tension because of QE2 and the like].

If any country appears to be taking these lessons to heart, however, it is China. To combat inflation, it has raised interest rates several times over the last twelve months, including yesterday’s surprise 25 basis point hike. Given that official inflation remains above 5% (and living here, I can tell you that the actual rate is probably 10-20%), the PBOC has no choice but to continue tightening monetary policy if it wishes to avoid social unrest. To counter the inevitable upward pressure on the Yuan, it has taken such measures as prodding Chinese firms to look abroad for acquisition targets. China’s forex policy is designed to serve one very important end: to buttress the competitiveness of its export sector. However, there are early indications that China’s preeminent position as the world’s sweatshop may be about to slide. Anecdotal reports show that manufacturers are unnerved by wage and raw materials inflation, and are uprooting factories. In the short-term, some of this production will move inland from the coast, but even this has its limits. According to Credit Suisse, “Salaries for China’s estimated 150 million migrant workers will rise 20 to 30 percent a year for the next three to five years…’It may take a decade for China to see its export competitiveness erode, but we have seen the beginning of this happening.’ ”

With this in mind, it’s clearly futile for China to continue to focus its economic policy around low-cost, labor-intensive exports. Likewise, it’s ridiculous to continue to artificially depress the Yuan, especially if it’s serious about turning it into a global reserve currency. I think Chinese policymakers recognize this, and I stand by my earlier prediction that the Yuan will maintain a steady pace of appreciation for the foreseeable future.

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Is the Chinese Yuan the Most Reliable Forex Trade? The only Question is how to bet on it.

Filed under: Chinese Yuan (RMB) — Tags: , , , , , , , — admin @ 2:10 pm

Over the last six years, the appreciation of the Chinese Yuan has been as reliable as a clock. Since 2005, when China tweaked the Yuan-Dollar peg, it has risen by 28%, which works out to 4.5% per year. If you subtract out the two year period from 2008-2010 during which the Yuan was frozen in place, the appreciation has been closer to 7% per year. There is no other currency that I know of whose performance has been so consistently solid, and best of all, risk-free!

As I wrote in an earlier post on the subject, the economic case for further appreciation is actually somewhat flimsy. When you factor in the 5-10% inflation that has eroded the value of the Yuan over the last few years, its appreciation in real terms has more than exceeded the 25-40% that economists and politicians asserted as the margin by which it was undervalued. While prices for many services remain well below western levels, prices for manufactured goods already equal or exceed those that Americans pay. (As a resident of China, I can assure you that this is the case!). Given that Chinese GDP per capita (a proxy for income) is 12 times less than in the US, that means that relative price levels in China are already significantly greater than the US. Thus, further appreciation would only cause further distortion.

Regardless, investors continue to brace for further appreciation, and expectations of 5-6% for the foreseeable future are the norm. Even futures contracts – which typically lag actual appreciation because of their non-deliverable nature – are pricing in higher expectations for appreciation. Perhaps the greatest indication is that 9% of all of the capital pouring into China is so-called “hot-money.” That means that despite the 27% appreciation to date, a substantial portion of investment in China is connected only to the expectation for further Yuan appreciation.

Even though the Yuan is not fully-tradeable, its continued rise has serious implications for forex markets. First of all, there will be follow-on effects for other currencies. Almost every emerging market economy competes directly with China, and all are thus keenly aware that China pegs its currency against the US dollar. By extension, many of these economies feel they have no choice but to intervene daily in forex markets to prevent their respective currencies from appreciating faster than the RMB.

At the very least, the appreciation in Asian and Latin American currencies will keep pace with the Yuan: “This is a long-term secular trend for emerging market currencies especially in Asia. Asian currencies have long been undervalued and they are on a convergence path with the United States and the G7 more broadly and that’s going to lead to an appreciation,” summarized one analyst.

All of this action will cause the dollar to depreciate. The Chinese Yuan alone accounts for 20% of the Federal Reserve Bank’s trade-weighted dollar index, and Asia ex-Japan accounts for another 20%. Regardless of the other G4 currencies perform, that means that a conservative 7% annual appreciation in Asia will drive a minimum 3% annual decline in the trade-weighted value of the dollar. Even worse is that this cause a broad loss of confidence in the dollar, driving the dollar lower across-the board. And this doesn’t even aaccount for the multiplier effect that net exporters will no longer need to indiscriminately accumulate dollar-denominated assets. China, itself, has unloaded part of its massive hoard of US Treasury securities for five consecutive months.

The implications for how long-term investors should position themselves are clear. Unfortunately, while further appreciation in the Chinese Yuan is all but guaranteed, achieving exposure to this appreciation is beyond difficult. Neither of the ETFs that claim to represent the Yuan (CNY, CYB) have budged over the last couple years, and they are a poor substitute for the actual thing. In other words, your only chance for exposure is indirectly via Chinese stocks and bonds, which are far from transparent and an extremely dubious investment. Or you could try opening a Chinese Yuan bank account with the Bank of China (which now has branches in the US), but it’s unclear whether you will be able to capture 100% of gains from the Yuan’s appreciation.

Otherwise, emerging market Asia seems like a pretty good proxy. Of course, you need to be aware that even though the Korean Won, Malaysian Ringgit, Thai Baht, New Taiwan Dollar, Indonesian Rupiah, Philippine Peso, etc. will probably at least match the rise in the Yuan, they are imperfect substitutes for the Yuan, since they are driven more by country-specific factors than by association to China.

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June 2, 2011

Is the Chinese Yuan the Most Reliable Forex Trade?

Filed under: Chinese Yuan (RMB) — Tags: , , , , , — admin @ 2:11 pm

Over the last six years, the appreciation of the Chinese Yuan has been as reliable as a clock. Since 2005, when China tweaked the Yuan-Dollar peg, it has risen by 28%, which works out to 4.5% per year. If you subtract out the two year period from 2008-2010 during which the Yuan was frozen in place, the appreciation has been closer to 7% per year. There is no other currency that I know of whose performance has been so consistently solid, and best of all, risk-free!

As I wrote in an earlier post on the subject, the economic case for further appreciation is actually somewhat flimsy. When you factor in the 5-10% inflation that has eroded the value of the Yuan over the last few years, its appreciation in real terms has more than exceeded the 25-40% that economists and politicians asserted as the margin by which it was undervalued. While prices for many services remain well below western levels, prices for manufactured goods already equal or exceed those that Americans pay. (As a resident of China, I can assure you that this is the case!). Given that Chinese GDP per capita (a proxy for income) is 12 times less than in the US, that means that relative price levels in China are already significantly greater than the US. Thus, further appreciation would only cause further distortion.

Regardless, investors continue to brace for further appreciation, and expectations of 5-6% for the foreseeable future are the norm. Even futures contracts – which typically lag actual appreciation because of their non-deliverable nature – are pricing in higher expectations for appreciation. Perhaps the greatest indication is that 9% of all of the capital pouring into China is so-called “hot-money.” That means that despite the 27% appreciation to date, a substantial portion of investment in China is connected only to the expectation for further Yuan appreciation.

Even though the Yuan is not fully-tradeable, its continued rise has serious implications for forex markets. First of all, there will be follow-on effects for other currencies. Almost every emerging market economy competes directly with China, and all are thus keenly aware that China pegs its currency against the US dollar. By extension, many of these economies feel they have no choice but to intervene daily in forex markets to prevent their respective currencies from appreciating faster than the RMB.

At the very least, the appreciation in Asian and Latin American currencies will keep pace with the Yuan: “This is a long-term secular trend for emerging market currencies especially in Asia. Asian currencies have long been undervalued and they are on a convergence path with the United States and the G7 more broadly and that’s going to lead to an appreciation,” summarized one analyst.

All of this action will cause the dollar to depreciate. The Chinese Yuan alone accounts for 20% of the Federal Reserve Bank’s trade-weighted dollar index, and Asia ex-Japan accounts for another 20%. Regardless of the other G4 currencies perform, that means that a conservative 7% annual appreciation in Asia will drive a minimum 3% annual decline in the trade-weighted value of the dollar. Even worse is that this cause a broad loss of confidence in the dollar, driving the dollar lower across-the board. And this doesn’t even aaccount for the multiplier effect that net exporters will no longer need to indiscriminately accumulate dollar-denominated assets. China, itself, has unloaded part of its massive hoard of US Treasury securities for five consecutive months.

The implications for how long-term investors should position themselves are clear. Unfortunately, while further appreciation in the Chinese Yuan is all but guaranteed, achieving exposure to this appreciation is beyond difficult. Neither of the ETFs that claim to represent the Yuan (CNY, CYB) have budged over the last couple years, and they are a poor substitute for the actual thing. In other words, your only chance for exposure is indirectly via Chinese stocks and bonds, which are far from transparent and an extremely dubious investment. Or you could try opening a Chinese Yuan bank account with the Bank of China (which now has branches in the US), but it’s unclear whether you will be able to capture 100% of gains from the Yuan’s appreciation.

Otherwise, emerging market Asia seems like a pretty good proxy. Of course, you need to be aware that even though the Korean Won, Malaysian Ringgit, Thai Baht, New Taiwan Dollar, Indonesian Rupiah, Philippine Peso, etc. will probably at least match the rise in the Yuan, they are imperfect substitutes for the Yuan, since they are driven more by country-specific factors than by association to China.

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May 3, 2011

The Diminished Case for Chinese Yuan Appreciation

Filed under: Chinese Yuan (RMB) — Tags: , , , , — admin @ 7:32 am

The Chinese yuan has appreciated by more than 27.5% since 2005, when the People’s Bank of China (“PBOC”) formally acceded to international pressure and began to relax the yuan-dollar peg. For China-watchers and economists, that the Yuan will continue to appreciate is thus a given. There is no question of if, but rather of when and to what extent. But what if the prevailing wisdom is wrong? What if the yuan is now fairly valued, and economic fundamentals no longer necessitate a further rise?


Prior to the 2005 revaluation, economists had argued that the yuan (also known as the Chinese RMB) was undervalued by 15% – 40%, and American politicians had used this as a basis for proposing a 27.5% across-the-board tariff on all Chinese imports. Given that the yuan has now appreciated by this exact margin (and by even more when inflation is taken into account), shouldn’t this alone be enough to silence the critics, without even having to look at the picture on the ground? How can Senator Charles Schumer continue to press for further appreciation when the yuan’s rise exceeds his initial demands? Alas, election season is upon us, and we can’t hope to make political sense out of this issue. We can, however, attempt to analyze the economic sense of it.

China manipulates the value of the yuan in order to give a competitive advantage to Chinese exporters, goes the conventional line of thinking. Look no further than the Chinese trade surplus for evidence of this, right? As it turns out, China’s trade surplus is shrinking rapidly. In 2006, it was a whopping 11% of GDP. Last year, it had fallen to 5%, and it is projected by the World Bank to settle below 3% for each of the next two years. Thanks to a first quarter trade deficit – the first in over seven years – China’s trade surplus may account for a negligible portion (~.2%) of GDP growth in 2010.


With this in mind, why would the PBOC even think about allowing the RMB to appreciate further? According to one perspective, the narrowing trade imbalance is only temporary. When commodities prices settle and global demand fully recovers, a wider trade surplus will follow. In fact, the IMF forecasts China’s current surplus will rise to 8% by 2016. As you can see from the chart below (courtesy of The Economist), however, the IMF’s forecasts have proven to be too pessimistic for at least the last three years, and it now has very little credibility. Besides, China’s economy is gradually reorienting itself away from exports and towards domestic spending. As a resident of China, I can certainly attest to this phenomenon, and the last few years has seen an explosion in the number of cars on the road, domestic tourism, and conspicuous consumption.


A better argument for further RMB appreciation comes in the form of inflation. At 5.4%, inflation is officially nearing a 3-year high, and there is evidence that the PBOC already recognizes that allowing the RMB to keep rising represents its best tool for containing this problem. It has already raised banks’ required reserve ratio several times, but there is a limit to what this can accomplish. Meanwhile, the PBOC remains reluctant to raise interest rates because it will invite further “hot-money” inflows (estimated at more than $100 Billion per year, if not much higher) and potentially destabilize the banking sector. By raising the value of the yuan, the PBOC can blunt the impact of rising commodities prices and other inflationary forces.

In fact, some think that the PBOC will quicken the pace of appreciation, a view that as supported by last month’s .9% rise. Others think that a once-off appreciation would be more effective, and is hence more likely. This would not only remove the motivation for further hot-money inflows, but would also reduce the PBOC’s need to continue accumulating foreign exchange reserves. At $3 trillion+ ($1.15 trillion of which are held in US Treasury Securities), these reserves are already a massive headache for policymakers. Merely stating the obvious, PBOC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan has officially called the reserves “really too much.” (It’s worth pointing out that the promotion of the yuan as an international currency is backfiring in some ways, causing the reserves to balloon even faster).

For the record, I think that the Chinese yuan is pretty close to being fairly valued. That might seem like a ridiculous claim to make when Chinese wages and prices are still well below the global average. Consider, however, that the same is true for the majority of emerging market economies, including those that don’t peg their currencies to the dollar. That doesn’t mean that the yuan won’t – or that it shouldn’t – continue to rise. In fact, the PBOC needs to do more to ensure that the Yuan appreciates evenly against all currencies, since most of the yuan’s rise to-date has taken place relative to the US Dollar. It’s merely a commentary that the PBOC is close to fulfilling the promises it has made regarding the yuan, and going forward, I think that observers should expect that its forex policy will be reconfigured to promote domestic macroeconomic policy objectives.

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April 9, 2011

Report Portends Changes to Forex Reserve Currencies

Filed under: Chinese Yuan (RMB) — Tags: , , , , , — admin @ 3:11 pm

This week’s Bank of International Settlements (BIS) quarterly report came with some interesting revelations (most of which I’ll discuss in a later post). Below, I’d like to focus on one particularly interesting section entitled, “Foreign exchange trading in emerging currencies.” This section carries tremendous implications for the future of reserve currencies and is a must read for fundamental analysts.

According to the BIS, “Foreign exchange turnover evolves in a predictable fashion with increasing income. As income per capita rises, currency trading cuts loose from underlying current account transactions…moreover, currencies with either high or very low yields attract more trading, consistent with their role as target and funding currencies in carry trades.” In other words, the most liquid currencies (and hence, most suitable reserve currencies) are primarily those of advanced economies and secondarily those with abnormal interest rates.

In theory, one would expect a close correlation between forex turnover and trade. In fact, this turns out to be precisely the case for lesser-developed countries. Since the capital markets of such countries are commensurately undeveloped, offering limited opportunities for foreign investment, most of the demand for their currencies stems directly from trade. In fact, the currencies of Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, and (notably) China closely fit this profile, with a 1:1 ratio between forex turnover and trade.

At the same time, the BIS discovered a strong correlation between the ratio of foreign exchange turnover to trade and GDP per capita.  That means that as a country grows economically and enters the realm of industrialized countries, its currency will experience exponential growth in turnover. For example, the British Pound and Japanese Yen are exchanged at a quantity that is 50 times greater than required for trading purposes. The ratio of forex turnover to trade for the US Dollar, meanwhile, exceeds 100!

The BIS was able to fit a regression line to the data that seemed to explain this phenomenon quite well. The majority of economies/currencies that it surveyed fall pretty close to this line, suggesting that forex turnover is exactly where it should be relative to GDP per capita and trade. In fact, the line runs directly through the Euro, Hong Kong Dollar, Canadian Dollar, and Swedish Krona, and Norwegian Krona.

There are also plenty of outliers. Given the size of China’s economy, for instance, the model would predict that turnover in the Chinese  Yuan should be 2-3 times what it currently is. Unsurprisingly, all of the world’s major reserve currencies (except for the Euro) can be found well on the other side of the regression line. Turnover in the US Dollar, Japanese Yen, and Australian Dollar is almost twice as high as the model predicts. Perhaps the most flagrant outlier is the New Zealand Dollar, which seems to be traded at a frequency that is 8-10x higher than it should be. Of course, New Zealand is a unique case; there isn’t another economy that is as small and stable, and yet always has higher-than-average interest rates.

One interpretation of this analysis is that demand for the all of the currencies that fall above the regression line should decline over time, and should experience at least some depreciation. The opposite can be said for currencies that currently fall the regression line, especially if their economies continue to expand at a faster-than average pace.

At the same time, it puts things into perspective. Even if demand for the Chinese Yuan doubled in accordance with the BIS model (which would necessitate looser capital controls, among other things), GDP per capital would need to increase 20x and US GDP per capita would need to remain constant in order for the Yuan to rival the Dollar in importance. Also, I’m beginning to wonder if the New Zealand Dollar isn’t in fact oversubscribed and overvalued…

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