Can China invest its current account surplus at home?

The amount that China invests at home and the amount of foreign government bonds the country's central bank must purchase are wholly unaffected by the currency that China’s trade is denominated in.

China Financial Markets

The Financial Times ran a very interesting article last week called 'China: Turning away from the dollar'. It got a lot of attention, at least among China analysts, and I was asked several times by friends and clients for my response. The authors, James Kynge and Josh Noble, begin their article by noting that we are going through significant changes in the institutional structure of global finance:

An 'age of Chinese capital', as Deutsche Bank calls it, is dawning, raising the prospect of fundamental changes in the way the world of finance is wired. Not only is capital flowing more freely out of China, the channels and the destinations of that flow are shifting significantly in response to market forces and a master plan in Beijing, several analysts and a senior Chinese official say.

While this may be true, I am much more sceptical than the authors, in part because I am much more concerned than they seem to be about the speed with which different countries are adjusting, or not adjusting, to the deep structural imbalances that set the stage for the global crisis. My reading of financial history suggests that we tend to undervalue institutional flexibility, especially in the first few years after a major financial crisis, perhaps because in the beginning countries that adjust very quickly tend to underperform countries that adjust more slowly. As I have written many times before China’s high growth and very large capital outflows suggest to me how difficult it has been for China to shift from its current growth model.

Beijing has been trying since at least 2007 to bring down China’s high savings rate, for example, and yet today it remain much higher than it did seven years ago. Chinese capital outflows, in other words, which are driven by its excessively high savings rates, may have less to do with master planning than we think, and certainly when I think of the most dramatic periods of major capital outflows in the past 100 years, I think of the US in the 1920s, the OPEC countries in the 1970s, and Japan in the 1980s. In each case I think we misinterpreted the institutional strengths and the quality of policymaking.

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At the beginning of this entry I said that the authors made one assertion that is fundamentally wrong, although so many economists get this wrong that it would be unfair to blame the authors for failing to do their homework. The mistake isn’t necessary to their argument, but I bring it up not just because it is a mistake commonly made but also because it shows just how confused the discussion of the balance of payments can get.

Early in the Financial Times article mentioned above the authors cite Li Keqiang’s “10-point plan for financial reform” which includes the following

Better use should be made of China’s foreign exchange reserves to support the domestic economy and the development of an overseas market for Chinese high-end equipment and goods.

They then go on to make the following argument:

As a mechanism towards this end, China is earning a greater proportion of its trade and financial receipts in renminbi. Because these earnings do not have to be recycled into dollar-denominated assets, they can be ploughed back into the domestic economy, thus benefiting Chinese rather than US capital markets.

This is incorrect. The amount that China invests at home and the amount of foreign government bonds the PBoC must purchase are wholly unaffected by whether China’s trade is denominated in dollars, RMB, or any other currency.

There are two ways of thinking about this. One way is to focus on the trade itself. If a Chinese exporter sells shoes to an Italian importer and gets paid in dollars, the exporter must sell those dollars to his bank to receive the RMB that he needs. Because the PBoC intervenes in the currency, it effectively has no choice ultimately but to buy the dollars, and the result is an increase in FX reserves. This is pretty easy to understand.

But what happens if the next time the Chinese exporter sells shoes to the Italian importer, he gets paid in RMB? In that case it is the responsibility of the Italian importer, and not the Chinese exporter, to buy RMB in exchange for dollars. This is the only difference. The Italian importer must obtain RMB, and she does so by going to her bank and buying the RMB in exchange for the dollars. Her bank must sell the dollars in China to obtain RMB, and once again because the PBoC intervenes in the currency, it effectively has no choice ultimately but to buy the dollars. The result once again is an increase in FX reserves.

The other way to think about this is to remember that the change in FX reserves is exactly equal, by definition, to the sum of the current account and the capital account. This is because the balance of payments must always balance. China’s current account surplus is wholly unaffected by whether the trade is done in dollars (the Chinese exporter is responsible for changing dollars into RMB) or in RMB (the Italian importer is responsible for changing dollars into RMB). In either case, in other words, PBoC reserves must rise by exactly the same amount.

What about Chinese investment? It too is wholly unaffected. The current account surplus, remember, is equal to the excess of Chinese savings over Chinese investment. If the current account surplus does not change, and savings of course will not have been affected by the currency denomination of the trade, then domestic investment must be exactly the same.

This is an excerpt of a post first published by the China Financial Markets blog, you can read the original post here.

Michael Pettis is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a finance professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. He blogs at China Financial Markets.

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