Friday, February 19, 2016

Chinese Report Drops Forex Data as Reserve Sell-Off Continues

China's central bank managed to sell off more than $200 billion in foreign reserves in December and January alone, sparking concern around the world the country may be having a hard time maintaining its currency's strength.

With memories of plunging international stocks during China's last slew of currency devaluations fresh in their minds, investors have been scouring Chinese data releases for clues as to what Beijing officials are doing with China's diminishing hoard of reserves.

But just when international focus on this relatively obscure metric reached its highest level in years, Beijing this week quietly dumped a related foreign exchange data series from the Chinese central bank's website, generating speculation that the country is trying to shield from international observers the possibility of currency fluctuations on the horizon.

The Hong-Kong-based South China Morning Post[1] on Friday reported that the People's Bank of China had dropped the "position for forex purchase" data category from a monthly government-issued financial data tracker[2].

The metric's readings, which have helped clarify whether China is buying up or selling off foreign exchange reserves, have been public since at least 2010[3], which is as far back as the central bank website's figures go. Their departure from the government's regularly scheduled data releases has sparked concern that Chinese officials aren't planning on plugging up the leak in their reserve tank anytime soon and might not be eager to make that information public.

Cashier smiling at customer on checkout line in supermarket, close-up

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China for years had stockpiled currency, government-issued debt and other reserves from major world economies (including the U.S.). Such reserves can, among other uses, be bought or sold to help maintain the Chinese yuan's currency strength.

In mid-2014, China was sitting on a hoard of roughly $4 trillion in reserves. But by the end of January, Chinese state media[4] reported the stash had shrunk to $3.23 trillion.

"Some drop in China's reserves is probably desirable," Simon Baptist, chief economist at The Economist Intelligence Unit, wrote in a research note last week. "They had grown in recent years to extraordinarily high levels, and contribute to the global imbalance in savings and investment that risks asset bubbles and secular stagnation."

But even though China's current reserve holdings are still substantial, analysts have been alarmed by the rate at which Beijing has opened its floodgates. If the reserves China has sold off over the last year and a half banded together to form their own country, that new entity would be among the 20 largest economies in the world. China has essentially sold off the equivalent of the entire Saudi Arabian economy in a matter of months, having shed more than $207 billion in the last two months alone.

FILE - In this Feb. 1, 2016, file photo, specialist Michael Gagliano, foreground, works with traders at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. A strengthening job market, low gasoline prices and rising home values are all helping consumers to spend more, even though stock markets on Wall Street and around the world are sputtering. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)

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China could have potentially seen a massive currency surge over the last few decades as more and more external investment flowed into its borders. But the country's officials instead built up its foreign exchange reserves and maintained tight control over its yuan value, thereby ensuring its exports remained competitive internationally. The move was criticized around the world as a form of currency manipulation in a narrative that continues to play out today.

"On day one of the Trump administration, the U.S. Treasury Department will designate China as a currency manipulator," a statement[5] reads on Donald Trump's campaign website. "This will begin a process that imposes appropriate countervailing duties on artificially cheap Chinese products, defends U.S. manufacturers and workers, and revitalizes job growth in America."

But faced with downward economic pressure that's pushing the yuan's value lower, China's rapid reserve sell-off is viewed by many to be a move that would artificially boost the country's currency rather than cheapen it. While this dynamic has similarly drawn criticism for moving against the the natural economic grain, it is also viewed as a red flag by many economists.

"What is more worrying than the drop itself is that it suggests that the authorities are trying to fully resist market pressures on the currency," Baptist said. "Even with the extra control they have over the financial levers compared to most countries, not even China can do that forever, raising the risks of the forces moving in an uncontrolled way down the line."

But the benefits of a steady currency are clear. Import and export prices would remain unchanged, and stability would likely appease officials at the International Monetary Fund, considering China's yuan is currently attempting to fit in with the U.S. dollar, the pound sterling and a handful of other distinguished currencies in an internationally recognized basket of currencies.

In this Nov. 19, 2014 photo, a man walks by the Bank of Japan headquarters in Tokyo. Japanese businesses are cautious over prospects for a recovery, according to a quarterly central bank survey released Monday, Dec. 15, 2014 that showed a mixed outlook for the world's third-largest economy. The results of the Bank of Japan's "tankan" highlight the challenges Prime Minister Shinzo Abe faces following a landslide election victory Sunday. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)

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China's eventual inclusion in the basket was viewed as a moral victory and symbol of status for the Chinese economy. But its central bank would lose face internationally if the currency eventually collapsed shortly after its appointment to global reserve status.

"[China's central bank] is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, facing a choice of either continued slow erosion of [foreign exchange] reserves, or a rapid currency adjustment that could be destabilizing for China and plunge global currency markets into turmoil," Rajiv Biswas, the Asia-Pacific chief economist at research and analysis company IHS. "Further sharp yuan devaluation remains one of the key downside risks to the global economic outlook in 2016, due to the shock waves it will cause in global currency markets."

Indeed, a flurry of Chinese currency devaluations in the summer of 2015 led to massive financial market panic and ultimately contributed to Wall Street's first correction in years, plunging major indexes like the S&P 500 and Dow Jones industrial average into the red.

And given Wall Street's abysmal start to 2016, the last thing any trader wants is for potential Chinese currency movement to spark a complete investment collapse. China still has plenty of reserves to play with, and its government's degree of control over financial markets is nearly unrivaled among major developed economies.

But investors are still eyeing its foreign exchange reserves with caution, and the government's elimination of that metric from its monthly currency reports, effectively making it harder for outsiders to determine what the Chinese central bank is doing, is unlikely to sit well with traders around the world.

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