18 March 2009

China inoculates itself against dollar collapse

China inoculates itself against dollar collapse
By W Joseph Stroupe
This article concludes a three-part report.

PART 1: Before the stampede
PART 2: The not-so-safe haven

There is mounting evidence that China's central bank is undertaking the process of divesting itself of longer-dated US Treasuries in favor of shorter-dated ones.

There is also mounting evidence that China's increasingly energetic new campaign of capitalizing on the global crisis by making resource buys across the globe may be (1) helping its

central bank to decrease exposure to the dollar, while (2) simultaneously positioning China to make much greater profit on its investment of its reserves into hard assets whose prices are now greatly beaten down, while (3) also affording it greatly increased control of strategic resources and the geopolitical clout that goes with it. This is turning out to be a win-win-win situation for China as it capitalizes upon the important opportunities afforded it by the present global crisis.

The exact size and the precise composition of China's huge forex reserves, the exact degree of China's exposure to the dollar and its viable options, if any, in decreasing that exposure are matters of intense interest, because China's policies in this regard could have gargantuan implications for the US and the global financial systems and for the dollar.

One of the foremost experts who continues to research and track these matters is the highly respected Brad W Setser, a Fellow for Geoeconomics at the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations in New York. His work is providing significantly deeper insight into the size and composition of China's reserves and is affording the world a better view of that country's options in managing its reserves going forward and what the implications of those options might be.

Another expert whose ongoing work is also adding very important, deeper insight into such matters is the highly respected Rachel Ziemba, lead analyst on China and the oil exporting economies at the prestigious RGE Monitor, founded by Nouriel Roubini.

Drawing on the work of these two experts, let's examine the matter of the likely size and composition of China's forex reserves and its investment options going forward, and the probable implications of those options for the dollar.

The first issue is to determine the actual size of China's foreign exchange reserves. Its central bank officially confirms the current figure of about US$1.95 trillion. However, Setser's work reveals that China's actual reserves are significantly higher and may actually be as high as $2.4 trillion, according to his latest figures [1]. About $2.2 trillion of this total figure is easily identifiable, according to Setser, with the remaining $200 billion being his estimate of the amount currently held in China's state banks.

As for the issue of the composition of these reserves and its total exposure to the dollar, the most recent Treasury International Capital (TIC) report by the US Treasury has China's holdings of Treasuries at $696 billion as of the end of 2008. However, Setser's research indicates China's total holdings of US Treasuries is likely to be more than that figure, since some of the purchases of Treasuries by the UK and Hong Kong should actually be attributed to China's central bank. China also holds US government-sponsored agency debt (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac paper) and corporate bonds, but the recent TIC reports indicate its central bank has been steadily divesting itself of these assets in favor of short-dated Treasuries.

As for China's purchases of Treasuries over the most recent three months (October - December of 2008), note this statement from Setser:
And over the past three months, almost all the growth in China's Treasury portfolio has come from its rapidly growing holdings of short-term bills not from purchases of longer-term notes.
Setser goes on to make the point that China's central bank is unquestionably divesting itself of the comparatively less-safe assets such as agency debt in favor of very short-dated Treasuries. The best estimates of the total exposure of China's central bank to dollar-denominated assets of all kinds is about 70%, or somewhere between $1.5 trillion and $1.7 trillion depending upon whether you use the $2.2 trillion figure or the $2.4 trillion figure for the total sum of China's reserves.

That uncomfortably high level of exposure to the dollar is what has been causing concern to flare in China most recently. A much more desirable figure, from China's standpoint, of its total exposure to the dollar would be 50% or less of its total reserves. A reserve composition of 50% dollars to 50% everything else is much safer because an excessive decline in the value of the dollar would tend to be offset by corresponding increases against the dollar in the value of the non-dollar assets comprising the rest of the reserves.

In order to get to that more desirable composition fairly quickly over the next several months, China would have to somehow divest itself of as much as $450 billion of its existing dollar-denominated assets, not purchase a significant amount of new dollar-denominated assets, and accomplish all this without triggering a global dollar panic. That's a very tall order indeed - but it is not by any means impossible. How so?

If we stand back to look at Setser's work from a distance, we see what appears to be a clear strategy on China's part that is potentially very compelling. The country has its official reserves, which it acknowledges now total about $1.95 trillion, and it also has its unofficial or secret reserves, which Setser estimates at about $450 billion at present.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not merely coincidentally) the secret reserves total about the same sum that China needs to divest itself of in order to reach the desired composition of its reserves noted in the previous paragraph - about $450 billion. At this point, recall the intriguing and potentially very important statement quoted earlier (see DOLLAR CRISIS IN THE MAKING, Part 2), a statement made by Fang Shangpu, deputy director of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange and reported by the Xinhua News Agency on February 18, 2009:
Fang Shangpu, deputy director of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, noted Wednesday that the report released by the US Treasury of the amount of government bonds held by China included not only the investment from the reserves, but also from other financial institutions. It might be a hint that Chinese government is not holding as much US government bonds. [Italics added]

China is managing its foreign exchange reserves with a long-term and strategic view, Fang told a press briefing. "Whether China is to purchase, and to buy how much of the US government bonds will be decided according to China's need," Fang said. "We will make judgment based on the principle of ensuring safety and the value of the reserves," Fang said.
Is Fang Shangpu hinting that China has intentionally, as a deliberate strategy, divided its reserves into two general holdings, official and secret, and that SAFE (the State Administration of Foreign Exchange) has ensured that the composition of the official (government) holdings of the $1.95 trillion is such that its exposure to the dollar is not the roughly 70% assumed in the West, but rather something much closer to the desired target of 50%, while the secret reserves hold predominantly dollar-denominated assets?

If this is the case, then China could employ a number of schemes to clandestinely further reduce its total exposure to the dollar, using its secret reserves, all the while maintaining safety for the official reserves. Note Fang Shangpu's recent statement to the Wall Street Journal regarding how carefully, and with what foresight, China manages its reserve holdings:
"Since the subprime crisis evolved into the international financial crisis in September last year, we have executed the central authorities' plans to cope with the international financial crisis and launched the emergency response mechanism. We have closely followed developments, made timely adjustments to risk management, taken decisive and forward-looking measures to evaluate and remove risks ... "
Chinese officials have been painfully aware, for several years now, of the increasing risks of too great an exposure to the dollar. It simply isn't believable that their level of prudence and foresight in this regard was so low as to allow them to fail to formulate and execute strategies designed to limit that exposure to safer levels than is presently assumed in the West. But if China has indeed prudently and deliberately structured its official reserves (now totaling $1.95 trillion) to be much less exposed to the dollar than is assumed in the West, while off-loading the riskier, dollar-denominated assets into its secret reserves, how might it propose to use those secret reserves to further decrease its exposure to the dollar?

Conversion into resource reserves
Enter China's resource buys. Several Chinese experts have been saying that China needs to spend a significant portion of its dollar-denominated reserves on hard assets, thereby further reducing its exposure to the dollar. It certainly appears that China is embarking upon just such a strategy.

According to research by Rachel Ziemba of RGE Monitor, in the first two months of 2009 alone China has already confirmed such

deals for hard assets worth a total of over $50 billion [2]. Clearly, China is just now opening its global strategy of pursuing such resource buys at a time when the prices of hard assets are extremely attractive and many more such buys are in the offing. This is made evident by the recent February 23, 2009 report by China Daily which stated the following:
As part of the National Energy Administration's three-year plan for the oil and gas industry, the government is considering setting up a fund to support firms in their pursuit of foreign mergers and acquisitions, the report said.

Fang Shangpu, deputy director of SAFE, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, said earlier this week that more measures will be introduced to support firms seeking to expand overseas.

Veteran analyst Han Xiaoping said the time is now ripe for China to convert some of its capital reserves into resource reserves, as global oil prices have fallen 70% since last year, to about $40 a barrel. [Italics added]

"We shouldn't miss this opportunity to use our foreign exchange reserves to build up our oil stocks," he said.

Jiang Jiemin, chairman of PetroChina, said recently: "The low share prices of some global resource companies provide us with some fresh opportunities."
RGE Monitor's Ziemba says the resource buys are a smart move now because they decrease the role of increasingly uncertain financial assets such as Treasuries, which now carry little profit appeal and diminishing appeal as safe stores of wealth, and increase the role of hard assets, which now carry an ever greater profit potential and a mounting appeal as safe stores of wealth: "For China, these investments seem to be a relatively efficient way to use its financial resources given the likely long-term appreciation of resource prices and uncertainty about financial assets."

Ziemba, in response to questions e-mailed to her, also alerts us to watch for forthcoming details about the currencies employed in China's resource buys. If these deals are being transacted largely in dollars, then she notes that there will likely be no negative near-term effect upon the dollar's role as the world's reserve currency. But if they are arranged outside of the dollar, it might well serve to undermine the dollar's international role to some extent.

However, it should be noted that almost no matter what currencies these resource buys are being transacted in, there does exist a potential negative impact for the dollar itself further down this path. How so?

Obviously, with China's uncomfortably large present exposure to the dollar, it is in its interests to concentrate on converting much of the dollar-denominated portion of its secret reserves into resources reserves. In other words, China will undoubtedly spend dollars, whether directly or indirectly, to fund its resource buys. But it must do so in a largely opaque manner that leaves little, if any trace in official data such as the US Treasury's TIC report. It will also be likely to be a net buyer of Treasuries, though nowhere near its 2008 pace, or else refrain from selling significant amounts of Treasuries, while it clandestinely reduces its exposure to the dollar. Otherwise, its actions could spark a dollar panic.

Increased buying of Treasuries by US citizens and investors, and by various foreign investors other than China, as the global crisis rapidly deepens and increases risk aversion, may likely take significant pressure off of China to soak up the huge issuance of new sovereign US debt now getting underway. That will help to provide breathing room for China to address its problem of reducing exposure to the dollar.

Whether China will approach the problem with a scheme of swaps amongst its various state-controlled entities and wealthy private Chinese investors, or by some other nearly opaque means, probably cannot be determined with any certainty at present. But it has undoubtedly worked out the problem of clandestinely converting significant sums of its dollar-denominated financial assets into hard assets without dumping Treasuries and triggering a dollar panic.

It is most unlikely, therefore, that its actions in this regard will be sufficiently proved before it has already succeeded in accomplishing its goals. Furthermore, since resource prices are now very attractive, China will certainly expand and accelerate its resource buys while prices remain attractive, converting ever-larger sums of its dollar-denominated reserves into resource reserves.

If China averaged a conversion of only $35 billion per month from dollars into resources, it could convert the entire $450 billion in little more than 12 months' time. Hence, I predict that the next eight to 15 months will provide China with sufficient time to bring its total exposure to the dollar much more in line with its strategic goals.

What about the problem of dealing with any ongoing accumulation of dollars? A number of analysts note that China's trade surplus is worsening even in the global slowdown because, while China's exports are falling, its imports are falling much faster. However, Chinese officials have made clear that they will use their reserve holdings to bolster imports, and that measure should alleviate China's need to accumulate large sums of dollars and other currencies in order to keep the yuan stable.

China is extremely unlikely, therefore, to accumulate dollars at anywhere near the rate at which it did in 2008. China is also funding its domestic stimulus package designed to spur domestic consumption. All these measures denote a much wiser use of its huge reserves and a steadily decreasing focus on the dollar. All in all, China looks set to weather the storm quite well in spite of some significant hardships along the way.

Summarizing the escalating risks of a dollar crisis
The bubble in US Treasuries is getting increasingly massive and unstable with each week that passes. Deepening global risk aversion is keeping investors lined up, so far, to buy Treasuries - especially short-dated ones. And the deepening economic crisis in the US is moving its own citizens to join in the buying spree.

If the Treasuries bubble persists for much longer, and especially if it continues to mount, the massive and dangerous distortions in the global financial system and the Treasuries-induced strangulation of its credit markets will only become more severe, likely leading to a meltdown somewhere in the emerging markets, one of whose effects will almost certainly spread to engulf the severely weakened Western European and US financial sectors and plunge particularly the US economy into a deep depression, with potent negative effects upon the dollar.

Such an eventuality will tend to force global investors to evaluate the safe-haven appeal of the dollar based much more on the fundamentals of the US economy, and that will portend a stampede out of the dollar and a potentially chaotic bursting of the massive Treasuries bubble. Hence, even if the US finds buyers for its huge sums of new sovereign debt now beginning to flood the markets, the picture does not look good for the dollar beyond the short term.

Obviously, if the US reaches the point where it fails to find sufficient buyers for its new flood of Treasuries, that will also become a perilous situation for the dollar and for the huge Treasuries bubble, which will almost certainly burst as global investors seek better stores of wealth in hard assets, following the lead of China's central bank.

Either way, the US is engaged in the implementation of extremely risky and potent inflationary, dollar-debasing policies, making a loss of global confidence in the dollar in the short to medium term a virtual certainty. Even if the massive spending does restore economic growth, the US economy is likely to remain very weak for some time. That will make it extremely difficult for the US Federal Reserve to tighten monetary policy to fight off the inevitable and potent inflation that will result from today's shortsighted policies.

When the Fed attempts to tighten, the US economy will likely be plunged into a second-round recession or depression, with obviously awful effects upon the dollar. But if the Fed fails to tighten sufficiently and quickly, runaway inflation will ravage the currency anyway.

Prudent, forward-looking Chinese officials have clearly assessed the entire situation as one demanding careful but swift action to ensure that its huge reserves are not imperiled by what has obviously become an untenable global rush into an unstable and perilous dollar bubble.

Hence, China's central bank is enacting with a sense of urgency prudent measures, both explicit and clandestine, to significantly decrease exposure to the dollar. If the details of such measures should become sufficiently public and should attract undue global attention before China accomplishes its goals, a dollar panic might be triggered.

This risk, though perhaps not major, does exist nonetheless, and it is significantly increasing as China undertakes new measures that might attract undue and unwanted global attention. However, it is also likely that China will enjoy cover and gain breathing space to enact its prudent measures while much of the rest of the world continues to rush into the bubble.

1. See "China's Record Demand for Treasuries in 2008", by Brad Setser, The Council on Foreign Relations.
2. See "China's Resource Buys" by Rachel Ziemba, RGE Monitor.

W Joseph Stroupe is a strategic forecasting expert and editor of Global Events Magazine online at www.globaleventsmagazine.com


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