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March 23rd 2009

Despite Shrinking Forex Reserves, China will Continue to Hold US Treasuries

Since Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (as the ForexBlog reported here) expressed doubts about China’s US loans and investments two weeks ago, the markets have been awash in speculation. In hindsight, it seems that the announcement was a political ploy, rather than a harbinger for a policy change. With a few qualifications, therefore, it seems to safe to conclude that China’s foreign exchange reserves will not undergo any serious changes in the near-term.

Motivated both by politics and pragmatism, “China’s top foreign-exchange official said the nation will keep buying Treasuries and endorsed the dollar’s global role. Treasuries form ‘an important element of China’s investment strategy for its foreign-currency reserves,’ she said at a briefing in Beijing today. ‘We will continue this practice.’ ” The economic fortunes of China and the US have become increasingly intertwined over the last decade, such that China has come to depend on exports to the US to drive economic growth, while the US simultaneously depends on China to fund its fiscal and current account deficits. As a result, “about two-thirds of China’s nearly $2 trillion in reserves is parked in dollar assets, primarily U.S. government and other bonds.”

china-forex-reserve-compositionEven ignoring the potential political fallout from forex reserve diversification, such a move doesn’t really make practical sense. First of all, there isn’t a buyer sufficiently capitalized to relieve China of its US Treasury burden. “If China decided to sell off some of its U.S. Treasury holdings, it would scarcely be able to dump that in large blocks. And a partial selloff would surely lead to a slump in the Treasury market, eroding the remaining value of China’s portfolio.”

In addition, there doesn’t currently exist a viable alternative to US Treasury securities, nor to investing in the US, for that matter. China’s attempt at diversifying into corporate bonds and equities was extremely ill-timed, having been implemented just prior to the puncture of the real estate and stock market bubbles. Including the collapse in the value of its high-profile investments in the Blackstone Group and Morgan Stanley, total paper losses are estimated at a whopping $80 Billion. Investments in other currencies and markets, meanwhile, probably would have yielded similarly poor returns. The market for gold- mulled by some as a theoretical alternative- is even more volatile and “not large enough to absorb more than a small proportion of China’s reserves.”

As a result, China’s forex reserve diversification strategy is likely to proceed along two lines: change in duration of loans, and investments in natural resources. “The risk of short-term national debt is comparatively more controllable. China increased its holding of short-term US bonds by $40.4 billion, $56 billion, and $38 billion in September, October and November, respectively. At that time, China began to sell long-term government debt.” Through its affiliates meanwhile, China’s Central Bank is cautiously making stealthy forays into natural resources; see its recently-acquired a $20 Billion stake in Rio Tinto, an aluminum company, as evidence of this strategy.

Of course, China has announced tentative support for loaning money to the IMF and backing an ‘international’ reserve currency that would serve as an alternative to the Dollar. Given that this is probably many years away, however, it has little choice but to continue to hold Treasuries and the like. In the words of a high-ranking Chinese official: “We are in the middle of a crisis right now, and the priority for foreign exchange reserves is to minimize losses.”

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Posted by Adam Kritzer | in Central Banks, Chinese Yuan (RMB), US Dollar | 4 Comments »

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4 Comments of “Despite Shrinking Forex Reserves, China will Continue to Hold US Treasuries”

  1. Yohay Says:

    They have too many treasuries to mobilize. They’re stuck.
    The remark by Prime Minister Jiabao could be related to the American intervention in Tibet, something that China, well, dislikes…

  2. Jedi Says:

    The expected growth of Chinese economy is still higher and China will continue to be the most ideal investment destination for MNCs.

  3. raj Says:

    Hey I am agreeing with ur post. Even ignoring the potential political fallout from forex reserve diversification, such a move doesn’t really make practical sense. First of all, there isn’t a buyer sufficiently capitalized to relieve China of its US Treasury burden.

  4. TheLawyerTrader Says:

    Just wanted to let you know that I really like the new format and content on the blog…keep up the great work.

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