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Analysts suspect China's forex may be weaker than perceived

BEIJING -- Europeans searching for a bazooka to blast away eurozone debt problems might well eye China's US$3.2 trillion foreign exchange arsenal with envy, but Beijing has far less firepower available than many assume.

Most of money in the world's biggest store of foreign exchange reserves is prudently kept in near-cash instruments to fund import and debt service bills in the event of an unforeseen domestic emergency, or invested in long-term assets that, if sold in size to help Europe, would spark panic on global financial markets.

In fact, analysts reckon China's armory has only about US$100 billion to spare.

“The sheer size of China's foreign exchange reserves is massive, but the actual amount of money available for investing in Europe each year isn't that big,” said Wang Jun, an economist at CCIEE, a top government think tank in Beijing.

A crucial constraint is China's existing holdings of U.S. Treasury securities. Beijing is by far the biggest foreign owner, with an estimated 70 percent of the nation's reserves held in U.S. government bills, bonds and other dollar assets.

Turn outright seller and the market value of the remaining holdings is likely to plunge.

That's not a great investment strategy given the Chinese public's unhappiness about the roughly 38 percent decline in the nominal value of the dollar in the last 10 years.

The government also may have to set aside some foreign exchange reserves to bailout the banking system if piles of loans to local governments and the property sector turn sour.

China injected nearly US$80 billion in reserves into its big state banks from 2003 to 2008 to help them clean up their balance sheets so they could float shares.

Shrinking Exports, Smaller Surplus

Meanwhile, China's trade surplus, essentially the money it has to invest overseas, is shrinking as Beijing does what critics in the developed world have been urging for years and rebalances its economy away from exports.

Imports surged 28.7 percent year on year in October and the surplus of US$17 billion was well short of the US$24.9 billion forecast by economists.

Beijing holds an estimated one-quarter of its reserves in euro-denominated assets, so keeping that steady implies a US$117.5 billion increase this year if the country's foreign exchange reserves grow by the US$470 billion estimated in 2011.

That's roughly the amount economists expect China to invest in Europe in 2012.

“Assuming the FX reserve accumulation does not slow significantly, I think China will put at least US$80-100 billion in euro assets per year in the next two years,” said Wei Yao, China economist at Societe Generale in Hong Kong.

China recycles foreign exchange assets into overseas investments so outflows of cash roughly track inflows.

The build-up in FX reserves, a result of the central bank's intervention to limit the yuan's appreciation, tends to fuel inflation pressures even as the central bank issues bills to mop up the amount of local currency it pumps into the economy.

And it explains why foreign reserves cannot easily be used for domestic spending on infrastructure or shoring up pension systems, since simply converting the cash risks driving up both inflation and the value of the yuan currency.

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