Tag Archive | "Chinese Yuan"

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Is the Chinese Yuan the Most Reliable Forex Trade?


Over the last six years, the appreciation of the Chinese Yuan has been as reliable as a clock. Since 2005, when China tweaked the Yuan-Dollar peg, it has risen by 28%, which works out to 4.5% per year. If you subtract out the two year period from 2008-2010 during which the Yuan was frozen in place, the appreciation has been closer to 7% per year. There is no other currency that I know of whose performance has been so consistently solid, and best of all, risk-free!

As I wrote in an earlier post on the subject, the economic case for further appreciation is actually somewhat flimsy. When you factor in the 5-10% inflation that has eroded the value of the Yuan over the last few years, its appreciation in real terms has more than exceeded the 25-40% that economists and politicians asserted as the margin by which it was undervalued. While prices for many services remain well below western levels, prices for manufactured goods already equal or exceed those that Americans pay. (As a resident of China, I can assure you that this is the case!). Given that Chinese GDP per capita (a proxy for income) is 12 times less than in the US, that means that relative price levels in China are already significantly greater than the US. Thus, further appreciation would only cause further distortion.

Regardless, investors continue to brace for further appreciation, and expectations of 5-6% for the foreseeable future are the norm. Even futures contracts – which typically lag actual appreciation because of their non-deliverable nature – are pricing in higher expectations for appreciation. Perhaps the greatest indication is that 9% of all of the capital pouring into China is so-called “hot-money.” That means that despite the 27% appreciation to date, a substantial portion of investment in China is connected only to the expectation for further Yuan appreciation.

Even though the Yuan is not fully-tradeable, its continued rise has serious implications for forex markets. First of all, there will be follow-on effects for other currencies. Almost every emerging market economy competes directly with China, and all are thus keenly aware that China pegs its currency against the US dollar. By extension, many of these economies feel they have no choice but to intervene daily in forex markets to prevent their respective currencies from appreciating faster than the RMB.

At the very least, the appreciation in Asian and Latin American currencies will keep pace with the Yuan: “This is a long-term secular trend for emerging market currencies especially in Asia. Asian currencies have long been undervalued and they are on a convergence path with the United States and the G7 more broadly and that’s going to lead to an appreciation,” summarized one analyst.

All of this action will cause the dollar to depreciate. The Chinese Yuan alone accounts for 20% of the Federal Reserve Bank’s trade-weighted dollar index, and Asia ex-Japan accounts for another 20%. Regardless of the other G4 currencies perform, that means that a conservative 7% annual appreciation in Asia will drive a minimum 3% annual decline in the trade-weighted value of the dollar. Even worse is that this cause a broad loss of confidence in the dollar, driving the dollar lower across-the board. And this doesn’t even aaccount for the multiplier effect that net exporters will no longer need to indiscriminately accumulate dollar-denominated assets. China, itself, has unloaded part of its massive hoard of US Treasury securities for five consecutive months.

The implications for how long-term investors should position themselves are clear. Unfortunately, while further appreciation in the Chinese Yuan is all but guaranteed, achieving exposure to this appreciation is beyond difficult. Neither of the ETFs that claim to represent the Yuan (CNY, CYB) have budged over the last couple years, and they are a poor substitute for the actual thing. In other words, your only chance for exposure is indirectly via Chinese stocks and bonds, which are far from transparent and an extremely dubious investment. Or you could try opening a Chinese Yuan bank account with the Bank of China (which now has branches in the US), but it’s unclear whether you will be able to capture 100% of gains from the Yuan’s appreciation.

Otherwise, emerging market Asia seems like a pretty good proxy. Of course, you need to be aware that even though the Korean Won, Malaysian Ringgit, Thai Baht, New Taiwan Dollar, Indonesian Rupiah, Philippine Peso, etc. will probably at least match the rise in the Yuan, they are imperfect substitutes for the Yuan, since they are driven more by country-specific factors than by association to China.

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The Diminished Case for Chinese Yuan Appreciation


The Chinese yuan has appreciated by more than 27.5% since 2005, when the People’s Bank of China (“PBOC”) formally acceded to international pressure and began to relax the yuan-dollar peg. For China-watchers and economists, that the Yuan will continue to appreciate is thus a given. There is no question of if, but rather of when and to what extent. But what if the prevailing wisdom is wrong? What if the yuan is now fairly valued, and economic fundamentals no longer necessitate a further rise?


Prior to the 2005 revaluation, economists had argued that the yuan (also known as the Chinese RMB) was undervalued by 15% – 40%, and American politicians had used this as a basis for proposing a 27.5% across-the-board tariff on all Chinese imports. Given that the yuan has now appreciated by this exact margin (and by even more when inflation is taken into account), shouldn’t this alone be enough to silence the critics, without even having to look at the picture on the ground? How can Senator Charles Schumer continue to press for further appreciation when the yuan’s rise exceeds his initial demands? Alas, election season is upon us, and we can’t hope to make political sense out of this issue. We can, however, attempt to analyze the economic sense of it.

China manipulates the value of the yuan in order to give a competitive advantage to Chinese exporters, goes the conventional line of thinking. Look no further than the Chinese trade surplus for evidence of this, right? As it turns out, China’s trade surplus is shrinking rapidly. In 2006, it was a whopping 11% of GDP. Last year, it had fallen to 5%, and it is projected by the World Bank to settle below 3% for each of the next two years. Thanks to a first quarter trade deficit – the first in over seven years – China’s trade surplus may account for a negligible portion (~.2%) of GDP growth in 2010.


With this in mind, why would the PBOC even think about allowing the RMB to appreciate further? According to one perspective, the narrowing trade imbalance is only temporary. When commodities prices settle and global demand fully recovers, a wider trade surplus will follow. In fact, the IMF forecasts China’s current surplus will rise to 8% by 2016. As you can see from the chart below (courtesy of The Economist), however, the IMF’s forecasts have proven to be too pessimistic for at least the last three years, and it now has very little credibility. Besides, China’s economy is gradually reorienting itself away from exports and towards domestic spending. As a resident of China, I can certainly attest to this phenomenon, and the last few years has seen an explosion in the number of cars on the road, domestic tourism, and conspicuous consumption.


A better argument for further RMB appreciation comes in the form of inflation. At 5.4%, inflation is officially nearing a 3-year high, and there is evidence that the PBOC already recognizes that allowing the RMB to keep rising represents its best tool for containing this problem. It has already raised banks’ required reserve ratio several times, but there is a limit to what this can accomplish. Meanwhile, the PBOC remains reluctant to raise interest rates because it will invite further “hot-money” inflows (estimated at more than $100 Billion per year, if not much higher) and potentially destabilize the banking sector. By raising the value of the yuan, the PBOC can blunt the impact of rising commodities prices and other inflationary forces.

In fact, some think that the PBOC will quicken the pace of appreciation, a view that as supported by last month’s .9% rise. Others think that a once-off appreciation would be more effective, and is hence more likely. This would not only remove the motivation for further hot-money inflows, but would also reduce the PBOC’s need to continue accumulating foreign exchange reserves. At $3 trillion+ ($1.15 trillion of which are held in US Treasury Securities), these reserves are already a massive headache for policymakers. Merely stating the obvious, PBOC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan has officially called the reserves “really too much.” (It’s worth pointing out that the promotion of the yuan as an international currency is backfiring in some ways, causing the reserves to balloon even faster).

For the record, I think that the Chinese yuan is pretty close to being fairly valued. That might seem like a ridiculous claim to make when Chinese wages and prices are still well below the global average. Consider, however, that the same is true for the majority of emerging market economies, including those that don’t peg their currencies to the dollar. That doesn’t mean that the yuan won’t – or that it shouldn’t – continue to rise. In fact, the PBOC needs to do more to ensure that the Yuan appreciates evenly against all currencies, since most of the yuan’s rise to-date has taken place relative to the US Dollar. It’s merely a commentary that the PBOC is close to fulfilling the promises it has made regarding the yuan, and going forward, I think that observers should expect that its forex policy will be reconfigured to promote domestic macroeconomic policy objectives.

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Record Commodities Prices and the Forex Markets


Propelled by economic recovery and the recent Mideast political turmoil, oil prices have firmly shaken off any lingering credit crisis weakness, and are headed towards a record high. Moreover, analysts are warning that due to certain fundamental changes to the global economy, prices will almost certainly remain high for the foreseeable future. The same goes for commodities. Whether directly or indirectly, the implications for forex market will be significant.


First of all, there is a direct impact on trade, and hence on the demand for particular currencies. Norway, Russia, Saudia Arabia, and a dozen other countries are witnessing record capital inflow expanding current account surpluses. If not for the fact that many of these countries peg their currencies to the Dollar and/or seem to suffer from myriad other issues, there currencies would almost surely appreciate. In fact, the Russian Rouble and Norwegian Krona have both begun to rise in recent months. On the other hand, Canada and Australia (and to a lesser extent, New Zealand) are experiencing rising trade deficits, which shows that their is not an automatic relationship between rising commodity prices and commodity currency strength.

Those countries that are net energy importers could experience some weakness in their currencies, as trade balances move against them. In fact, China just recorded its first quarterly trade deficit in seven years. Instead of viewing this in terms of a shift in economic structure, economists need to understand that this is due in no small part to rising raw materials prices. Either way, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) will probably tighten control over the appreciation of the Chinese Yuan. Meanwhile, the nuclear crisis in Japan is almost certainly going to decrease interest in nuclear power, especially in the short-term. This will cause oil and natural gas prices to rise even further, and magnify the impact on global trade imbalances.

A bigger issue is whether rising commodities prices will spur inflation. With the notable exception of the Fed, all of the world’s Central Banks have now voiced concerns over energy prices. The European Central Bank (ECB), has gone so far as to preemptively raise its benchmark interest rate, even though Eurozone inflation is still quite low. In light of his spectacular failure to anticipate the housing crisis, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is being careful not to offer unambiguous views on the impact of high oil prices. Thus, he has warned that it could translate into decreased GDP growth and higher prices for consumers, but he has stopped short of labeling it a serious threat.

On the one hand, the US economy is undergone some significant structural changes since the last energy crisis, which could mitigate the impact of sustained high prices. “The energy intensity of the U.S. economy — that is, the energy required to produce $1 of GDP — has fallen by 50% since then as manufacturing has moved overseas or become more efficient. Also, the price of natural gas today has stayed low; in the past, oil and gas moved in tandem. And finally, ‘we’re closer to alternative sources of energy for our transportation,’ ” summarized Wharton Finance Professor Jeremy Siegal. From this standpoint, it’s understandable that every $10 increase in the price of oil causes GDP to drop by only .25%.

On the other hand, we’re not talking about a $10 increase in the price of oil, but rather a $50 or even $100 spike. In addition, while industry is not sensitive to high commodity prices, American consumers certainly are. From automobile gasoline to home eating oil to agricultural staples (you know things are bad when thieves are targeting produce!), commodities still represent a big portion of consumer spending. Thus, each 1 cent increase in the price of gas sucks $1 Billion from the economy. “If gas prices increased to $4.50 per gallon for more than two months, it would ‘pose a serious strain on households and could put the entire recovery in jeopardy. Once you get above $5, [there is] probably above a 50% chance that the economy could face a downturn.’ ”

Even if stagflation can be avoided, some degree of inflation seems inevitable. In fact, US CPI is now 2.7%, the highest level in 18 months and rising. It is similarly 2.7% in the Eurozone and Australia, where both Central Banks have started to become more aggressive about tightening monetary policy. In the end, no country will be spared from inflation if commodity prices remain high; the only difference will be one of extent.

Over the near-term, much depends on what happens in the Middle East, since an abatement in political tensions would cause energy prices to ease. Over the medium-term, the focus will be on Central Banks, to see if/how they deal with rising inflation. Will they raise interest rates and withdraw liquidity, or will they wait to act for fear of inhibiting economic recovery? Over the long-term, the pivotal issue is whether economies (especially China) can become less energy intensive or more diversified in their energy consumption.

At the moment, most economies are dangerously exposed, with China and the US topping the list. Russia, Norway, Brazil and a select few others will earn a net benefit from a boom in prices, while most others (notably Australia and Canada) are somewhere in the middle.

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G20 Pressures China, Despite Yuan Appreciation


Since the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) unfixed the Chinese Yuan in June, it has appreciated 4.5%. Moreover, for a handful of reasons, it looks like China will continue allowing the RMB to appreciate at the same steady pace for the foreseeable future. And yet, the international community continue to use China as a scapegoat for all global economic ills, and are pressuring it to stop trying to control the Yuan altogether.


At the recent G20 conference in China, US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner circumvented China’s request to avoid discussing its currency policy: “Flexible exchange rates help countries better absorb shocks and that the tension between flexible currencies and those that are ‘tightly managed’ is ‘the most important problem to solve in the international monetary system today.’ ” Naturally, Chinese officials countered that the Dollar is to blame for the recent financial crisis and the ongoing economic imbalances.

If China was the only country to attempt to control its currency, perhaps the rest of the world would be willing to overlook it and write it off to ideological differences like they do with many of its protectionist economic policies. In this case, however, China’s tight control of the Yuan has spurred many of the countries with which it competes to similarly intervene in forex markets. In the last week alone, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand are all suspected of buying Dollars to hold down their respective currencies. Meanwhile, Brazil is enhancing its capital controls and Japan stands ready to intervene should the Yen spike again.

To quote Secretary Geithner again, “This asymmetry [between nations that intervene and those that don’t] in exchange rate policies creates a lot of tension. It magnifies upward pressure on those emerging-market exchange rates that are allowed to move and where capital accounts are much more open. It intensifies inflation risk in those emerging economies with undervalued exchange rates. And, finally, it generates protectionist pressures.” In short, when one country decides not to play the rules, other countries are quick to catch on. [To be fair, while the US doesn’t intervene directly on behalf of the Dollar, it still deserves some blame for this tension because of QE2 and the like].

If any country appears to be taking these lessons to heart, however, it is China. To combat inflation, it has raised interest rates several times over the last twelve months, including yesterday’s surprise 25 basis point hike. Given that official inflation remains above 5% (and living here, I can tell you that the actual rate is probably 10-20%), the PBOC has no choice but to continue tightening monetary policy if it wishes to avoid social unrest. To counter the inevitable upward pressure on the Yuan, it has taken such measures as prodding Chinese firms to look abroad for acquisition targets. China’s forex policy is designed to serve one very important end: to buttress the competitiveness of its export sector. However, there are early indications that China’s preeminent position as the world’s sweatshop may be about to slide. Anecdotal reports show that manufacturers are unnerved by wage and raw materials inflation, and are uprooting factories. In the short-term, some of this production will move inland from the coast, but even this has its limits. According to Credit Suisse, “Salaries for China’s estimated 150 million migrant workers will rise 20 to 30 percent a year for the next three to five years…’It may take a decade for China to see its export competitiveness erode, but we have seen the beginning of this happening.’ ”

With this in mind, it’s clearly futile for China to continue to focus its economic policy around low-cost, labor-intensive exports. Likewise, it’s ridiculous to continue to artificially depress the Yuan, especially if it’s serious about turning it into a global reserve currency. I think Chinese policymakers recognize this, and I stand by my earlier prediction that the Yuan will maintain a steady pace of appreciation for the foreseeable future.

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Why the Dollar is Here to Stay


In a recent piece published in the WSJ (“Why the Dollar’s Reign Is Near an End“), Berkley Professor Barry Eichengreen declared that the Dollar will soon cease to be the world’s reserve currency. According to Dr. Eichengreen, within 10 years and for various reasons, the Dollar will become one of many reserve currencies, competing for preference with the Euro, Chinese Yuan, Japanese Yen, and Swiss Franc. While Dr. Eichengreen makes some good points, however, I don’t think most of his arguments stand up to scrutiny.

His thesis can be boiled down into a few premises. First of all, he argues that it is fundamentally illogical that oil should be priced in Dollars, and that countries conducting bilateral trade should settle their accounts using Dollars. Dr. Eichengreen is right that this represents the main underpinning of the Dollar. He is wrong to suggest that it will change anytime soon.

That’s because oil ultimately has to be priced in currency. It’s entirely possible that oil exporting countries will band together and decide to price oil in Euros, instead. However, this would mainly be useful as a political tool (albeit a very potent one!) and would serve no economic or risk management purpose whatsoever. If oil were priced in terms of a basket of currencies (such as IMF Special Drawing Rights), it might make oil prices less volatile, but then would require oil exporters to receive 5 (or more!) currencies for their oil instead of one! Finally, the price of oil can and does adjust relative to what happens in forex markets. When the Dollar declined in 2007, oil prices skyrocketed commensurately in order to compensate exporters.

The same largely applies to bilateral trade. While it makes sense for two countries with stable currencies (such as Korea and Japan, for example) to use one of their currencies as the main unit for trade, the same cannot be said for countries with more volatile currencies. For example, if Argentina and Israel are trading, one country would be inherently dissatisfied if trade were denominated either in Shekels of Pesos. When bills are settled in Dollars, however, it is easy and economical for both countries to simply convert those Dollars into currencies which may have more utility for them. As with oil, it’s possible that some countries will decide that it makes more sense to settle trade in Euros instead of Dollars, but again, I don’t see what purpose this would serve and any such decision would probably be politically motivated.

Second, Dr. Eichengreen points out that changes in technology have made it easy to instantly calculate exchange rates and easily convert currency. While I think this point is well-taken, I think people enjoy having a common base currency, if only for psychological reasons. Ultimately, this point is irrelevant because it has very little bearing on the supply and demand for particular currencies.

Third, he argues that the Euro and Chinese Yuan both represent latent threats to the Dollar’s preeminence. Again, he’s both right and wrong. The Euro already represents a viable alternative to the Dollar. It’s economy is reasonably strong, its monetary policy is sensible, its capital markets are deep and liquid. On the other hand, it’s being held back by perennial fears about the a Euro breakup, and the fact that the sum of 20 separate parts is not the same as the whole. Since the EU doesn’t issue sovereign debt, risk-averse investors will be limited to buying German/French/etc. bonds, which are always going to be more less liquid and more risky than US Treasury Securities. Besides, you can see from the chart below that the US economy has actually been growing faster than the Eurozone for the last 30 years.


As for China, I expounded in a recent post about how unlikely it is that the Yuan will seriously rival the Dollar anytime soon. While China certainly has plenty of cachet and expanding vehicles for investment, its capital markets remain much too primitive and opaque for Central Banks and risk-averse investors. Most importantly, the structure of China’s economy is such that foreign institutions simply don’t have the opportunity to accumulate Yuan in massive quantities. Simply, the supply is too small. In fact, the Asian Development Bank forecasts that the Yuan will constitute a mere 3-12% of international reserves by 2035. That doesn’t sound very threatening.

Dr. Eichengreen’s final point is that the Dollar’s safe haven status has been compromised. First of all, this is old news. The Yen is already a – if not the – preeminent safe haven currency, thus headlines like “Safe-Haven Yen Gains As Radiation Concern Mounts” that take irony to a whole new level. The same goes for the Swiss Franc. However, any concerns that investors have about the Dollar must necessarily also be projected onto the Yen, Euro, and Pound. All of these currencies face current or looming fiscal crises and slowing economic growth. While investors might diversify into other countries, they’re not going to suddenly dump the Dollar in favor of the Euro.

In short, it makes sense that a currency that represents 80% (out of a total of 200%) of all forex transactions and more than 60% of global reserves but only accounts for 25% of GDP, should experience a decline of some sort of decline in popularity. Over the next 50 years, the Dollar will gradually cede share to other currencies. But 10 Years? Give me a break.

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Chinese Yuan: Further Appreciation is Inevitable


Relatively speaking, the Chinese Yuan has been on a tear, appreciating ~1% in a little more than a month. One has to wonder whether this is a concession by the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) that its exchange rate regime is not viable or whether its instead a political sop. The question on everyone’s minds, of course, is, will it continue?


Countries around the world have continued to criticize China for its unwillingness to allow the Yuan to appreciate. At last week’s G20 meeting, US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke separately took aim. “They’re still heavily leaning against the forces trying to push their currency up,” complained Geithner. “The maintenance of undervalued currencies by some countries has contributed to a pattern of global spending that is unbalanced and unsustainable,” intimated Bernanke.

However, it was only when fellow emerging market economies – namely Brazil – voiced similar concerns, that China was finally forced to concede partial defeat. It signed on to an official G20 communique that declared that exchange rates and current account balances would be used to determine whether a particular country’s policies were contributing to global economic imbalances. Alas, the Communique (and the G20, for that matter) is deliberately vague and unenforceable; it’s more symbolic than anything else.

Still, China is not one to take its cues – especially on issues as important as the Yuan – from the international community. That the Yuan is now appreciating at a steady clip (~5% in annualized terms) is almost certainly being driven more by pragmatism than politics. Specifically, it represents the most effective tool to combat inflation, which has already breached 5% and continues to tick higher.

China critics forget that China’s fixed exchange rate regime is not a free lunch. While it almost certainly gives the export sector a competitive advantage, it also deprives the PBOC of the ability to conduct monetary policy and is inherently inflationary. That’s because the policy necessitates soaking up all of the foreign currency that enters the country (hence the ~$3 Trillion in forex reserves) and instead printing new Chinese Yuan and putting into circulation. When you combine a 15% annual increase in the money supply with soaring economic growth, a surge in bank lending, real estate boom, and rising commodity prices, the inevitable result is inflation. The country’s economic officials have responded by tightening credit and raising interest rates, but these will ultimately fail as long as the Fed’s QE2 program continues to send US Dollars into China.

In addition to allowing the Yuan to slowly appreciate, China has also moved to make the Yuan more convertible. This has the dual advantages of making China less reliant on the US Dollar and on relieving upward pressure on the Yuan. More of its trade is being settled directly in Chinese Yuan. Chinese companies are being encouraged to invest outside of China, and foreign companies inside of China are gradually being permitted to issue Yuan-denominated bonds, rather than import Dollars to fund new investments.

It appears that all of these measures are actually starting to have some impact. China’s trade surplus is shrinking. The IMF has suggested that the Chinese Yuan could one day be an international reserve currency and could be a component of its Special Drawing Rights (SDR) currency. Less hot money (distinct from investment inflows) is finding its way into China.

Unfortunately, most analysts are skeptical that it will last. Futures markets reflect a modest 2.5% appreciation against the Dollar over the next 12 months. I’m personally anticipating a rise of 4-5%, though I think it will ultimately be tweaked depending on inflation.

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Chinese Yuan Continues to Tick Up


At the very end of 2010, the Chinese Yuan managed to cross the important psychological level of 6.60 USD/CNY, reaching the highest level since 1993. Moreover, analysts are unanimous in their expectation that the Chinese Yuan will continue rising in 2011, disagreeing only on the extent. Since the Yuan’s value is controlled tightly  by Chinese policymakers, forecasting the Yuan requires an in-depth look at the surrounding politics.

While American politicians chide it for not doing enough, the Chinese government nonetheless deserves some credit. It has allowed the Yuan to appreciate nearly 25% in total, which should be just enough to satisfy the 25-40% that was initially demanded. Meanwhile, over the last five years, China’s trade surplus has fallen dramatically, to 3.3% of GDP in 2010, compared to a peak of 11% in 2007. In fact, if you don’t include trade with the US, its surplus was basically nil this year.

Therein lies the problem. Despite the fact that prices in Chinese exports should have risen 25% (much more if you take inflation and rising wages into account) since 2004, the China/US trade balance has remained virtually unchanged, and its current account surplus has actually widened. As a result, China’s foreign exchange reserves increased by a record amount in 2010, bringing the total to a whopping $2.9 Trillion! (Of course, these reserves should be thought of as a monetary burden rather than pure wealth, to the same extent as the US Federal Reserve Board’s Balance Sheet must one day be wound down. In the context of this discussion, however, that might be a moot point).

Meanwhile, China is trying to slowly tilt the structure of its economy towards domestic consumption, which is increasing by almost every measure. Its Central Bank is also slowly hiking interest rates and raising the reserve requirements of banks in order to put the brakes on economic growth and rein in inflation. Finally, it is trying to encourage internationalization of the Yuan. There now 70,000 Chinese trade companies that are permitted to settle trades in Chinese Yuan. In addition, Bank of China just announced that US customers will be able to open up Yuan-denominated accounts, and the World Bank became the latest foreign entity to issue an RMB-denominated “Dim-Sum Bond.”


There is also evidence that the Chinese Government’s top leadership – with whom the US government directly negotiates – is actually pushing for a faster appreciation of the RMB but that it faces internal opposition. According to the New York Times, “The debate over revaluing the renminbi… has not advanced much partly because of a fight between central bankers who want the currency to rise and ministers and party bosses who want to protect the vast industrial machine that depends on cheap exports for survival.” In fact, the Bank of China (PBOC) recently warned, “Factors such as the country’s trade surplus, foreign direct investment, China’s interest rate gap with Western countries, yuan appreciation expectations, and rising asset prices are likely to persist, drawing funds into the country,” while a senior Chinese lawmaker pushed back that a “rise in the yuan’s value won’t help the country to curb inflation.”

Some analysts expect a big move in the Yuan that corresponds with this week’s US visit by China’s Prime Minister, Hu Jintao. The average call, however, is for a continued, steady rise. “China’s currency will strengthen 4.9 percent to 6.28 by the end of 2011, according to the median estimate of 19 analysts in a Bloomberg survey. That’s over double the 2 percent gain projected by 12-month non-deliverable forwards.” As I wrote in my previous post on the Chinese Yuan, however, it ultimately depends on inflation – whether it keeps rising and if so, how the government chooses to tackle it.

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Emerging Market Currencies in 2011


Emerging market assets/currencies registered some unbelievable gains in 2010 as the global economy emerged from recession and investor risk appetite picked up. In the last few months, however, emerging market currencies gave back some of their gains as the EU sovereign debt crisis flared up and the currency wars began to rage. Given that neither of these uncertainties is likely to be resolved anytime soon, 2011 could be a tumultuous year for emerging markets.

Let’s look at the numbers for emerging markets in 2010. The highlights for currencies were the Malaysian ringgit and Thai baht rose, both of which “rose around 10% against the dollar, to their strongest levels since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. The South African rand was up 14% versus the dollar. It was a minor currency, however, that was the world’s best-performing: Mining-rich Mongolia’s togrog finished the year 15% higher against the dollar.” After being allowed to resume its appreciation, the Chinese Yuan rose by a modest 3.5%.

The J.P. Morgan Emerging Markets Bond Index Global returned a record 11.9% in 2010, to the extent that now trades at a modest 2.5% spread over US Treasury bonds. The standout was probably Argentina, whose sovereign debt returned a whopping 35% over the year. Switching to equities, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index returned 16.4%, handily beating the MSCI World Index, which itself rose by an impressive 9.6%. The individual top performing stock markets in 2010 unsurprisingly were “Frontier markets such as Sri Lanka (+96.0%), Bangladesh (+83.5%), Estonia (+72.6%), Ukraine (+70.2%), the Philippines (+56.7%) and Lithuania (+56.5%).” In total, an estimated $825 Billion in private capital flowed into emerging markets during the year, including $53 Billion into local currency bonds.

Emerging markets took advantage of the surge in investor interest to issue record amount of local currency debt and through a plethora of massive stock IPOs. Still, the intractable rise in currency and asset prices was generally seen as an undesirable trend, and emerging markets took significant steps to counter it. More than a dozen central banks have already intervened directly in currency markets in a bid to hold down their currencies. According to the IMF, “Emerging nations had accumulated $1.2 trillion in currency reserves between the financial crisis’s peak in early 2009 and the third quarter of 2010,” including ~$300 Billion in Asia ex-China. Some countries, such as Brazil – poured $1 Billion a week into forex markets during the height of their intervention campaigns.

Speaking of Brazil, it was also among the first to impose capital controls, in the form of a 6% tax on foreign bond investors. Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia have also imposed capital controls, while Mexico has tapped an IMF credit line, which it can use to “manage the stability of its external balances.” Moreover, these countries collectively won an important victory at the fall meeting of the G20, by receiving formal permission for all of these measures.

Alas, most of these inflows were probably justified by fundamentals, which means that they are more difficult to fight against than if they were merely the product of speculation. For example, “Developing countries expanded at a 7.1 per cent rate, compared with 2.7 per cent in advanced countries.” Moreover, emerging market stocks are trading at an average P/E multiple of 14.5, well below their recent historical average. This means that in spite of impressive performance in 2010, corporate profits are still rising faster than share prices. In addition, yields on emerging market sovereign debt still exceed the yields on comparable debt for western countries, despite being lower risk in some ways.

While most of these trends are expected to persist in 2011, there is one overriding wild card. How emerging markets respond to this issue could determine whether emerging market currencies outperform again in 2011 or whether they sink back to more normal levels. Thanks to stimulative economic and fiscal policies, easy credit, and relatively loose monetary policies, emerging markets recorded phenomenal GDP growth in 2010. The downside has been inflation.

Inflation in Brazil and China, for example, officially exceeds 5%. (The actual rates are almost certainly higher). These countries, and a handful of others, are now in the awkward position of trying to control inflation without stimulating further currency appreciation. If they raise interest rates, economic growth and price growth will almost certainly moderate. By the same token,speculative hot money will probably continue to flow in. If they don’t tighten policy, however, inflation could easily spiral out of control, provoking economic stability and even social unrest. The upside is that real interest rates will turn negative, and their currencies will probably be depreciated by investors.

Most analysts expect emerging market central banks to gradually hike interest rates over the next couple years. For fear of stoking further speculation, however, policy will probably remain somewhat accommodative and will be accompanied by strict capital controls. Meanwhile, economic growth should begin to pick up in the industrialized world, accompanied by a similar tightening of monetary and fiscal policy. As a result, investors will be forced to decide whether risk-adjusted real returns in emerging markets are adequate, and if not, whether to reverse the flow of funds back into the industrialized word.

Emerging Market Currencies in 2011
Emerging market assets/currencies registered some unbelievable gains in 2010 as the global economy emerged from recession and investor risk appetite picked up. In the last few months, however, emerging market currencies gave back some of their gains as the EU sovereign debt crisis flared up and the currency wars began to rage. Given that neither of these uncertainties is likely to be resolved in the near future, 2011 could be a tumultuous year for emerging markets.
Let’s look at the numbers for emerging markets in 2010. The highlights for currencies were the Malaysian ringgit and Thai baht rose, both of which “rose around 10% against the dollar, to their strongest levels since the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s. The South African rand was up 14% versus the dollar. It was a minor currency, however, that was the world’s best-performing: Mining-rich Mongolia’s togrog finished the year 15% higher against the dollar.” After being allowed to resume its appreciation, the Chinese Yuan rose by a modest 3.5%.
The J.P. Morgan Emerging Markets Bond Index Global returned a record 11.9% in 2010, to the extent that now trades at a modest 2.5% spread over US Treasury bonds. The standout was probably Argentina, whose sovereign debt returned a whopping 35% over the year. Switching to equities, the MSCI Emerging Markets Index returned 16.4%, handily beating the MSCI World Index, which itself rose by an impressive 9.6%. The individual top performing stock markets in 2010 unsurprisingly were “Frontier markets such as Sri Lanka (+96.0%), Bangladesh (+83.5%), Estonia (+72.6%), Ukraine (+70.2%), the Philippines (+56.7%) and Lithuania (+56.5%).” In total, an estimated $825 Billion in private capital flowed into emerging markets during the year, including $53 Billion into currency bonds.
Emerging markets took advantage of the surge in investor interest to issue record amount of local currency debt and through a plethora of massive stock IPOs. Still, the intractable rise in currency and asset prices was generally seen as an undesirable trend, and emerging markets took significant steps to counter it. More than a dozen central banks have already intervened directly in currency markets in a bid to hold down their currencies. According to the IMF, “Emerging nations had accumulated $1.2 trillion in currency reserves between the financial crisis’s peak in early 2009 and the third quarter of 2010,” including ~$300 Billion in Asia ex-China. Some countries, such as Brazil – poured $1 Billion a week into forex markets during the height of their intervention campaigns.
Speaking of Brazil, it was also among the first to impose capital controls, in the form of a 6% tax on foreign bond investors. Thailand, South Korea, Taiwan and Indonesia have also imposed capital controls, while Mexico has tapped an IMF credit line, which it can use to “manage the stability of its external balances.” Moreover, these countries collectively won an important victory at the fall meeting of the G20, by receiving formal permission for all of these measures.
Unfortunately for emerging markets, most of these inflows were probably justified by fundamentals, which means that they are more difficult to fight against than if they were merely the product of speculation. For example, “Developing countries expanded at a 7.1 per cent rate, compared with 2.7 per cent in advanced countries.” Moreover, emerging market stocks are trading at an average P/E multiple of 14.5, well below their recent historical average. This means that in spite of impressive performance in 2010, corporate profits are still rising faster than share prices. In addition, yields on emerging market sovereign debt still exceed the yields on comparable debt for western countries, despite being lower risk in some ways.
While most of these trends are expected to persist in 2011, there is one overriding wild card. How emerging markets respond to this issue could determine whether emerging market currencies outperform again in 2011 or whether they sink back to more normal levels. Thanks stimulative economic and fiscal policies, easy credit, and relatively loose monetary policies, emerging markets recorded phenomenal GDP growth in 2010. The downside has been inflation.
Inflation in Brazil and China, for example, officially exceeds 5%. (The actual rates are almost certainly higher). These countries, and a handful of others, are now in the awkward position of trying to control inflation without stimulating further currency appreciation. In other words, if they raise interest rates, economic growth and price growth will almost certainly moderate. By the same token, speculative hot money will probably continue to flow in. If they don’t tighten policy, however, inflation could easily spiral out of control, provoking economic stability and even social unrest. The upside is that real interest rates will turn negative, and their currencies will probably be depreciated by investors.
Most analysts expect emerging market central banks to gradually hike interest rates over the next couple years. For fear of stoking further speculation, however, policy will probably remain somewhat accommodative and will be accompanied by strict capital controls. Meanwhile, economic growth should begin to pick up in the industrialized world, accompanied by a similar tightening of monetary and fiscal policy. As a result, investors will be forced to decide whether risk-adjusted real returns in emerging markets are adequate, and whether to reverse the flow of funds into emerging markets.

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A Return to the Gold Standard?


In my last post, I explored the possibility that the role of the Chinese Yuan (CNY) will expand to the point that it could rival – or even overtake – the US Dollar as the world’s preeminent reserve currency. Ultimately, I concluded that the constraints on widespread foreign ownership of CNY assets are too great, and that as a result, the Dollar’s position is safe for the time being. What about the notion that all currencies are doomed? In this case, the biggest threat to the US Dollar won’t come from China, but rather from gold.

This possibility is no longer hypothetical. James Grant (of the eponymous Grant’s Interest Rate Observer) has for many years tried to advance the case for a return to the Gold Standard. In a much-discussed editorial in the NY Times, Grant reiterated the idea that Central Banker are increasingly out of touch with economic reality, and lack any checks on their ability to print money and debase their respective currencies. Grant singles out the Fed for its non-stop quantitative easing programs, which could lead to hyper-inflation and foment additional asset bubbles. At the very least, it will cause the Dollar to lose even more of its value.

Grant’s editorial coincided perfectly (perhaps deliberately) with a proposal by Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, to reform the global economic system, with the goal of reducing economic imbalances. While most of Zoellick’s ideas are common-sense, his proposal to “build a co-operative monetary system that reflects emerging economic conditions.” and “consider employing gold as an international reference point of…currency values” stood out. While his comments created a veritable firestorm, they were grounded firmly in the reality that gold prices are rising and faith in the current fiat monetary system is declining.

The theoretical advantages and disadvantages of the gold standard have been mooted ad nauseum, and I don’t want to rehash all of them here. In sum, a gold standard is believed to be promote long-term price stability, eliminate hyper-inflation, a check on government debt issuance, and a transfer monetary power from Central Banks to the people (via the markets). Downsides include short-term price volatility, a heightened possibility of deflation, and the repudiation of modern monetary policy. Given the fact that paper currency in circulation vastly exceeds the supply of gold, a transition to the gold standard would be difficult to implement and would probably cause a substantial rise in the price of gold.

Personally, I’m not convinced that a return to the gold standard would promote economic/financial stability any more than the fiat money system. For example, just as large financial institutions dominate the current system, so they would be likely to dominate any other system, leading to the same lack of transparency and democracy. In addition, gold can also be lent out (with interest), leading to a similar propensity for asset bubbles and economic imbalances of every kind.

Just like currencies have relative value today (in terms of other currencies, commodities, assets, labor, etc.), so does gold. In that sense, saying seven units of gold is enough to buy a house is not really that different from saying it costs 10 units of paper currency to buy that same house. For instance, if Chinese producers charge 1 gold coin for their widgets while American producers charge 2, it will still result in a trade imbalance that will only correct when the Chinese standard of living catches up to the US standard of living.

Finally, gold is arbitrary. Why not a platinum standard or an oil standard? Based on the scarcity of those resources, prices would vary accordingly, much as they do under the paper currency system. Not to mention that gold is incredibly unwieldy, which means that it would be digitalized and used electronically just like paper currencies.

You could argue that this is actually a benefit of the gold standard, since it would be compatible with the current economic system, but at least it would lead to financial stability. Maybe I’m in denial like Ben Bernanke, but I just don’t see gold as the solution.  Asset bubbles inflate, and then they collapse. Economic imbalances will persist for as long as they are allowed to. If emerging market exporters get tired of receiving Dollars for their wares, then they will stop accepting it, the Dollar’s value will crash, and the US economy will have to rebalance itself. In a perfect world, there would be no irrational exuberance. In reality, the current system will persist, and life will go on.

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Chinese Yuan Will Not Be Reserve Currency?


In a recent editorial reprinted in The Business Insider (Here’s Why The Yuan Will Never Be The World’s Reserve Currency), China expert Michael Pettis argued forcefully against the notion that the Chinese Yuan will be ever be a global reserve currency on par with the US Dollar. By his own admission, Pettis seeks to counter the claim that China’s rise is inevitable.

The core of Pettis’s argument is that it is arithmetically unlikely – if not impossible – that the Chinese Yuan will become a reserve currency in the next few decades. He explains that in order for this to happen, China would have to either run a large and continuous current account deficit, or foreign capital inflows into China would have to be matched by Chinese capital outflows.” Why is this the case? Simply, a reserve currency must necessarily offer (foreign) institutions ample opportunity to accumulate it.

China Trade Surplus 2009 - 2010
However, as Pettis points out, the structure of China’s economy is such that foreigners don’t have such an opportunity. Basically, China has run a current account/trade surplus, which has grown continuously over the last decade. During that time, its Central Bank has accumulated more than $2.5 Trillion in foreign exchange reserves in order to prevent the RMB from appreciating. Foreign Direct Investment, on the other hand, averages 2% of GDP and is declining, not to mention that “a significant share of those inflows may actually be mainland money round-tripped to take advantage of capital and tax regulations.”

For this to change, foreigners would need to have both a reason and the opportunity to hold RMB assets. The reason would come from a reversal in China’s balance of trade, and the use of RMB to pay for the excess of imports over exports, which would naturally imply a willingness of foreign entities to accept RMB. The opportunity would come in the form of deeper capital markets, a complete liberalization of the exchange rate regime (full-convertibility of the RMB), and the elimination of laws which dictate how foreigners can invest/lend in China. This would likewise an imply a Chinese government desire for greater foreign ownership.

China FDI 2009-2010

How likely is this to happen? According to Pettis, not very. China’s financial/economic policy are designed both to favor the export sector and to promote access to cheap capital. In practice, this means that interest rates must remain low, and that there is little impetus behind the expansion of domestic consumption. Given that this has been the case for almost 30 years now, this could prove almost impossible to change. For the sake of comparison, consider that despite two “lost decades,” Japan nonetheless continues to promote its export sector and maintains interest rates near 0%.

Even if the Chinese economy continues to expand and re-balances itself in the process (a dubious possibility), Pettis estimates that it would still need to increase the rate of foreign capital inflows to almost 10% of GDP. If economic growth slows to a more sustainable level and/or it continues to run a sizable trade surplus, this figure would rise to perhaps 20%. In this case, Pettis concedes, “we are also positing…a radical change in the nature of ownership and governance in China, as well as a radical redrawing of the role of the central and local governments in the local economy.”

So there you have it. The political/economic/financial structure of China is such that it would be arithmetically very difficult to increase foreign accumulation of RMB assets to the extent that the RMB would be a contender for THE global reserve currency. For this to change, China would have to embrace the kind of reforms that go way beyond allowing the RMB to fluctuate, and strike at the very core of the CCP’s stranglehold on power in China.

If that’s what it will take for the RMB to become a fully international currency, well, then it’s probably too early to be having this conversation. Perhaps that’s why the Asian Development Bank, in a recent paper, argued in favor of modest RMB growth: “sharing from about 3% to 12% of international reserves by 2035.” This is certainly a far cry from the “10 years” declared by Russia’s finance minister and tacitly supported by Chinese economic policymakers.

The implications for the US Dollar are clear. While it’s possible that a handful of emerging currencies (Brazilian Real, Indian Rupee, Russian Ruble, etc.) will join the ranks of the international currencies, none will have enough force to significantly disrupt the status quo. When you also take into account the economic stagnation in Japan and the UK, as well as the political/fiscal problems in the EU, it’s more clear than ever that the Dollar’s share of global reserves in one (or two or three) decades will probably be only slightly diminished from its current share.

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