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    China Business
     Mar 18, 2009
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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

Continued 1 2  

The great escape
(Mar 13,'09)

A dangerous balance (Mar 13,'09)

(Jul 30,'08)



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