China has bankrolled its huge reserves by effectively requiring the country’s entire banking sector, which is state-controlled, to take nearly one-fifth of its deposits and hand them to the central bank. The central bank, in turn, has used the money to buy foreign bonds.
Now the central bank is rapidly reducing this requirement and pushing banks to lend more money in China instead.
At the same time, three new trends mean that fewer dollars are pouring into China — so the government has fewer dollars to buy American bonds.
The first, little-noticed trend is that the monthly pace of foreign direct investment in China has fallen by more than a third since the summer. Multinationals are hoarding their cash and cutting back on construction of new factories.
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The second trend is that the combination of a housing bust and a two-thirds fall in the Chinese stock market over the last year has led many overseas investors — and even some Chinese — to begin quietly to move money out of the country, despite stringent currency controls.
So much Chinese money has poured into Hong Kong, which has its own internationally convertible currency, that the territory announced Wednesday that it had issued a record $16.6 billion worth of extra currency last month to meet demand.
A third trend that may further slow the flow of dollars into China is the reduction of its huge trade surpluses.
China’s trade surplus set another record in November, $40.1 billion. But because prices of Chinese imports like oil are starting to recover while demand remains weak for Chinese exports like consumer electronics, most economists expect China to run average trade surpluses this year of less than $20 billion a month.
That would give China considerably less to spend abroad than the $50 billion a month that it poured into international financial markets — mainly American bond markets — during the first half of 2008.
“The pace of foreign currency flows into China has to slow,” and therefore the pace of China’s reinvestment of that foreign currency in overseas bonds will also slow, said Dariusz Kowalczyk, the chief investment officer at SJS Markets Ltd., a Hong Kong securities firm.
Two officials of the People’s Bank of China, the nation’s central bank, said in separate interviews that the government still had enough money available to buy dollars to prevent China’s currency, the yuan, from rising. A stronger yuan would make Chinese exports less competitive.
For a combination of financial and political reasons, the decline in China’s purchases of dollar-denominated assets may be less steep than the overall decline in its purchases of foreign assets.
Many Chinese companies are keeping more of their dollar revenue overseas instead of bringing it home and converting it into yuan to deposit in Chinese banks.
Treasury data from Washington also suggests the Chinese government might be allocating a higher proportion of its foreign currency reserves to the dollar in recent weeks and less to the euro. The Treasury data suggests China is buying more Treasurys and fewer bonds from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac, with a sharp increase in Treasurys in October.
But specialists in international money flows caution against relying too heavily on these statistics. The statistics mostly count bonds that the Chinese government has bought directly, and exclude purchases made through banks in London and Hong Kong; with the financial crisis weakening many banks, the Chinese government has a strong incentive to buy more of its bonds directly than in the past.
The overall pace of foreign reserve accumulation in China seems to have slowed so much that even if all the remaining purchases were Treasurys, the Chinese government’s overall purchases of dollar-denominated assets will have fallen, economists said.
China’s leadership is likely to avoid any complete halt to purchases of Treasurys for fear of appearing to be torpedoing American chances for an economic recovery at a vulnerable time, said Paul Tang, the chief economist at the Bank of East Asia here.
“This is a political decision,” he said. “This is not purely an investment decision.”