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Friday, 8 June 2012

Goodbye to BRICS?

The economies of the much talked-about BRICS countries are crumbling.  This was the headline in a post this week in the FT blog, Beyond Brics (which has these emerging economies as its focus).  Perhaps for the first time in a long while, disappointing economic news came out this week for each economy in the club first identified by Goldman Sachs' Jim O'Neill in 2001 (and formally launched in 2009).  For China, significant attention was paid to Thursday's unexpected interest rate cut by the central bank, the first since 2008.  Despite initial positive reactions, concerns were later raised that a) Chinese authorities would not have the scope to conduct loosening on the scale necessary or similar to the stimulus in 2008 (or if it did it could be detrimental) and b) that the rate cut may in fact have been driven by more serious concerns of slowdown which may be revealed by monthly production data, to be released this weekend.

Pumping in cash
Prior to the interest rate cut, the methods of stimulus were in focus with many concerned that some of the excesses of the 2008 stimulus be avoided.  Attention was paid to the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), a bureaucratic body which approves many large-scale development projects and had gone into overdrive in 2008/9.  Just how rapidly the NDRC rubber-stamped big ticket projects then was studied by Victor Shih (discussed in a forum last year, link here).  Meanwhile Victor noted on his twitter feed that the NDRC had also recently approved a "bad-ass project to artificially influence weather in NE China" (announcement here).

The NDRC has also approved several large steel projects, at a time when the sector is unprofitable.  As discussed with steel companies, the concern is not only that stimulus financing could be misallocated to inefficient projects which lose money (and result in increasing non-performing bank loans), but also that money provided (for bricks and mortar purposes) may be diverted into further lending and speculation.  Recent shorting of the stock of construction machinery maker Zoomlion (listed on the Shenzen and Hong Kong exchanges) has exposed the ingenuity of some operators with suggestions that even some of its concrete mixers may have been acquired to be used as collateral for further lending.

One development project which needs funding
Business as usual?
Meanwhile Chinese officials do seem to be seeking to assert more control over information in the financial sector.  Recent Wall Street Journal articles gave some interesting details about measures which have been viewed sceptically by foreign investors and regulators, including requirements for greater localisation of foreign accounting firms and a recent decision at one of the key repositories of data on Chinese companies, the State Administration of Industry and Commerce, to significantly restrict access to its records (which may have been related to the fact that these records were used by many of the foreign analysts who short-sold stocks of Chinese companies in the last 2 years).  In contrast, problems of oversight remain in the banking sector, where implementation of the Basel III banking reforms have been further delayed to commence in 2013 and the executive vice president of the Agricultural Bank of China (one of the large, listed pillar banks of the Chinese economy) was detained on corruption charges at the end of May.

Perspectives on the Chinese currency
As mentioned previously, a bit more coverage of the Chinese currency is overdue- a topic which can be a little confusing simply by the fact that it has several denominations (offshore/onshore) and two interchangeable titles in reports - Renminbi/yuan (with the latter being the unit of denomination) as well as the nickname of the "redback".  Until 2009, there was not much to say about the Renminbi except that it was in a fixed and then managed float, and was undervalued against the US dollar.  With US pressure and liberalisation measures, the value of the Renminbi has started to change recently.

Some background to note - one of the reasons China was reluctant to allow a flexible Renminbi rate was fear of "Plaza" - fear that the Renminbi could appreciate rapidly in the same manner as the Japanese Yen did after the coordinated action of central banks to devalue the US dollar in 1985 (pursuant to the Plaza Accord).  Many view the appreciation as a key causative factor in the asset bubble which triggered the collapse of the Japanese economy and the subsequent slow growth in the 1990's referred to as the "lost decade".  In China's case, the fear is that a rapid appreciation of the Renminbi (which could start upon a free float) could eat into China's export economy and threaten jobs and social harmony quite significantly.  From the US perspective, similar to 1985 position against the Yen, the undervalued Renminbi has been a key cause in the large US trade deficit with China and allowing it to float would cause an appreciation (and dollar depreciation) that would give a boost to US exporters and shrink the enormous imbalances with China (in particular the People's Republic's gargantuan holdings of US Treasuries).

While most commentators viewed a simple appreciation as neither feasible nor a solution, the policy background has become more complicated.  In particular:

i) Policy makers have favoured gradual liberalisation or "internationalisation" to diversify China's reserve holdings away from US dollars and to open up the Renminbi to use in international trade settlement and as an international reserve currency.  From 2009, measures were adopted to allow greater international use of the Renminbi, befitting China's status as a pre-eminent trading nation.  The sort of thinking underlying this move is outlined in a recent FT article.

b) A consequence of the measures which have resulted in greater circulation of the Renminbi is increasing complexity of Renminbi valuation.  In particular there are greater opportunities for capital flight and arbitrage between onshore and offshore Renminbi (including those involving stockpiled metal as collateral).  As this insightful Beyond Brics piece notes having looked at recent data from global payments network SWIFT one type of arbitrage that appears to be happening frequently is as follows:

A Chinese company places renminbi on deposit with a mainland bank, earning an interest rate of about 3.5 per cent. The company then obtains a long-dated, renminbi-denominated letter of credit from the bank, ostensibly to pay for a shipment of goods from its own subsidiary in Hong Kong.
In turn, the Hong Kong subsidiary takes the letter of credit to a local bank and uses it as collateral to obtain a US dollar loan at a lower interest rate than those available on the mainland. In many cases, the company would also use a currency derivative to eliminate the foreign exchange risk. The end result: the company has captured the difference between onshore and offshore interest rates, less banker’s fees.
and worringly:
If international trade in the renminbi is largely driven by financial arbitrage, as the extraordinary use of letters of credit implies, then Beijing’s plan to internationalise the renminbi is not exactly going according to plan.

Likewise all is not going according to plan in the offshore "dim sim" bond market where foreign companies issue bonds in Renminbi in Hong Kong (encouraging demand and use for the Renminbi denominated securities) - as noted in May, yields on dim sum bonds have been rising making it cheaper to raise finance in other currencies and markets.  And as mentioned previously, Victor Shih and others have found the impact of capital flight (on flows and valuation) by connected elites could be significant.

c) But perhaps, most significantly, the mechanism by which China recycled US dollar export earnings into reserves (and managed its currency flows domestically) is breaking down, primarily because of an export slowdown plus Europe fears and greater reluctance of exporters to settle their dollar deposits.  A detailed study out by Nomura is described here tracks the slowdown in the accumulation of dollar reserves.  The Nomura team conclude on one aspect - the slowing of the flood of US dollars gives the People's Bank of China more scope to act on monetary policy.  However, if this pattern is sustained, the other effect could be devaluation and/or a need to sell down reserves.  An ING note discussed yesterday concluded that signals to this effect were temporary but this may not be so.  Looking at April data:
The data reinforced fears that the economy was on a slippery slope to a hard landing via an overvalued currency and capital flight..
In the least the note did conclude that the Renminbi was overvalued at the moment (as did the IMF, in a shift from its recent position).  Perhaps a good concluding example of uncertainty with the Renminbi's prospects is seen in this article about a Renminbi deposit account offered by the Bank of China's New York branch.  Set up as part of the internationalisation so that foreigners can hold Renminbi, there is a question though whether they would wish to do so if there is a chance of devaluation?

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