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The Foreign Policy of China's Reserves and the Trade Bubble

This is a follow-up post to “The Simple Guide….,” involving a deeper look at China. I’m going to use Brad Setser’s post from Saturday, entitled China has more to worry about than its Treasury holdings. Brad writes:

Remember, that Treasuries account for only about half of China’s US portfolio. China likely has about $750 billion Treasuries. But it also has around $500 billion of Agencies. It could have about $150 billion of US corporate bonds. It probably has invested in a range of money market funds, not just reserve primary. And China had about $100 billion in US stocks in the middle of 2008 — though those stocks are now worth substantially less.

Wen’s comments, at least to me, seemed to echo the comments that a host of anonymous Chinese officials made to the Wall Street Journal in January. Their main concern? That the US government wouldn’t backstop bonds that China thought had the implicit backing of the US government. China wouldn’t mind at all if the US provided a full faith and credit guarantee to the Agencies — or to any other financial institution that China had lent money to — even if this meant a larger US government debt stock

Remember that a good chunk of those “corporate bonds” are likely to be bank bonds. The implication is that China doesn’t want to take a loss if a bank is nationalized or goes bankrupt. Isn’t that a surprise?

Brad then goes on to say:

No one forced China’s government to hold a $1.95 trillion reserve portfolio — a total that rises to over $2300 billion if the PBoC’s $184 billion in other foreign assets, the CIC’s foreign portfolio and the State banks foreign portfolio is added to the total. China’s huge foreign portfolio is function of China’s own decision not to allow its currency to appreciate even as China’s current account surplus soared and private money poured into China.

China long viewed its massive reserves with pride, as a symbol of China’s strength. But they are also a burden. In some sense, China is only now waking up to the costs of holding far more reserves than in really needs. China is likely to take losses on China’s reserves — as it in effect overpaid for foreign assets to hold its currency down. If it invests its portfolio unwisely, it may also take additional losses. That in some sense is the bill for using the exchange rate to support China’s exports; it is a cost that China’s taxpayers will have to pick up. I have long argued that the benefits (rapid export growth, lots of investment in the export sector) associated with China’s exchange rate policy were front-loaded while the costs (export dependence, losses on China’s reserves) were back-loaded. The bill for subsidizing China’s exports during the boom is just now coming due.

The housing bubble was a product of the credit bubble, and the credit bubble was a product of the trade bubble. Chickens are coming home to roost, and the only good way to get out is by collective global action.

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