Déjà vu

Last August, and again earlier this year, Chinese devaluation and the threat of a more serious decline in the Yuan (combined with USD strength) sowed the seeds of brief periods of significant drawdown in Global equity markets: the Global Index fell 12% in the month after last August’s trivial devaluation, and almost 14% in the weeks leading up to mid-February, when Yuan devaluation fears again re-surfaced.

Despite net outflows continuing apace through the first quarter – almost matching the entire outflow in the first 11 months of last year – and heavy Central Bank intervention, together with some tightening of controls at the margin, the Yuan actually strengthened in a move (vindictive, some speculators might say!) designed to head off speculative pressures and provide reassurance that all is well in the East. Another $1trillion in loans helped, but that’s neither here nor there in China these days. Move along, nothing to see here…

But we know differently. We know that you simply cannot grow credit $2.5 trillion annually with no corresponding nominal income growth; we know you cannot add capacity where there is already too much capacity; and that you cannot grow bank balance sheets at a rate annually equivalent to 40% of nominal GDP. Not if you want to keep your exchange rate fixed, you can’t.

And that’s where recent developments are interesting, the Chinese officially target the Yuan against the CFETs index – against a basket of 13 currencies (about one quarter USD weighted) and the Yuan has depreciated 1.3% since the end of March (5.9% year to date). From the mid-January low, the Yuan appreciated 2.1% against the USD through the end of March but has depreciated 1.2% versus the USD subsequently. They’ve unwound half the appreciation of the prior weeks.

Quietly, and under the radar, the Chinese have been letting the Yuan slide against the CFETs basket and, probably more importantly for the market, against USD.

Graph 1

This USD strength is seen in the broad USD appreciation in recent weeks: the next chart shows the percentage of currencies in the US effective exchange rate basket that the US has appreciated against in the last 20 days: the USD has appreciated against 80% of the currencies in its own basket.

Graph 2

We are seeing broad USD strength, broad Yuan weakness and, significantly, the Chinese quietly letting the Yuan slide against the USD.

This feels like déjà vu from our standpoint.

The global economy is already at low altitude, the median annual growth rate in our broad national sample is just 1.9% with over half growing less than 2% annually, and appears to be losing speed, again over half have growth slowing. Another round of Yuan/USD weakness into that mix is likely to precipitate just the same reaction as we saw last summer and earlier this year. Perhaps it’s time to seek out that tin hat again…

Less than meets the eye…

When is policy easing not much of policy easing? In China.

The Chinese cut the prime rate and the reserve requirement for banks last week by 0.25% and 0.5% respectively.

That brings the rate cut to 1.25% for the year and the reserves requirement cut to 2.5%.

On face value, this is quite an aggressive move after a 2% devaluation in the exchange rate a few months ago.

However, in our view, there is far less to the easing than meets the eye.

Here’s why:

The deposit base of Chinese financial institutions is approximately $20 trillion. Up to the end of September, the reserve ratio (RR) cut will have released about $407 billion of liquidity into the system. This combined with an incremental $105 billion coming from last week’s cut gives a year-to-date injection of approximately $512 billion.

However, as the following chart (October’s reserve data is not yet available, this data only goes through end of September and thus does not include the impact of last week’s RR cut) shows, in the period through the end of September the central bank lost $329 billion of foreign exchange reserves as capital flowed out of the country.


A loss of reserves represents a loss of domestic liquidity that must be offset against the RR cut to see the proper extent of liquidity injections from the central bank. Quite clearly, in the first nine months of the year 80% of the People’s Bank of China’s (PBOC) liquidity injections from RR cuts flowed straight out of the door; just about $80 billion of liquidity appears to have been injected net from a relatively swift policy easing. That amount is actually irrelevant in a $10 trillion economy under such banking system stress. It is almost certain that reserves declined again in October, probably offsetting more than half of that month’s RR liquidity release.

Moreover, with the GDP deflator and the negative producer price inflation, the nominal prime lending rate has not declined at a pace to even match the price deflation, leaving real lending rates higher than they were at the start of the year.

In addition, despite the devaluation, the real effective exchange rate is also higher over the last twelve months and since the beginning of the year.

All in all, less than meets the eye when you look at the true nature of Chinese monetary policy. Higher real rates, a higher effective exchange rate and a trivial increase in domestic liquidity. Why might that be so?

Well one reason, perhaps, is that the PBOC is trying to fight two fires with one extinguisher. The capital outflow puts downward pressure on the yuan such that the PBOC must defend it if it is to maintain the dollar currency peg. It needs high real interest rates to hold capital in, but the consequence of higher real interest rates for horribly leveraged domestic corporates on wafer thin (if any) margins are painful. It appears that the rate cuts and the RR cuts are intended to show willingness to support the economy under stress without also compromising the peg.

As always, something must give. Will the Chinese allow the system to fail for the sake of the peg? No, we don’t think so. It reinforces our view that the yuan will be devalued significantly in coming quarters. The paradox is that the more they cut rates… the faster capital flows away, the greater the pressure on the peg and the greater the stress in the system that necessitates even more RR cuts. It’s a vicious cycle where cuts necessitate more cuts; easier to let the yuan weaken.

Of course, when you get almost 30% of your imports from China, and their currency weakens, the Japanese will come under increasing pressure for an even more aggressive QE stance to show that they are doing something, anything, to address a deflation storm heading their way. A weaker yuan also implies a weaker yen.