China’s Currency Chaos—Everything Is Connected

By Valentin Schmid
Valentin Schmid
Valentin Schmid
Valentin Schmid is the business editor of the Epoch Times. His areas of expertise include global macroeconomic trends and financial markets, China, and Bitcoin. Before joining the paper in 2012, he worked as a portfolio manager for BNP Paribas in Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Hong Kong.
January 6, 2016 Updated: January 10, 2016

China is probably looking forward to the new year. A fresh start on Feb. 8, putting all the currency chaos behind.

This may well remain wishful thinking, as events are going from bad to worse—and Jan. 6 is no exception.

The Chinese yuan fell 0.6 percent—this is a lot for a big currency—to 6.55, the lowest level since March 2011. Traders dumped the yuan after China’s central bank fixed its value 0.22 percent lower, another official devaluation.

China first devalued the yuan in August of 2015 and then intervened with great force in the market to keep its value relatively stable, spending $255 billion of its foreign currency reserves by the end of November.

China's foreign exchange reserves as of Nov. 30, 2015. (Bloomberg)
China’s foreign exchange reserves as of Nov. 30, 2015. (Bloomberg)

After the International Monetary Fund included China in its basket of reserve currencies in November as well, Beijing reduced the reserve burn and let the currency drift down gradually.

Beijing also gave the market a fair warning, as it said it would index the value of the yuan against a basket of currencies, not just the U.S. dollar.

The yuan’s value in U.S. dollars dropped in 2015, but it rose against the trade-weighted basket. This gives Beijing justification to further devalue against the dollar.

(Capital Economics)
(Capital Economics)

“China is going to have to dramatically devalue its currency,” Kyle Bass, principal at Hayman Capital Management LLC., told Wall Street Week. He thinks the devaluation could be as much as 20 percent.

So investors took heed and are getting out of the yuan as fast as they can. After all, why stick around to lose money in a falling currency. The problem: This herd behavior leads to, you guess it, a falling yuan. 

And while Chinese regulators can stop them from wantonly selling the mainland currency (CNY) because of capital controls, nobody is stopping them from selling the freely traded offshore yuan (CNH), mostly traded in Hong Kong

READ about China’s two different currencies here

The CNH dropped 1.1 percent against the dollar, trading as low as 6.70, the lowest since September 2010. The spread between the mainland and the offshore currency also widened to a record 2.5 percent.


Capital Outflows

Behind the move in the currencies is the tectonic shift in capital flows. Up until 2014, China attracted capital, driving the exchange up. Now capital is moving out, driving the exchange rate down.

“You’ve gone from a period which you had this one-way bet—the currency was going to appreciate, capital inflows—to the reverse. Having a period in which your own residents want to diversify into something else,” says Harvard professor Carmen Reinhart.

She thinks China is facing “a significant internal debt crisis,” which is why domestic citizens and international investors are moving their money out.

READ Carmen Reinhart on China’s Debt Crisis

“You do have a shift in capital flows and in fact, that shift has also accelerated purchases of real estate in London, in Boston, in New York. You see that it’s not just Treasurys. We see that from China and we see that from Russia,” she says.

Bloomberg estimates as much as $367 billion of capital left China in last three months of 2015. Epoch Times previously estimated capital outflows of $850 billion in the first nine months of 2015, so the total could be more than $1.2 trillion, the same as Societe Generale’s worst case estimate. 

China’s big trade surplus is the reason it didn’t have to sell more foreign exchange reserves to keep the currency from collapsing. 

Why Devalue

There is nothing China can do against the capital flows per se, expcect for completely reforming its economy.

It can intervene in the markets by selling its foreign currency reserves to stop the exchange rate from collapsing. For the onshore yuan, it can also enforce capital controls more strictly, which it has done, but that goes against the promised reforms. 

However, given only bad choices, managing a gradual devaluation in the offshore and onshore yuan is actually the best of the worst.

Past currency crises, like the British pound devaluation in 1992, the Asian financial crisis in 1997, and the recent Ruble crash, show the value of the currencies will always drop to its equilibrium level—no matter how much a country spends intervening in the market.

So if the currency has to drop, China can at least keep its large stash of foreign currency reserves, although cynics may then ask what good are they for after all. 

“The foreign exchange reserves are just that: they are foreign. They are not renminbi [RMB]; they are not money that can be brought to bear domestically,” says Fraser Howie, author of “Red Capitalism.”

A lower currency on the other hand will support the country’s export sector, which, thanks to rising land and labor costs, is not as competitive as it used to be. Kyle Bass thinks a devaluation will help China “come back to some level of competitiveness with the rest of the world.”

It needs to compete not to generate growth, as many think. Although the Beijing Academy of Sciences just estimated GDP will only grow 6.7 percent in 2016 (below the official target of 7 percent)—it is employment and public sentiment that matters most to the regime.

The export sector still contributes around 10 percent to total employment.

Gordon Chang, author of “The Coming Collapse of China” says: “Where you have people just sick and fed up, especially when the system is no longer delivering prosperity. When you have real serious economic problems, I think people are going to say, ‘I’ve had enough.'”

Until then, the yuan has a lot further to drop.

Valentin Schmid is the business editor of the Epoch Times. His areas of expertise include global macroeconomic trends and financial markets, China, and Bitcoin. Before joining the paper in 2012, he worked as a portfolio manager for BNP Paribas in Amsterdam, London, Paris, and Hong Kong.