Is China’s great wall of capital controls keeping money in or out?

Is China’s great wall of capital controls keeping money in or out?

Aug 10th 2013 |From the print edition

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AT ITS recent mid-year meeting, China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), which helps to regulate the flow of capital across the country’s borders, weighed the task ahead. China is committed to making its currency, the yuan, fully convertible, relaxing the controls that keep foreign money out and domestic money in. A plan is expected this year. At its meeting, SAFE concluded that the next phase of foreign-exchange management will be “glorious and arduous”. It will certainly be the latter. China first promised to make the yuan fully convertible in 1993, setting the end of that decade as a deadline. Back then the Asian financial crisis helped undermine the case for quick and early capital-account liberalisation. But China’s peculiarities have also reduced the sense of urgency. Most emerging economies relaxed capital controls because they wanted to invite money in. By importing foreign capital, poor countries could invest more than they themselves could afford to save.But China already saves more than it invests—and invests more than it probably should. In China the case for liberalisation is more subtle. In a report on China’s economy, published last month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) argued that a gradual liberalisation of capital flows would improve the efficiency of investment (as opposed to the quantity).

It did not spell out its reasoning. But reasons are not hard to find. As outsiders, foreigners are free to invest their money wherever they see fit, unencumbered by the broader political obligations that weigh on state-owned lenders. Relaxing capital controls would also allow Chinese savers to diversify their assets, taking the heat out of China’s boiling property market. If households were allowed to invest more easily abroad, they would no longer see Chinese property as their only alternative to bank deposits paying capped interest rates and a stockmarket plagued by scams and speculation.

This argument raises interesting questions. Does China have more to gain from investment by the rest of the world or investment in the rest of the world? And if China’s foreign-exchange controls were lifted, would capital flow in or out?

A case can be made for either outcome. China is (still) growing faster than most other countries. Although interest rates on deposits are capped by the government, they are higher than rates in America or Japan. And its exchange rate is still rising, reaching 6.12 yuan to the dollar this week, the strongest rate in 19 years. Sure enough, in the first quarter of 2013, short-term capital surged into China: the net inflow of investment, excluding foreign direct investment, amounted to $58.2 billion.

And yet many China sceptics make the opposite case. They believe that households nervous about China’s slowing growth and capricious government would seize the chance to take their money abroad. Individuals are already allowed to take out $50,000 a year, and many find ways round that limit. Pessimists believe an even bigger pool of money would pour out of China if the floodgates were opened. As if to prove this point, as China’s growth slowed in the second quarter of this year, short-term capital changed direction, flowing out of the country.

In their report, the IMF’s economists offer their own view on what would happen if China relaxed its capital controls. They concentrate on “portfolio” investment: purchases of purely financial assets, such as bonds and shares, ignoring longer-term direct investment or bank lending. They conclude that the flow of capital across borders would expand dramatically in both directions. But portfolio outflows would dominate.

Foreigners would buy Chinese securities worth a minimum of 2% of China’s GDP and a maximum of 10%, the IMF authors estimate, adding greatly to China’s foreign liabilities. Chinese residents, on the other hand, would acquire foreign assets worth 15-25% of the country’s GDP. The combination of these criss-crossing flows would add securities worth up to 18% of GDP to China’s net foreign assets (see left-hand chart).

Renminbi or Renmaxbi

In response to such a big outflow of capital, the yuan would surely fall. Or would it? The IMF’s economists believe the yuan is still “moderately undervalued”. Can these two conclusions be reconciled? Their study of capital flows concentrates on portfolio investment, but the fate of the currency would also depend on other kinds of money movements. The biggest outflow of capital in China today passes through the central bank. It buys dollars (and other foreign currencies) to relieve upward pressure on the yuan—pressure that stems from China’s big trade surplus and the direct investment it attracts. If capital controls were lifted, and private capital flowed outwards, this pressure would ease. The central bank could stop accumulating foreign-exchange reserves at such a pace. In short, if China’s firms and households buy more foreign assets, its central bank could buy fewer.

That would be good news. China’s private investors would probably buy more rewarding assets than its central bank, which has mostly limited itself to safe, low-yielding securities. Last year China earned less on its enormous assets abroad (worth over $5 trillion) than foreign investors earned on their smaller holdings in the country (worth less than $3.5 trillion: see right-hand chart). Its international investment income was minus $57.4 billion.

By the time China’s capital account is fully open, its foreign-exchange reserves will account for less than 40% of its assets abroad, according to a 2012 study by the Hong Kong Institute for Monetary Research. The rest will be more lucrative direct investments and privately held securities. China will at last earn more on its foreign assets than it pays on its liabilities. In 2020 the institute’s economists reckon, its net investment income will amount to about $250 billion—a not inglorious result.

Sources

People’s Republic of China: 2013 Article IV Consultation“, by the IMF

2013 Spillover Report—Analytical Underpinnings and Other Background”, by the IMF

How Would Capital Account Liberalisation Affect China’s Capital Flows and the Renminbi Real Exchange Rates?” by Dong He, Lillian Cheung, Wenlang Zhang And Tommy Wu, HKIMR Working Paper, April 2012

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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