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China’s foreign reserves are declining. Shutterstock

Why capital is fleeing China and what it means for Australia

Foreign reserves at the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), China’s central bank, fell for the fifth consecutive month in November, dropping by US$69.1 billion to US$3.1 trillion. This is a level not seen since 2011, with reserves shrinking more than US$500 billion this year alone.

The Chinese government has moved to clamp down on capital flight, by introducing restrictions on foreign investment and curbing gold imports. But it could go further as the yuan stares down its worst year since 2005, making it harder for Chinese companies to borrow and repay debt.

The decline in China’s foreign reserves is not a blip, but has roots that go deep and could affect the ability of Chinese consumers and companies to be our customers. So the introduction of currency controls, especially if China revisits the quotas for Chinese individuals to spend on foreign goods or travel, is something to watch.

Why China is bleeding foreign exchange

The story goes back to August 2015, when China devalued the yuan in an apparent attempt to boost exports and growth. The devaluation probably would not have drawn so much attention if not for the fact that it appeared to trigger a huge outflow of capital from China.

It all has to do with historical patterns of borrowing by Chinese companies (and some wealthy individuals). During the boom years of export-and-investment-led economic growth, investing in China offered a good return (especially compared to what was available in Western economies). China’s shadow banking system grew and flourished – offering even greater returns to Chinese firms and individuals.

At the time it made sense to borrow at near-zero rates in the US and Europe, convert the money to yuan and invest in China. But the Chinese government brought this trade undone when it devalued the yuan back in August 2015. Borrowing in US dollars then selling those dollars to buy yuan-denominated assets no longer works.

It is now happening in reverse – yuan-denominated assets are being sold at record rates to buy US dollars in order to pay back old loans before it becomes too late. This outward flow of yuan generates downward pressure on the Chinese currency, which recently fell to its lowest levels in years. This is creating a feedback loop.

Before 2015, the PBoC bought dollars from Chinese companies that earned export income, printing lots of new yuan to do so. This money then circulated within the Chinese banking system and supplied the credit for China’s huge expansion.

But now the PBoC is selling down its reserves of US dollars to prop up the yuan. This also places pressure on Chinese banks, and may force the PBoC to allow banks to free up more of their available capital. These deteriorating conditions in the banking sector, along with China’s fast-rising private-sector debt, increase the cost of capital and put further pressure on foreign exchange reserves.

The economy isn’t helping

Further adding to the pressure since 2015 has been Chinese government encouragement for local companies to “go global”. Often such investments have been supported by subsidised loans or grants from China’s Export-Import Bank (China Exim Bank). At the same time, foreign investment into China has dwindled as labour and other costs have risen.

Both of these phenomena have been part of the Chinese government’s overall strategy of internationalisation, while moving away from an economy dependent on exports and towards an economy based much more on services and domestic consumption. The problem is, however, that the hoped-for rise in domestic consumption has not eventuated at anything like the rate necessary.

A crackdown on luxury consumption – seen as a sign of corruption by senior Communist Party members and officials – has further detracted from the desired growth in domestic consumption.

What all this means for us

Even with the restrictions put in place, there isn’t a total yuan lockdown. It is hard to prevent the movement of yuan out of China through the offshore yuan market. The Chinese banking authorities have fewer ways of preventing such transfers, especially as the government pushes the yuan as an alternative to traditional US dollar settlements.

But it’s likely China and its people will be much less able to afford direct purchases of Australian goods (iron ore, coal) and services (education, tourism) in the near future. This does not mean that Chinese demand for Australian goods will fall, but things might have to change.

It means that instead of just “selling stuff” to China, Australia needs to engage with the Chinese economy – to understand what that economy really needs. Australia has know-how and technology in health care, education, agriculture and energy that China needs and wants.

With the limitations of Chinese currency and investment controls, Australia may need to be more generous in its willingness to transfer some of that technology and know-how. For its part, China has to be much better at ensuring that the intellectual property involved in such transfers and the returns from them are properly protected. This could be the start of something brand new.

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