In order to mask the tremendous capital outflows leaving its country – in order to prevent and/or delay a depositor panic – China has resorted to various gimmicks: back in October, we reported that the first one involved the PBOC gradually shifting from FX spot intervention to the using forwards as a preferred mechanism of market intervention as it is not as obvious, or as transparent to detect, to wit: “we need to take account not only of the PBoC’s non-spot market intervention efforts in the offshore market, but also of banks’ forward books if we want to get a better read on capital outflows in China.”
Then, when Wall Street figured out how to back into the true capital outflow numbers, China stopped reporting key capital flow data outright. As SCMP reported in February, “sensitive data was missing from a regular central bank report in China amid concerns about the flow of cash out of the country as its economy slows and currency weakens.” FT added that the People’s Bank of China removed the data category “Position for forex purchase”, which tracked total foreign exchange purchases by both the central bank and other financial institutions. In its place, a separate series that captures only central bank forex purchases is substituted. A rise in forex purchases is considered a sign of capital inflows, while a drop suggests outflows.
However, not even this was enough to mask the massive outflow of capital leaving China’s economy and being parked offshore.
So what did China do? Why it resorted to the oldest trick in the book: fabricating data outright. Only… it was caught again. As Goldman calculates, cross-border yuan flow in recent months could have masked the true level of outflow pressure in China. According to the bank, SAFE data on onshore FX settlement show outflow of about $2b in May; was also $24b in RMB flow to offshore, meaning underlying outflow in May could be $26b, analysts including MK Tang and Maggie Wei write in a note released overnight.
More notably, they calculate that since October total net FX outflow has been about $500 billion, which is 50% above $330b implied by SAFE’s onshore FX settlement data.
They adds that there are no obvious market forces to explain RMB flow in recent months, adding that non-commercially driven factors seem a more likely explanation. They note that it is possible that offshore clearing banks or Chinese entity have been buying CNH and selling back onshore; this is justified by near-daily anecdotes of frequent CNH smoothing operations by Chinese institutions. As a result, flow to offshore doesn’t show in foreigners’ holdings of CNH assets.
Goldman also observes that since the August yuan “reform”, CNH has been generally weak; but this hasn’t led to net flow from offshore to onshore. “In a stark contrast, the relationship is in total reverse since October last year – the cheaper the CNH (vs CNY), the greater the net flow of RMB from onshore to offshore.”
Here are the details from Goldman’s MK Tang:
China capital flows update—sources how cross-border RMB flow might mask outflow pressures
We have updated our estimates of sources of China’s capital n outflows. Our analysis suggests net capital outflows at $123bn in Q1 (vs. $504bn in Q3-Q4 combined last year).
Of the Q1 net outflows, about 70% was due to Chinese residents’ accumulation of foreign assets; 40% to repayment of FX liabilities; and -10% to foreigners’ demand for RMB assets (i.e., foreigners were a source of net inflows in Q1). This composition is broadly similar to our earlier estimates for 2015 H2.
Separately, we flag a large $170bn net RMB flow from onshore to offshore since last October, which has helped reduce FX reserve drawdown and put downward pressure on CNH forward points. This flow cannot be readily explained by marketbased factors in our view, and did not seem to result in an increase in foreigners’ CNH holdings. We think it might have masked the true FX outflow pressure in China, on the order of some $20bn (or 50%) per month in recent months.
Going forward, we think it will be important to also track cross-border RMB movement to get a fuller picture on China’s underlying flow situation.
For those not intimately familiar with China’s capital outflow battle over the past year, here is a quick recap from Goldman:
We have updated our estimates of sources of China’s capital outflows based on the framework we introduced in January. In Q1 this year and 2H last year, the big picture was the same as we estimated in the piece – Chinese residents accumulating foreign assets remains the dominant source of total capital outflows. The mix of the different sources appears slightly different though, and we will discuss in more detail in the following session.
Corporates paying down FX debt: By our estimate, outflows driven by Chinese corporates paying down FX debt were US$156bn in 2H 2015, and around US$60bn in Q1 this year. As exhibit 1 and 2 show, we break down Chinese corporates FX debt into four major segments, namely trade liabilities, offshore banks’ claims on Chinese nonbanks, FX bonds issued by Chinese corporates, and FX loans lent out by onshore banks (such as Industrial and Commercial Bank of China etc.) to domestic Chinese nonbank sectors.
Chinese residents’ cumulating FX assets: There were around US$372bn outflows driven by Chinese residents demand for foreign assets in 2H last year, and another US$108bn outflows in Q1 this year based on our calculation. In the headline reported data, Chinese residents cumulating FX assets include outward direct investment, portfolio investment assets and other investment assets. These three channels saw around US$ 268bn outflows in 2H last year and US$69bn outflows in Q1 this year. We also add “net errors and omissions” (NEO) as part of the outflows motivated by Chinese residents buying FX assets—as we’ve been discussing for a while3., we think the negative numbers in NEO might represent disguised capital outflows (Exhibit 3).
Foreigners reducing RMB assets: This driver has become less obvious in Q1 this year, compared with 2H last year. Around US$7.4bn outflows were driven by foreigners reducing RMB assets in 2H last year, and in Q1 this year situation actually reversed, i.e. on net basis, foreigners accumulated around US$19.6bn RMB assets rather than reducing, mainly helped by inbound FDI and the relatively stable holding of offshore CNH (more on this in the second part of the report).
Goldman sums it up as follows:
Summing up different sources of outflows, in Q1 this year, of the total net capital outflows of $123bn, Chinese residents buying foreign assets accounted for around 70% of the outflows, and Chinese corporates paying down FX debt explained another 40% of the outflows. Foreigners’ adding RMB assets helped mitigate outflows by around 10%. In 2H last year, according to our calculation based on factual data, residents buying FX assets accounted for 70% of the outflows, FX debt repayment was another 29%, and foreigners reducing RMB assets only represented 1% of the outflows. This was broadly in line with our analysis in the January’s work (we estimated the split at 60%/30%/10%), although the final official data suggests that foreigners reducing RMB assets was an even less important driver, while residents buying FX assets was more important than what we found based on our estimates of some BOP and FX debt data.
So far so good: a modest $123 billion in Q1 outflows. There is just one problem: the real number is vastly greater. Here is Goldman’s explanation:
While according to the BOP the pace of capital outflows has slowed in Q1, it might not have in fact slowed by as much as the data suggest. We have in the past discussed various caveats to interpreting official flow and reserve data, and in the following we add one more, in light of a large unusual cross-border RMB flow in recent months that we believe could have masked the true outflow pressure in China.
A $170bn flow of RMB to offshore…
Specifically, since October last year we have seen a large net flow of RMB from onshore to offshore, primarily due to trade settlement in RMB (i.e., Chinese importers pay for the imports in RMB). This totaled $170bn through May or about $20bn per month on average (Exhibit 4). This flow has helped lessen the overall outflow pressure faced by China because it means that importers did not have to buy as much FX to pay for imports (since they just used RMB). This also helps explain in our view the general decline in CNH forward points (or equivalently, CNH interest rates) in the last few months (Exhibit 5), despite market perception of large-scale CNH smoothing operations by state-related entities (more on this below).
Compared to previous actions, this is somewhat unusual. In the past, net crossborder flow of RMB had typically been driven by offshore RMB sentiment, e.g., when offshore RMB sentiment is strong, CNH tends to be more expensive than CNY ($/CNH is below $/CNY), naturally driving a net flow of RMB from onshore to offshore (e.g., for trade settlement) to satisfy high RMB demand; and vice versa.
However, especially since the August 2015 RMB reform, offshore RMB has been generally weak. While the CNH-CNY gap has narrowed in the last few months, CNH has still been usually cheaper than CNY ($/CNH above $/CNY). Therefore, the typical market-driven relationship would have suggested a net flow of RMB from offshore to onshore instead. Indeed, in a stark contrast, the relationship is in total reverse since October last year—the cheaper the CNH (vs. CNY), the greater the net flow of RMB from onshore to offshore. This is more consistent with a supply-push pattern (an exogenous push of RMB from onshore to offshore, which causes CNH to trade cheaper), rather than a market driven demand-pull relationship.
In short, we cannot point to any obvious market forces that could explain the RMB flow in the last several months; non-commercially driven factors seem to be a more likely explanation, in our view.
… that does not seem to result in any increase in foreigners’ CNH holdings
Another interesting observation is that this large amount of net RMB flow to offshore does not seem to show up in foreigners’ holdings of CNH assets. In general, if the RMB is received by foreign non-banks, that would likely end up as CNH deposits; and if it is received by foreign banks, that would show up as an increase in banks’ holdings of CNH assets. However, CNH deposits in Hong Kong and Taiwan, two key CNH centers, have been on a decline in the last several months (Exhibit 7); and Hong Kong banks’ spot position of “other currencies” has also been falling (Exhibit 8).
More broadly, overseas entities’ holdings of onshore RMB deposits (which include placement of CNH by offshore banks to onshore banks) have as recently, sharply deviated from the hitherto synchronized pattern with the cumulative net flow of RMB from onshore to offshore, and have been even surpassed by the latter in absolute level (Exhibit 9).
What does this mean? In simple terms, China is masking massive capital outflows, far greater than the $123 billion reported for the first three months.
These various official data pieced together are consistent with either of the following two possibilities:
Some offshore RMB clearing banks buy RMB in the offshore market and sell the RMB back in the onshore FX market. In this scenario, it is unlikely that most of the RMB is sold to PBOC, because in the last few months PBOC’s FX reserve data have been roughly in line with the onshore demand for FX as suggested by SAFE’s onshore FX settlement data (i.e., it does not suggest that PBOC has used much of their reserves to meet offshore clearing banks’ demand for FX). In other words, in this scenario, it is likely that banks (or other non-PBOC participants of the onshore FX market) used their own FX position to buy the RMB. and in doing so, banks have likely suffered losses as CNY has generally weakened in the last few months. In late April, SAFE relaxed the regulatory floor on onshore banks’ FX net open position, expanding further their scope to short FX by $100bn.
A Chinese entity (possibly state-backed) that has access to both
offshore and onshore markets buys RMB (with FX) in the offshore market
and invests the RMB in onshore assets. Since this entity is Chinese, its
RMB assets would not be reflected in foreigners’ holdings of RMB assets
Goldman notes that in this context, “there have been market anecdotes on frequent offshore CNH smoothing operations by Chinese institutions.” Actually, not anecdotes: those are all too daily, all too real interventions by “large banks” who keep a barrier on both the CNY and CNH from moving far beyond 6.65. It is precisely in these “streamlining” operations that this massive “outflow” is hidden.
Summing it all up, the reality is that instead of $330 billion in FX outflows since October, the real number is 50% greater, or half a trillion, which also suggests that instead of getting better, China’s capital outflow situation is as bad as it has been, and not only that, but the government is now actively covering up the reality. Here’s Goldman:
Given the discussion above, it is possible that the actual underlying FX flow situation (i.e., FX/RMB demand by Chinese corporates/households and foreigners) has been less encouraging than even the SAFE data on onshore FX settlement imply10. (e.g., according to that data alone, FX outflow was about $2bn in May.), but there was also $24bn in RMB flow to offshore during the month—if we assume that that flow was not market-driven and that it was not subsequently held by foreigners, then the underlying FX outflow could instead be $26bn in May. In the eight months since last October, this approach would have suggested a total net FX outflow of about $500bn, or 50% above the $330bn implied by SAFE’s onshore FX settlement data.
All of this is bad news for the PBOC, now that the market is on to it:
Going forward, we believe also tracking the data on cross-border RMB flow (released monthly by SAFE) will be important to coming to a more comprehensive view on the underlying flow picture. For the time being, we will be incorporating this into our measure of net FX flow (Exhibit 10 shows this modified version
This means that either China’s central bank will have to disclose the truth, or further cover up the true nature of China’s capital outflows, in the process unleashing even more skepticism, even more outflows, and even more concerns about China’s economy (and banking system), to the point where these concerns reflame the same cross-asset (and market) contagions that led to the December/January swoon and which have been temporarily brushed under the rug while the Shanghai Accord still forces central banks to avoid major market moves in response to the sweeping capital outflows undertaken by China.
For now, however, we will be content to watch how the narrative that China’s capital outflows are “moderating” crashes and burns, and how long it takes other capital markets to realize that far from fixed, China is furiously burning through virtually any and all liquid reserves it still has access to, only doing so in a way that only a handful of central bankers were aware of it. Well, now everyone else knows as well thanks to Goldman…. which brings us tothe Goldman note from a month ago, in which Goldman revealed the FX doom loop…
… and in which the bank openly declared war on the Yuan, which it expects will crash in the coming months. To be sure, no better way to achieve that than by actually revealing the truth.