While China and other countries have attracted a large amount of foreign direct investment, they has bought an even larger amount of US government securities, writes Yu Yongding.
East Asian countries too heavily invested in US securities
In theory, the difference between capital inflows and outflows in developing countries should be positive - they should be net capital importers, with the magnitude of the balance equivalent to the current-account deficit. Since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, however, many East Asian countries have been running current-account surpluses - and have become net capital exporters.
Even odder is that while they are net capital exporters, they run financial (capital) account surpluses. In other words, these countries lend not only the money they earned through current-account surpluses, but also the money they borrowed through capital-account surpluses - mainly to the US. As a result, East Asian countries are now sitting on a huge pile of foreign-exchange reserves in the form of US government securities.
While China has attracted a large amount of foreign direct investment, it has bought an even larger amount of US government securities. Whereas the average return on foreign direct investment in China was 33 per cent for American firms in 2008, the average return on China's investment in US government securities was a mere 3 to 4 per cent. So, why does China invest its savings so heavily in low-return US government securities, rather than in high-return domestic projects?
One answer lies in the fact that China's policy on foreign direct investment over the past 30 years has crowded out Chinese investors from high-return projects, forcing them to settle for less lucrative projects. But there are still potential investors who cannot find any suitable investment opportunities in China, generating excess resources, which in turn are invested in US government securities.
But, while China's foreign assets are denominated in US dollars, its liabilities, such as foreign direct investment, are mostly denominated in yuan. As a result, when the dollar depreciates against the yuan, the value of China's foreign liabilities increases in dollar terms, while that of its foreign assets remains unchanged. As a result, China's net international investment position, which is the difference between China's gross assets and its gross liabilities, automatically worsens. The deterioration of China's net international investment position is a reflection of the transfer of wealth from China to the US.
Since the 2000s, China's gross assets and gross liabilities have increased dramatically, owing to the success of China's trade-promotion and foreign direct investment policies. As a result, China's net international investment position has become very vulnerable to the devaluation of the dollar.
Meanwhile, capital inflows into developing countries have surged since the 2007-09 global financial crisis. Last year, China's capital-account surplus stood at US$230 billion (Dh844.75bn), and capital inflows remain large this year. With ever-increasing gross dollar assets and gross yuan liabilities, a stronger yuan means that China will suffer additional welfare losses from the valuation effect of exchange-rate movements. It is worth noting this is not solely a Chinese phenomenon; all major emerging-market economies are faced with the same problem.)
During the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis, East Asia's economies paid heavily for excessive accumulation of dollar-denominated debts. Because governments failed to defend their currencies, they lost hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign-exchange reserves to international speculators.
Whether for self-insurance or to maintain a competitive exchange rate, East Asia has once again accumulated too much dollar-denominated debt. This time around, thanks to the deterioration of the US fiscal position and the Federal Reserve's expansionary monetary policy, "the long-term risk [for] emerging markets' external balance sheets is shifting", as Eswar Prasad of the Brookings Institution has pointed out, "to the asset side".
Rather than confronting a debt crisis, as in 1997-98, emerging-market economies now face an asset crisis, but they will suffer the same result: great capital losses on their foreign-exchange reserves. Indeed, the magnitude of the losses will be on par with that of the Asian financial crisis, if not higher.
While China's government should make greater efforts to rebalance the economy by conventional measures, it also should try to replace its dollar-denominated assets with yuan-denominated assets, and its yuan-denominated liabilities with dollar-denominated liabilities.
If China cannot do very much about existing gross assets and gross liabilities, it should address new assets and liabilities to minimise future capital losses. In short, China must take into consideration the continuing asset crisis facing emerging economies, especially when considering highly consequential questions such as full yuan convertibility and the currency's internationalisation.
Yu Yongding, the president of the China Society of World Economics, is a former member of the monetary policy committee of the People's Bank of China and former director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of World Economics and Politics
* Project Syndicate