Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Does $3 Trillion in reserves buy you stability?
The matchless Michael Pettis again:
"China's foreign reserves are certainly huge. They add up to an amount equal to about 5-6 % of global gross domestic product.
But they are not unprecedented. Twice before in history a country has, under similar circumstances, run up foreign reserves of the same magnitude.
The first time occurred in the late 1920s when, after a decade of record-beating trade and capital account surpluses, the United States had accumulated what John Maynard Keynes worriedly described as "all the bullion in the world". At the time, total reserves accumulated by the US were more than 5-6% of global GDP.  My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that this was probably the greatest hoard of central bank reserves ever accumulated as a share of global GDP, but please check before you accept this claim.
The second time occurred in the late 1980s, when it was Japan's turn to combine huge trade surpluses, along with more moderate surpluses on the capital account, to accumulate a stockpile of foreign reserves only a little less than the equivalent of 5-6% of global GDP.   By the late 1980s, Japan's accumulation of reserves drew the sort of same breathless description – much of it incorrect, of course – that China's does today.
Needless to say, and in sharp rebuttal to Friedman, both previous cases turned out badly for long investors and brilliantly for anyone dumb enough to have gone short."
and more:
"The idea that massive levels of reserves are a guarantor of economic stability is, in other words, based on a profound misunderstanding both of history and of the nature of reserves.  Reserves of course are not useless as an enhancer of financial stability, but their use is for very specific forms of instability.  Having large amounts of reserves relative to external claims protects countries from external debt crises and from currency crises.
Great, but neither Chanos, nor even the most pessimistic Sino-analyst, has ever said that these are the kinds of risks China faces today, any more than they were the risks faced by the US in the late 1920s or Japan in the late 1980s.  The risks that China faces today (and the US in the late 1920s and Japan in the late 1980s) is of excessive domestic liquidity having fueled asset and capacity bubbles, the latter requiring the uninterrupted ability of foreign countries to absorb via large and growing trade deficits.  These risks include an explosion in domestic government debt directly and contingently through the banking system.
These are, very typically, the kinds of risks that threaten rapidly developing large economies, unlike the external debt and currency risks that typically threaten small economies.  And reserves are almost totally useless in protecting these economies from the risks they face (and, no, no, no, reserves cannot be used to recapitalize the banks – only domestic government borrowing or direct or hidden taxes on the household sector can be used to recapitalize the banks).
In fact, it was the very process of generating massive reserves that created the risks which subsequently devastated the US and Japan. Both countries had accumulated reserves over a decade during which they experienced sharply undervalued currencies, rapid urbanization, and rapid growth in worker productivity (sound familiar?). These three factors led to large and rising trade surpluses which, when combined with capital inflows seeking advantage of the rapid economic growth, forced a too-quick expansion of domestic money and credit."

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