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More from Mr Stephen Green:
Getting the Straight Story|
A recent trip to New York made clear that the rumor mill is already in full grind. To be fair, you can't blame the hedge funds—they now have a huge and scarcely transparent player to deal with, one that can blow up a well-thought-through trading strategy with nothing more than a carefully leaked news story.
One person I spoke to said that he had heard that the allocation of the new China fund would put $100 billion into physical commodities, $60 billion into Asian equities, and $40 billion into debt. Another had heard China was already buying equities in Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and Japan. Another could see no evidence of this. Another thought that buying up Asian debt made much more sense in terms of nurturing influence in the region. And yet another serious fund manager believed that the fund could only continue with the SAFE's old investment strategy, given the negative impact on the U.S. dollar if they did anything else.
Which brings us, I think, to the main issue: can money buy happiness? Or in other words, can this fund meet any of the policy goals that various bits of Beijing seem to want? It will certainly be very hard, and Lou's path is strewn with challenges.
Needed: Experienced Fund Managers
Consider those three criticisms of SAFE's "old" investment strategy. None of them is terribly well-considered. First, low returns. This criticism is plain silly. Running FX reserves is not like running an investment or hedge or even pension fund. It should not be about maximizing returns, but first about supporting the chosen exchange rate regime, and then about guaranteeing the capital value and liquidity of the investments.
One might also add that higher returns will only mean more capital inflows into China, something SAFE is trying to avoid at present. And if one were really interested in raising the returns to China's capital, one should start with the exchange rate itself. More appreciation should result in Chinese workers gaining a higher income for their labor.
That said, if the new fund really wants to increase returns, this will entail a new investment ethos and strategy. But this creates its own difficulties. Lou certainly has a head on his shoulders, but his experience is almost entirely on the fiscal side. Even if he brings in folks from the SAFE to help run the fund, many of them have simply spent each day of their working lives buying treasuries. What the new entity needs is some experienced fund managers, and there are reports that a search is under way.
Who Has the Keys?
Second, if health and education are to be funded, the government's coffers has plenty to do that. At year-end 2006, the MoF had $128 billion in its savings account with the central bank, but seems curiously unwilling to spend it. Using FX reserves is not an option—since as soon as you use them, they will need to be converted into yuan and we will be back at square one since the PBoC will have to issue yuan and buy the FX. Social spending should be done on the MoF's account—not off the central bank's balance sheet.
The third criticism is a bit more sensible. It involves purchases of commodities offshore in foreign (not domestic) currency. And strategic reserves of some things, including crude oil, would be useful. But the devil is in how this is all organized. First, if China is really going to go into the oil or copper or grain markets, how on earth can it ensure that prices do not move against it the instant other traders realize what they're up to? Second, how does one defend oneself from every Tom, Dick, and Harry from the central ministries and provinces who is lobbying for purchases of his needed resource? And third, how does one manage and distribute the stuff once it's bought? There is bound to be intense debate over who gets to hold the purse strings and the warehouse keys.
There are other issues which will complicate Beijing's pursuit of happiness. There could be huge political ramifications overseas. First, with the dollar. Premier Wen Jiabao, answering questions at the National People's Congress, went out of his way to make this point, saying the new fund would not have any impact upon the dollar. And for its own part, China is still caught in what former U.S. Treasury Secretary Larry Summers once called "the balance of financial terror", since if they sell their dollar holdings, the value of their residual U.S. holdings will fall.
Can't Buy Happiness
If the markets ever caught wind of China diversifying its holdings, dollar-selling pressure would be immense—and Washington would have something to say, too. But this raises the question why start a new fund if you don't want to do anything differently? That creates incentives to be extremely conservative, diversifying quietly and gradually.
Second, consider the possible impact on the region. How would people react if Beijing bought large quantities of the equities and debt traded in Taipei? Or of those traded in Tokyo? If the fund does indeed turn out to be active in Asian equities, China's relationship with the region will get a lot more complicated. How would other investors feel if China FX Fund owned 5% of their company? Would they be assured that China was only holding a position for financial reasons?
There are also big operational questions. If the new fund went into buying control of ventures overseas—an Indonesian gas field, a failing U.S. corporate, a high-end German engineering venture—how would that entity be operated? Would it be handed over to a Chinese corporate with some experience in that area or would managers and/or directors be sent from the fund?
These are immense challenges, and the potential for generating nothing more than dissatisfaction at home and unease overseas are significant. Money, in short, will likely not buy Beijing happiness, at least not easily.
++++++++ Mr Stephen Green is a senior economist at Standard Chartered Bank and is based in Shanghai. He works on China's macroeconomy, and has a particular interest in monetary policy in China. ++++
[ Last edited by chinadaily at 2007-4-13 12:04 PM ]