A little over two months ago, when official PBOC data revealed that not only had Chinese reserve outflow slowed down, but actually posted an uptick in October, we warned that "Capital Is Still Flowing Out Of China, Here's How Beijing Is Hiding It", in which we explained that in taking a page from the western bankers' playbook, the Chinese central bank had shifted to less "traceable" forms of currency manipulation, namely via "forwards". To wit:
Standard central-bank intervention to support a currency generally involves selling dollars and buying the home tender. In this case, China’s large state banks borrowed dollars in the swap market, sold the U.S. currency in the cash spot market and used forward contracts with the central bank to hedge those positions.
"If you can intervene without actually diminishing your reserves, it’s somehow viewed as better," said Steven Englander, global head of Group-of-10 foreign exchange-strategy in New York at Citigroup Inc. Such central-bank activity "may not look quite as dramatic as the sale of reserves, and they may prefer that optically," he said.
Since this form of FX intervention does not impact cash reserves and is not reflected in a change of underlying spot securities, China could intervene for an extended period and not show it, which is precisely what happened in October and November.
The problem is that this only works for a limited period of time, and only if the manipulation with synthetic instruments works. In this case it failed miserably as the latest collapse in the Chinese currency has demonstrated. It also means that sooner rather than later, the PBOC would be forced to revert to traditional, cash-based intervention.
And then came December.
As the PBOC revealed overnight, China’s foreign-exchange reserves plunged much more than forecast in December, capping the first-ever annual decline (of $513 billion) as authorities sought to prop up a weakening yuan. More importantly, the $108 billion decline from $3.438 trillion to $3.330 trillion - far greater than the $20 billion estimated - was the largest on record, and shows that while on the surface the Yuan was stable, behind the scenes the PBOC was furiously dumping securities to prevent an all out currency rout as outflows hit a record.
As a reminder, "liquidating reserves" is a financial euphemism for selling government bonds, mostly US Treasurys.
To be sure, the massive intervention explains the relative stability of the Yuan in November and December. However, it appears that the Chinese central banks has decided to stop intervening aggressively, if at all, in 2016. By now, everyone has seen the result: "the weakening of the fixing contributed to a selloff in stocks that led exchanges to close early on Monday and Thursday after the retreat triggered new circuit-breaker mechanisms. China’s CSI 300 Index plunged 7.2 percent Thursday."
More from Bloomberg:
"It’s inevitable: The PBOC is intervening, there are a lot of capital outflows, and the yuan is facing larger depreciation pressure," said Chen Xingdong, chief China economist at BNP Paribas SA in Beijing. "The PBOC now wants to maintain stability in the yuan index and not versus the U.S. dollar.”
The government will "allow for more depreciation, use reserves and tighter controls on cross-border capital flows," said Wang Tao, chief China economist at UBS Group AG in Hong Kong. The yuan will continue to decline against the dollar this year and foreign reserves will drop to $3 trillion, she said.
The paradox that China finds itself in is that as it devalues the currency in what it hopes is a controlled fashion, the FX outflows soar, forcing the PBOC to intervene and slow down the devaluation, leading to a self-defeating process in which China not only devalues far slower than it hopes, but results in an accelerated depletion of reserves. And once China's reserves decline by a few hundred more billion, that will be the time to panic.
Which brings us to this week: as Bloomberg adds, "the fact that the central bank cut the fixing so much this week signaled that the authorities are worried that the economy is challenged by increasing downward pressures," said Nathan Chow, a Hong Kong-based economist at DBS Group Holdings Ltd. "Considering the weak fundamentals, the long-term trend for the yuan to weaken and for the capital to leave the nation hasn’t changed."
Which means even more devaluation is in stock for China, which means even more reserve liquidation, which means even less dry powder to contain future outflows and out of control devaluation, all of which culminates into a great unknown, one which however does not have a happy ending.
So how are traders reacting?
Moments ago gold finally broke out above the $1,100 resistance level which so many sellside experts warned it would never be able to cross again...
... while that "other" currency, bitcoin, has soared by 5% overnight, not on some idiotic narrative about a Russian pyramid schemer's website, but because of what we first warned in September (when bitcoin was at $225): the more the Yuan devalues, the faster Chinese depositors will seek to circumvent China's capital controls and convert their increasingly less valuable money into either other currencies (via bitcoin), or into gold.