With China Facing Currency, Liquidity Crises, Ex-PBOC Official Urges Use Of "Nuclear Option"

With the PBOC fighting tooth and nail to slow outbound capital flight, which according to Goldman has reached $1.1 trillion since August 2015, and which these days mostly means keeping the Yuan from depreciating to new all time lows below 7 Yuan to the Dollar, the Chinese central bank may have its work cut out for it in the immediate future. The reason is that, as Bloomberg reminds us, the first day of 2017 is when an annual $50,000 quota to convert the yuan into foreign exchange resets, stoking concern there will be a rush to sell the local currency.

With tax payments and a regulatory assessment also tightening liquidity in the money market toward year-end, manifesting itself in soaring unsecured funding rates such as the overnight repo hitting 33% as noted yesterday, paralyzing both the overnight...

 

and longer-dated interbank lending markets...

...  January may bring scant relief as lenders prepare for stronger cash demand before Lunar New Year holidays, which are only a month away.

The narrative is familiar: China’s markets are seeing renewed pressure this month as the Federal Reserve projects a faster pace of rate increases for 2017 and its Chinese counterpart tightens monetary conditions to spur deleveraging and defend the exchange rate. The declines are capping off a tough year for investors during which bonds, shares and currency all slumped, with the last hitting all time lows, just as Kyle Bass had predicted roughly one year ago.

Much of the blame is on the unique calendar this year: “You have Chinese New Year quite early, and because of that one-month window, most of the banks will try to lock the money in a three-month cycle,” said Arthur Lau, Hong Kong-based head of Asia ex-Japan fixed income at PineBridge Investments. “The current situation in the bond market is partly because of year-end and because of Chinese New Year.”

But two far bigger culprits are the tightening Fed, and the rapidly deteriorating standoff between China's housing bubble, which Beijing desperately wants to deflate into a soft landing by withdrawing liquidity, and China's banking system which in turn is desperate for more liquidity, more easing, or at least a reduction in required reserves.

Meanwhile, the local debt market is flashing red warning lights, yet most market participants seem to be blissfully ignoring them: China’s 10-year government bond yield has surged 21 basis points in December, poised for its biggest monthly increase since August 2013, when the local banks nearly collapsed as a result of a failed deleveraging effort. The yuan’s 6.6 percent decline in 2016 puts it on course for its worst year since 1994, while the Shanghai Composite Index is headed for its largest drop in five years. The three-month interbank rate known as Shibor rose for a 50th day, its longest streak since 2010, to an 18-month high on Wednesday. The overnight repurchase rate on the Shanghai Stock Exchange jumped to as high as 33 percent the day before, the highest since Sept. 29. As banks become more reluctant to offer cash to other types of institutions, the latter have to turn to the exchange for money, said Xu Hanfei, an analyst at Guotai Junan Securities Co. in Shanghai.

But the worst news for China is that the local population is well-aware of the financial problems facing Beijing, and has been scrambling to transfer its cash offshore. As Bloomberg notes, the recent surge in onshore yuan trading volume suggests outflows are quickening, according to Harrison Hu, chief greater China economist at Royal Bank of Scotland. The daily average value of transactions in Shanghai climbed to $34 billion in December as of Wednesday, the highest since at least April 2014, according to data from China Foreign Exchange Trade System.

Which brings us to the January 1 clock reset, and the imminent surge in perfectly legal capital outflows.

“In the new year, the new foreign-exchange purchase quota starts, so we expect yuan positions in January to drop significantly," Liu Dongliang, an analyst at China Merchants Bank Co., wrote in a note this month. "Within the foreseeable future, the market will be pessimistic about funding conditions. It happens to be near year-end now, where money markets are tight, and after New Year’s Day it’s almost Chinese New Year.”

Ultimately, trying to keep a lid on the Yuan is a game China will lose, and some are already preemptively admitting defeat. Among them is Yu Yongding, a former academic member of the PBOC's monetary policy committee, who overnight urged his former PBOC colleagues to engage the "nuclear option" - a sharp, one off devaluation similar to what China did in August of 2015. 

In emailed comments to Bloomberg, Yongding said that China has a window from now to President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration to halt FX intervention and let yuan depreciate to its equilibrium level.

Yongding believes that once FX reserves fall below a certain psychological threshold, capital outflows will only accelerate, and while depreciation expectations may weaken occasionally, they will never disappear until the yuan free floats and finds its equilibrium.

He also warned that concerns over depreciation have severely affected the PBOC’s monetary-policy independence and said that while tightening capital controls is right move, this has massive side effects and can be evaded.

His conclusion: letting yuan fall won’t be as scary as some imagine because Chinese companies have been paying down their FX debt and a large drop isn’t supported by nation’s economic fundamentals.

Will the PBOC stun everyone and unveil a surprise devaluation in the next three weeks? We don't know, but according to bitcoin, which has soared by 20% in just the past week, someone does appear to "know" something, and if they are right, a devaluation is precisely what the Chinese central bank has in store.