China Favors Euro Over Dollar as Bernanke Alters Path
China, whose $2.45 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves are the world’s largest, is turning bullish on Europe and Japan at the expense of the U.S.
The nation has been buying “quite a lot” of European bonds, said Yu Yongding, a former adviser to the People’s Bank of China who was part of a foreign-policy advisory committee that visited France, Spain and Germany from June 20 to July 2. Japan’s Ministry of Finance said Aug. 9 that China bought 1.73 trillion yen ($20.1 billion) more Japanese debt than it sold in the first half of 2010, the fastest pace of purchases in at least five years.
“Diversification should be a basic principle,” Yu said in an interview, adding a “top-level Chinese central banker” told him to convey to European policy makers China’s confidence in the region’s economy and currency. “We didn’t sell any European bonds or assets, instead we bought quite a lot.”
China’s position may make it harder for the greenback to rebound after falling as much as 10 percent from this year’s peak in June as measured by the trade-weighted Dollar Index. The nation cut its holdings of U.S. government debt by $100 billion, or 11 percent, through June from last year’s record of $939.9 billion in July 2009, according to Treasury Department data released today.
Concern the U.S. economy is faltering was underscored by the Federal Reserve on Aug. 10. Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the central bank will reinvest principal payments on its mortgage holdings into Treasury notes to prevent money from being drained out of the financial system, its first expansion of measures to spur growth in more than a year.
“The pace of economic recovery is likely to be more modest in the near term than had been anticipated,” the Federal Open Market Committee said in a statement after meeting in Washington. “The Committee will keep constant the Federal Reserve’s holdings of securities at their current level.”
China’s holdings of long-term Treasuries fell for the first time in 15 months in June to $839.7 billion, a 2.5 percent drop. The nation’s overall Treasury position declined for a second month to $843.7 billion, the lowest since May 2009, Treasury data showed.
The decline represents the first year-over-year drop in China’s Treasury holdings since 2001.
Asian central banks holding some 60 percent of the world’s foreign-exchange reserves are turning away from the dollar. Concerned about weakening U.S. growth and the Treasury’s record borrowing, they are switching toward euro assets to safeguard reserves, driving gains in the 16-nation currency. South Korea, Malaysia and India reduced their holdings of Treasuries, U.S. government data show.
The allocations to dollars in official foreign-exchange reserves declined in the first three months of the year, to 61.5 percent from 62.2 percent in the final quarter of 2009, the International Monetary Fund said June 30.
The yen’s share was 3.1 percent, up from 3 percent, The euro’s was 27.2 percent, little changed from 27.3 percent, even after the currency tumbled 5.7 percent versus the dollar during the first quarter on speculation that nations including Greece will struggle to rein in their budget deficits.
“Short of concerns of a default, the investor community in terms of big reserve managers will probably be forced to invest in the euro zone,” said Dwyfor Evans, a strategist in Hong Kong at State Street Global Markets LLC, part of State Street Corp. which has $19 trillion under custody and $1.8 trillion under management. “They can’t be putting all of their eggs in one basket, which is U.S. Treasuries.”
The Dollar Index’s 5.2 percent drop in July, the biggest decline in 14 months, failed to dissuade most foreign-exchange forecasters from predicting the greenback will strengthen against the euro and yen by December.
The dollar traded at $1.2817 per euro as of 7:13 a.m. in New York from $1.2754 last week, when it rose 4.1 percent. The greenback was at 85.60 yen after falling to 84.73 yen on Aug. 11, the weakest since July 1995.
The U.S. currency will climb to $1.23 per euro by Dec. 31 and to 92 yen, based on median estimates of strategists and economists in Bloomberg surveys. Economists forecast U.S. growth will be 3 percent this year, compared with 1.2 percent for the region sharing the euro and 3.4 percent for Japan.
“There’s no sign of panic or urgency from the Fed and that supports our view that this is a temporary soft patch and the U.S. economy will fight its way through,” said Gareth Berry, a Singapore-based currency strategist at UBS AG, the world’s second-largest foreign-exchange trader. UBS forecasts the dollar will rise to $1.15 per euro and 95 yen in three months.
Japan’s economy expanded at the slowest pace in three quarters, missing the estimates of all economists polled, the Cabinet Office said today in Tokyo. Gross domestic product rose an annualized 0.4 percent in the three months ended June 30, compared with the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey for annual growth of 2.3 percent.
Slowing purchases of Treasuries by Asian nations haven’t hindered President Barack Obama’s ability to finance a projected record budget deficit of $1.6 trillion in the year ending Sept. 30. Investor demand for the safest investments compressed yields on benchmark 10-year Treasury notes to a 16-month low of 2.65 percent today, even after the U.S.’s publicly traded debt swelled to $8.18 trillion in July.
U.S. mutual funds, households and banks in May boosted their share of America’s debt to 50.2 percent, the first time domestic investors owned more Treasuries than foreign holders since the start of the financial crisis in August 2007.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao urged the U.S. in March to take “concrete steps” to reassure investors about the safety of dollar assets. The nation, which is the largest overseas holder of Treasuries, trimmed its stockpile of U.S. debt to $867.7 billion in May, from $900.2 billion in April and a record $939.9 billion in July 2009.
Increases to its holdings made between June 2008 and June 2009 amid the global financial crisis were mostly in short-term securities, signaling a “lack of confidence” in the U.S. ability to reduce its debt, UBS said in a research note Aug. 9.
“China has confidence in Europe’s economy, in the euro, and the euro area,” Yu said. A member of the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, Yu was selected by the official China Daily to question Treasury secretary Timothy F. Geithner during his June 2009 visit to Beijing about risks the U.S.’s budget deficit will undermine the value of its debt.
Chinese purchases of Europe’s bonds come in the wake of measures taken by European policy makers to allay concern the sovereign-debt crisis will threaten the single-currency union. In May, they announced a loan package worth as much as 750 billion euros ($956 billion) to backstop euro-area governments.
That month, foreign investors were net buyers of euro-zone debt as the 16-nation currency plummeted by the most since January 2009. Foreigners purchased 37.4 billion euros of bonds and notes after buying 49.7 billion euros in April, the latest data from the European Central Bank show.
China’s concern is mirrored by neighboring central banks that are building up foreign-exchange reserves as they sell local currencies to maintain the competiveness of exporters, according to Faros Trading LLC, which conducts currency transactions on behalf of hedge funds and institutional clients.
Indonesia’s central bank and Thailand’s prime minister said in the past month they are watching the performance of their nation’s currencies amid speculation gains will curb exports. Taiwan’s dollar has depreciated in the final minutes of trading on most days in the past four months as policy makers bought dollars, according to traders familiar with the central bank’s operations who declined to be identified. Exports account for about two-thirds of Taiwan’s gross domestic product.
“Asian central banks, other than China, don’t want to be caught holding all of the dollars when China is rapidly diversifying,” said Brad Bechtel, a Connecticut-based managing director with Faros Trading. “When sentiment shifts and people start getting very bearish on the euro again, beware central banks might be aggressively buying euros on the other side.”
The yen has climbed 8.4 percent against the dollar this year. China bought a net 456.4 billion yen of Japanese debt in June, after purchasing 735.2 billion yen in May, which was the largest in records dating from 2005, according to Japan’s Ministry of Finance.
“China’s policy of steady and relatively rapid accumulation of foreign-exchange reserves means they have to be invested somewhere,” said Greg Gibbs, a currency strategist at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc in Sydney. “It is easy to imagine that given the low yields in the U.S. and the debt crisis in Europe, China is now willing to invest more of these reserves in the yen.”