U.S. debt is losing its appeal in China

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PostThu Jan 08, 2009 12:41 pm » by Becks

HONG KONG: China has bought more than $1 trillion in American debt, but as the global downturn has intensified, Beijing is starting to keep more of its money at home - a shift that could pose some challenges to the U.S. government in the near future but eventually may even produce salutary effects on the world economy.

At first glance, the declining Chinese appetite for U.S. debt - apparent in a series of hints from Chinese policy makers over the past two weeks, with official statistics due for release in the next few days - comes at an inopportune time. On Tuesday, the U.S. president-elect, Barack Obama, said Americans should get used to the prospect of "trillion-dollar deficits for years to come" as he seeks to finance an $800 billion economic stimulus package.

Normally, China would be the most avid taker of the debt required to pay for those deficits, mainly short-term Treasury securities. In the past five years, China has spent as much as one-seventh of its entire economic output on the purchase of foreign debt - largely U.S. Treasury bonds and American mortgage-backed securities.

But now, Beijing is seeking to pay for its own $600 billion economic stimulus - just as tax revenue falls sharply as the Chinese economy slows. Regulators have ordered banks to lend more money to small and midsize enterprises, many of which are struggling with slower exports, and Chinese bankers say they are being instructed to lend more to local governments to allow them to build new roads and other projects as part of the stimulus program.

"All the key drivers of China's Treasury purchases are disappearing," said Ben Simpfendorfer, an economist in the Hong Kong office of the Royal Bank of Scotland. "There's a waning appetite for dollars and a waning appetite for Treasuries. And that complicates the outlook for interest rates."

Fitch Ratings, the credit rating agency, forecasts that China's foreign reserves will increase by $177 billion this year - a large number, but down sharply from an estimated $415 billion last year.

In the United States, China's voracious demand for American bonds has helped keep interest rates low for borrowers ranging from the government to home buyers. Reduced Chinese enthusiasm for buying those bonds takes away some of this dampening effect.

But with U.S. interest rates still at very low levels after recent cuts to stimulate the economy, it is quite cheap for the U.S. Treasury to raise capital now. And there seem to be no shortage of buyers for Treasury bonds and other debt instruments: Prices for U.S. debt have soared as yields have declined.

The long-term effects of this shift in capital flows - with China keeping more of its money home and the U.S. economy becoming less dependent on one lender - are unclear, but the phenomenon is something economists have said is long overdue.

What is clear is that the effect of the global downturn on China's finances has been drastic. As recently as 2007, tax revenue soared 32 percent, as factories across China ran flat out. But by November, government revenue had actually dropped 3 percent from a year earlier. That prompted Finance Minister Xie Xuren to warn Monday that 2009 would be "a difficult fiscal year."

A senior central bank official mentioned last month that China's $1.9 trillion in foreign exchange reserves had actually begun to shrink. The reserves - mainly bonds issued by the U.S. Treasury and by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the mortgage finance companies - had been rising quickly ever since the Asian financial crisis in 1998.

The strength of the dollar against the euro in the fourth quarter of last year contributed to slower growth in China's foreign reserves, said Fan Gang, an academic adviser to China's central bank, at a conference in Beijing on Tuesday. The central bank keeps track of the total value of its reserves in dollars and a weaker euro means that euro-denominated assets in those reserves are worth less in dollars, decreasing the total value of the reserves.

But the pace of China's accumulation of reserves began slowing in the third quarter along with the slowing of the Chinese economy, and appears to reflect much broader shifts.

China manages its reserves with considerable secrecy, but economists believe about 70 percent is in dollar-denominated assets and most of the rest in euros. The country has bankrolled its huge reserves by effectively requiring its entire banking sector, which is state-controlled, to hand nearly one-fifth of its deposits over to the central bank. The central bank, in turn, has used the money to buy foreign bonds.

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