Tuesday, August 26, 2008

China, US Dollar and making money in this situation!

Yves Smith is back to her best. She weaves together of thoughts on US situation, Chinese options and possible solutions at naked capitalism: Summers: "The global consensus on trade is unravelling". It raises many questions like Why is China buying US debt? And more generally Can you even think of making money in this situation? Here are my thoughts on the same.

China has limited options. A large part of its wealth is loaned to the US. Now the only volatile variable in this is exchange rate. If you have 2 trillion dollars sitting out there when exchange rate varies by 10% - I am sure you heart is in your mouth. If that much money has to retain value then it has to sit on something more robust than US debt!
For China, the only other way to retain value is to keep the relationship intact (because China CAN control one side of the peg!). But by committing to manage exchange rate - China now has no option but to be the large buyer of additional US debt. This is fine if China believes it can shore-up all the "remaining" US debt.
Now this situation is ripe for other nations, funds, entities to gradually off-load their USD holdings and retire to the peace of Euro, gold or some other value retainer. They are attracted by buying options for raw-materials i.e. food and energy. That makes the case for rising energy and food prices. This is same old logic behind this new-found attraction - hedging. Countries would ideally like to lock their costs in current prices to protect against future rise. So US debt problem now extends to US assets.

Where will China get the money to buy US assets?
While large part of the money comes from running trade surplus (for a little while), some part also comes through Chinese savings and investments. Chinese FDI is in a position to buy lot of US assets and given the situation - it will do so. Implication is if you have to shore up the Yuan for sometime and release it later - you will make a tidy dollar profit - if it is of any value.

So how do we retain - rather add value - sit on cash?
Sitting with cash (in local currency) is great stratgy for retaining value in local context. US domestic investors are ok with dollar profit - if they are going to spend it domestically. But most investors look to increase or at least preserve value. This was ok when dollar was default currency. It helped measure value - hence retain and enhance value. That was why nations bought US assets not because they were unusally attractive.
The other metric of value is the purchasing power. Lets say 10 dollars fetched one meal in 2008. Then all the current holdings should be measured in no. of meal terms. Then its easier to measure and enhance value again. So the best value retainers will be derieved from future consumption basket. So in-effect real hard-core hedging should help retain value. If smartly done - you may end up top of the heap.

Surely there is some hidden risk there too...
The situation becomes more critical if we realise that "contract enforcability" underlying the hedges can be threatened. This risk is sure to increase as money involved increases - i.e. when China realises it holds larger and larger share of US debt outstanding - and by that time China's stake would be probably greater than 4 trillion. Once China does realise - we are going to be in really, really tough times. In old times - this situation would be enough to cause a war. In today's times I hope not.

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Note: - The nakedcapitalism post is must read. It connects, complements and analyses this theme from Larry Summers FT article, Brad Setser (article I linked yesterday), William Greider, Dani Rodrik, Thomas Palley and El-Erian. I am fan of Yves Smith!
Also Steven Kamin has interesting findings at Vox.