Feb. 4 (Bloomberg) — Real estate, stocks, credit. China sure has its share of bubbles. Oddly, little attention is paid to the biggest one of all.
China’s currency reserves grew by more than the gross domestic product of Norway in 2009. Its $2.4 trillion of reserves is a bubble all its own, one growing before our eyes with nary a peep out of those searching for the next big one.
The reserve bubble is actually an Asia-wide phenomenon. And we should stop viewing this monetary arms race as a source of strength. Here are three reasons why it’s fast becoming a bigger liability than policy makers say publicly.
One, it’s a massive and growing pyramid scheme. The issue has reached new levels of absurdity with traders buzzing about crisis-plagued Greece seeking a Chinese bailout. After all, if economies were for sale, China could use the $453 billion of reserves it amassed last year to buy Greece and Vietnam and have enough left over for Mongolia.
Countries such as the U.S. used to woo the Bill Grosses of the world to buy their debt. Now they are wooing governments. Gross, who runs the world’s biggest mutual fund at Pacific Investment Management Co., is still plenty important to officials in Washington. He’s just not as vital as the continued patronage of state asset managers in places like Beijing.
You have to wonder what folks at the International Monetary Fund are thinking these days. Their aid packages tend to come with messy requirements, such as “get your economy in order.” China’s are merely about scoring resources or geopolitical points. We have already seen China throw lifelines to Wall Street giants, including Morgan Stanley. Entire countries seem like the natural next step.
China’s huge arsenal of reserves is increasing its global influence. The trouble is, China is trapped in an arrangement of its own making. As China and other Asian nations buy more and more U.S. Treasuries, it becomes harder to unload them without causing huge capital losses. And so they keep adding to them.
“This is a titanically large foreign-exchange trade,” says David Simmonds, London-based analyst at Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc. “It’s the biggest one history has ever seen and there’s nowhere for these reserves to go.”
China aims to diversify out of U.S. Treasuries into other assets and commodities. The question that governments are grappling with is which markets are deep enough to absorb China’s riches? Gold? Oil? Euro-area debt? The Madoff family’s next Ponzi scheme?
The challenge for China alone is like trying to park an Airbus A-380 super-jumbo in a Volkswagen. Like all pyramid schemes, there’s no easy end in sight and things could end badly. If the dollar collapses, panicked selling by central banks looking to limit losses would shake global markets more than the U.S. credit crisis has.
Two, reserves are dead money. The wisdom of currency stockpiling came from the chaos of 1997. Speculators sensed authorities in Thailand were sitting on few reserves, and they were right. Their attack on the Thai baht set the stage for an Asian meltdown. Governments spent the 2000s determined not to repeat the mistake.
Asian economies have too much of a good thing on their hands. In July 2007, on the 10th anniversary of Thailand’s devaluation, Asian Development Bank President Haruhiko Kuroda said the accelerating accumulation of reserves was a major concern for the region. Too bad nobody listened to him.
These huge sums of money could be used to improve infrastructure, education, health care and reducing carbon emissions. Never before have we seen such a misallocation of such vast resources. Asia can do better with its money.
Three, reserves add to overheating risks. When policy makers buy dollars, they need to sell local currency, increasing its availability and boosting the money supply. Next they sell bonds to mop up excess money in economies. It’s an imprecise science that often leads to accelerating inflation. The strategy works out to be an expensive one.
The stakes are rising fast. The risks in Asia are skewed firmly in the direction of inflation. The focus is now on central banks to see if they will pull liquidity out of economies with higher interest rates. More attention should be on how reserve management is working at odds with that goal.
Central banks face a difficult task. They must withdraw excess liquidity without devastating their economies and running afoul of politicians. Only now is Asia finding out how some of its economic-protection tactics are amplifying the challenge.
Asia has been holding down currencies to support exports for more than a decade. It’s silly to ignore the side effects of that strategy for the region’s economies.
Think about how Dubai shook the global economy, or how the mere hint that Chinese growth may dip below 8 percent inspires panic. These disappointments pale in comparison with the turbulence that may come from Asia’s biggest bubble popping.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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Last Updated: February 3, 2010 15:00 EST
Commentary by William Pesek