The Future is Now

China’s Q2 2018 Balance of Payments (BOP) figures show important deviations from past patterns, and point the way toward China’s BOP future. This note analyzes the most important data points and discusses the implications amidst US-China tensions and an otherwise deteriorating external environment for China. The key findings are:

A shrinking goods trade surplus is melting China’s current account surplus: Despite frontloading of exports in response to looming US tariffs, China’s goods trade surplus shrank 20% compared to last year to the lowest in five years for a second quarter. The deficit in services trade remains unchanged, driving down China’s quarterly current account surplus to just $5.3 billion. After a deficit of $34.1 billion in Q1 China is on track for the first annual current account deficit in a quarter century.

Strong bond and equity investment inflows sustained the financial account surplus: In Q2, China saw the largest portfolio securities surplus in history at $61 billion, primarily into the government bond market. That was sufficient to offset other outflows in the capital and financial account, as well as capital outflows that might be hidden within the services trade deficit. Last quarter was roughly in line with Beijing’s best-case scenario in the coming years, with stronger portfolio inflows offsetting the inevitable outflows from diversification by Chinese households and corporates.

US-China frictions could disrupt this new equilibrium, paving the way for further yuan depreciation: Despite the relatively healthy conditions in Q2, China’s currency still depreciated by 5.55% during the quarter. If the US-China dispute further erodes China’s current account balance and changes the psychology around further portfolio inflows, China may have to resort to further depreciation of the exchange rate to resolve BOP pressures and re-ignite investor appetite for Chinese securities.

Posted October 19, 2018
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