By Tu Yonghong Source: Global Times Published: 2016-12-12
Concern about a dwindling foreign exchange (forex) reserve has been rekindled after data from China`s central bank showed Wednesday that the country`s forex reserve dropped far more than expected to $3.05 trillion in November, its lowest level since March 2011. Given the expectation of yuan depreciation in the face of a stronger dollar and ongoing capital outflows, there is a risk that China`s forex reserve may fall below the $3 trillion mark in coming months. As such, voices have emerged suggesting that China should interfere at the $3 trillion redline to prevent the reserve from falling further.
But this is based on a misconception about the function of a country`s forex reserve. For a long time, the belief has been that the more forex reserve, the better. The country even prided itself when China`s forex reserve exceeded the $3 trillion mark in 2011, far ahead of Japan, the world`s second largest forex reserve holder with $1.3 trillion in foreign reserve assets. But in fact, the $3 trillion level has never been the bottom line.
To explain, we need to understand the basic function of forex reserves. A country hoards its forex reserve largely to cushion itself from external crises. The rule of thumb for holding an adequate amount of forex reserve is that it should be sufficient to pay for three months of a country`s imports. Additionally, a country should hold a certain amount of forex reserve to repay foreign debt and interest. Lastly, the country should prepare for intervention with the foreign exchange market through market operations. These three basic functions that determined the $3 trillion level of forex reserve should not be viewed as a benchmark or a bottom line.
First, China`s imports totaled around $1.4 trillion at the end of November, which means that $400 billion is sufficient to cover three months of import bills. Besides, China has long held a trade surplus, which reached $44.61 billion in November. This means China does not need a large forex reserve to pay for imports. Second, China is a net capital exporter with its outbound direct investment surpassing its inbound foreign direct investment. Its external debt-to-GDP ratio remained low at 13 percent at the end of 2015, the second-lowest globally, according to Moody`s. That means the need to repay foreign debt is not huge. In addition, on August 11, 2015 China launched a reform to change its calculation method of the yuan central parity rate by basing it on the closing rate of the inter-bank foreign exchange market of the previous day. This reform allowed the central parity rate to closely reflect the real market situation and made the yuan`s exchange rate formation mechanism more flexible and transparent. The more market-oriented exchange rate formation requires minimum government intervention, reducing the need to hold a large forex reserve for market intervention.
China`s economic rise and changes in its trade and currency pattern means it does not need a significant level of forex reserve. The yuan`s inclusion into the IMF`s Special Drawing Rights basket makes yuan assets recognized globally and as a reserve currency issuer, China has the chance to use its own currency more freely to cope with a crisis. Besides, the dollar cannot strengthen forever even if President-elect Donald Trump does bring jobs back to the US and focuses more on the national interest, which may help push up the dollar`s value momentarily. His proposed policy will likely harm the interest of American industrial workers and exporters, which will cause support to decline along with the dollar`s value, reducing the need for holding excessive forex reserve to intervene in the forex market.
Holding a high level of forex reserve increases the opportunity cost. The yield on the benchmark 10-year US Treasury bonds is no more than 2.5 percent while yields on some government bonds in the eurozone register negative. As a country`s asset, low-yield forex reserves are less worthy than high-yield assets such as oil and natural gas and assets whose value does not fluctuate frequently. Holding too much forex reserve is no better than holding a hot potato. In this sense, China`s forex reserve is bound to fall, and a level of $2 trillion or below is also considered acceptable given the need for holding a more significant amount has shrunk.
Due to historical reasons, we hold a considerable level of forex reserve. The question now is how to dissolve it without causing panic. China does have a lot of options to efficiently use its forex reserve, including to support the country`s One Belt, One Road initiative and Chinese firms` drive to go global.
Therefore, we need to abandon the outdated concept of the more, the better regarding forex reserve holding. Defending the $3 trillion mark means non-market based government intervention, which is a result of a planned-economy mindset rather than a market-based mindset.
The author is board member and vice director of International Monetary Institute of Renmin University of China.