Why China’s capital account liberalisation has stalled

In recent years, China’s capital account has swung into deficit, with billions of dollars in foreign exchange reserves going missing. Risky liberalisation is the reason behind this massive capital flight

Author: Yu Yongding
February 12, 2018

In early 2012, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) took advantage of what it viewed as a ‘strategic opportunity’ to accelerate capital account liberalisation, which has been underway since 2009. The renminbi, it was expected, would be ‘basically’ convertible by the end of 2015, and fully convertible by the end of 2020. But things haven’t worked out as expected.

If the Chinese Government had not taken action to slow the process of capital account liberalisation in 2016, the results could have been truly devastating

Problems began in 2014, when China’s capital account – which had been in surplus since the 1990s – swung into deficit. By the end of the next year, the deficit had grown so large that China’s overall balance of payments (BOP), too, turned negative, even as China’s current account surplus remained above $300bn. Last year, China’s capital account deficit amounted to some $200bn.

To protect the renminbi, the PBOC intervened heavily – a process that proved costly. In less than two years, China’s foreign exchange reserves fell from their peak of $4trn in mid-2014 to just below $3trn.

Ignoring the truth

At first, many were indifferent to the losses. Some even argued that there were no losses at all, but rather a positive shift in resource allocation, with official reserves becoming privately held foreign assets. After all, they pointed out, as China’s foreign exchange reserves fell by $1trn from the second quarter of 2014 to the end of 2016, holdings of foreign assets by the private sector increased by $900bn.

But this argument failed to recognise that, during the same period, China’s cumulative current account surplus was $750bn. By definition, a country’s current account surplus should be equal to the increase in the country’s net foreign assets. So what really happened was that $850bn of China’s foreign exchange reserves had gone missing.

And, in fact, this process had begun much earlier: from the first quarter of 2011 to the third quarter of 2016, while China’s cumulative current account surplus was $1.28trn, its net foreign assets fell by $12.4bn. In other words, since 2011, some $1.3trn of China’s foreign assets has disappeared. Recognising this dangerous trend, the PBOC abruptly hit the brakes on capital account liberalisation in 2016, tightening capital controls to a degree not seen since the Asian
financial crisis of the late 1990s.

Broken records

The gap between changes in a country’s current account and its net foreign asset position partly reflects net errors and omissions in the BOP calculations: when capital flows out of a country, the transactions are supposed to be reflected in the BOP table. But in a country like China, where capital flight is illegal and investors attempt to evade capital controls, transactions might not be recorded at all. Instead, they show up in net errors and omissions, which in China have turned strongly negative in recent years, owing, in my view, to accelerating capital flight.

Some in China have argued that the negative trend for net errors and omissions is simply the result of statistical mistakes. But when the shortfall amounts to $1.3trn, such claims can hardly be taken seriously. Nor can they account for the fact that, over the last six years, China’s net errors and omissions have moved in just one direction, always contributing to the BOP deficit.

Moving money

Although China’s net errors and omissions must be linked to capital flight, the figures do not have to line up exactly; net errors and omissions can be either larger or smaller than the actual figure. In China’s case, the latter seems to be true, for a simple reason: capital flight may also be recorded as regular capital outflows that do not affect errors and omissions.

For example, as they pursue overseas mergers and acquisitions, some Chinese corporations have taken large amounts of capital out of China legally. But no one knows whether those outflows will translate into net foreign assets owned by Chinese residents. That is why, to gauge the scale of capital flight, one must also consider the difference between year-end investment positions, net of financial transactions and other changes in position.

A matter of imports

Doing so leads to a stark conclusion: since 2012, and especially since 2014, China has experienced massive capital flight. If the government had not taken action to slow, if not halt, the process of capital account liberalisation in 2016, the results could have been truly devastating.

In the past, the key challenge facing China was to stop importing ‘dark matter’: as one of the world’s largest net creditors, China needed to stop running an investment income deficit. Today’s challenge is to avoid ‘matter annihilation’: China must prevent its net foreign assets from disappearing.

In early 2013, when capital account liberalisation was in full swing, I wrote: “With China’s financial system too fragile to withstand external shocks, and the global economy mired in turmoil, the PBOC would be unwise to gamble on the ability of rapid capital account liberalisation to generate a healthier and more robust financial system.”

In fact, I continued: “Given China’s extensive reform agenda, further opening of the capital account can wait – and, in view of liberalisation’s ambiguous benefits and significant risks, it should.” Four years later, this advice is worth reiterating.