More Disguised Capital Flight and Fragility in China

Well I am back in Shenzhen and getting back in to the swing of things which means I will be blogging again regularly.

I had a great summer with all types of meetings with people providing insight about China and global markets. The more I do this the more I love hearing what other people think because it is stimulating to consider new ideas or have to sharpen existing ideas.

There are a couple of ideas I want to briefly focus on about China today. The first is my sense has been for some time that there are significantly more downside risks to China than upside possibilities. For most of 2016, China between the massive amount of various stimulus pushed by Beijing have kept the economy bobbing along and the global environment was benign enough that some sense of security existed. Let me give you an example of what I mean by benign global environment. Even though outflows in 2016 are already ahead of what they were for all of 2015, PBOC FX reserves remain effectively unchanged for various reasons ranging from a USD not rising, bond valuations, and probable assistance from the Bank of China.

However, many focused on China have begun to realize that even though things are not noticeably getting worse, most if not all underlying indicators continue to worsen. Though credit growth is not exploding at the rate of the beginning of the year, it continues to far exceed real or nominal GDP growth not to mention revenue (the much more important indicator) growth of firms and governments. Public deficit is upwards of 10% and capital continues to flee China. Many realize this continued underlying deterioration of indicators and watching closely.

The term I would use is that what we are seeing is leading to increasing fragility. The $40-50 billion a month in net outflows we are seeing does not represent a signal that a collapse of the RMB is imminent. However, it makes China more fragile to specific shocks. For instance, as the USD has largely languished this year as people wait for more concrete indication of rate hikes, the RMB has not faced significant upward pressure. This has reduced outflow pressures and buoyed PBOC FX reserves in valuation terms also. However, should we see a less benign environment, it is quite possible that the $40-50 billion a month in net outflows and FX reserves could see large and abrupt increases.

Seems like everyday we see a new example of this increased fragility and new data problems. Brad Setser over at the Council on Foreign Relations has pointed out the discrepancy between what China reports paying for “imports” of tourism services and what its counterparty countries report receiving from China. What he has essentially pointed out is similar to what has been pointed out with, for instance, the discrepancy between Hong Kong exports to China and Chinese imports from Hong Kong. When Hong Kong reports exports to China of say $1 billion USD but China reports imports from Hong Kong of $10 billion, that is essentially a capital outflow of $9 billion.

Setser in his post just chalks it up to a discrepancy and claims that it can’t be explained by “hidden capital flows” or actual tourist numbers. There are two important things to note about this which Setser generally either avoids or fails to grasp. First, tourist numbers really are not up only 3%. They are up much more stronger than that and here is why. The historical “tourist” numbers were inflated via day traders shuttling back and forth between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. Consequently, when Hong Kong began cracking down on day trading really beginning in 2014 but limiting actual trips by Mainland day traders in 2015, “tourist” numbers into Hong Kong collapsed. Spending in Hong Kong and land crossings from the Mainland have collapsed. I can tell you first hand standing in passport lines regularly, previously people would test the limits of human strength to carry goods into Shenzhen are now loaded at most with one suitcase. In other words, there was a lot of miscounting of “tourists” who were focused on moving goods from Hong Kong and not moving capital. That has changed.

Because international travel from China basically consists of land crossings from Mainland into Hong Kong and air travel, we can easily compare the two. International air travel this year from China is up 26% while land crossings into Hong Kong, where there are limitations on Mainland crossings into Hong Kong, are down 12%. Given that land crossings into Hong Kong make up approximately one-third of all international travel for China, this is not an insignificant shift. So to say that tourism is up only modestly uses flawed historical data to argue that international tourism from China is up only 3%.

Second, this type of discrepancy Setser has found is a reoccurring theme and is disguised capital flight. We see this type of discrepancy in the previously noted Hong Kong exports to China vs. Chinese imports from Hong Kong but also the difference between Chinese imports from the world recorded at Customs vs. what banks report paying for imports. I have said time and time again that the capital flows from China are structural in nature and are only exacerbated by 25bps from the Fed or carry trade. However, time and time again, people are surprised by large sources of capital flows from China they find from irregularities in the data.

In fact, the per capita tourism spend really began jumping in 2012 and 2013. Why does that matter? That is when China liberalized the current account, began a corruption crackdown, and capital began fleeing through other channels. So in fact, if you put this discrepancy in context in makes sense. For instance, the per capita “spend” by Chinese tourists has actually decreased by about 10% over the past 12-18 months if you account for the decline in day traders from Shenzhen. Furthermore, if you understand the discrepancy will not show up as “hotel” spending but as a new bank account that gets registered in Chinese data as “tourism” services consumed elsewhere, it all makes perfect sense.

Everything that is going on is slowly increasing the fragility of Chinese finances.