The Biggest Peg: Chinese Yuan and Sterilization Bonds

Jeffrey Frankel, of Harvard University wrote “On the Renminbi”, concerning the RMB/USD peg as the view looked from 2005, just after the first minor devaluation (2.1%) of the RMB. When one currency is pegged to another, the value will typically be pegged too high, or too low. If pegged too high, there will be a run on the currency, just like an old fashioned bank run, but in this case it’s the nations central bank. If pegged too low, the currency will be undervalued. Hot money will arrive in anticipation of the eventual revaluation. Central Bankers must try to get the excess cash out of the system, primarily through Sterilization Bonds.

We have already mentioned that a balance of payments surplus implies that the reserve component of the monetary base is increasing. Some expansion in the monetary policy may be entirely appropriate, especially in an economy with strong long-term growth. But in an economy that is in danger of overheating, the central bank may wish to sterilize the inflow, so as to prevent expansion in the overall money supply.

If the money supply expands, you will create inflation and may also create asset bubbles which [mis]allocate resources from productive efficient. Recently these misallocations have expanded global housing markets and propped up global stock markets.

Sterilization can be a good response to an inflow, for a period of time. It can help the country maintain its exchange rate target without abandoning a target for the money supply or interest rate. But it can become increasingly difficult over time, especially if traditional barriers to capital flows have been gradually eroded. One problem is that it just prolongs the balance of payments disequilibrium, because it by-passes the automatic mechanism of adjustment that reserve flows provide under the monetary approach to the balance of payments. Another potential problem is the quasi-fiscal deficit: if the central bank has to pay high interest rates to get domestic residents voluntarily to absorb “sterilization bonds,” while receiving low interest rates on its reserves of US treasury securities, then it is running a deficit.

Under normal circumstances, Sterilization Bonds would require chinese state banks to purchase bonds from the government, reducing the size of the money supply (because money is handed back to the government). However, in China all foreign currencies collected at state banks are immediately surrendered to the central bank. I believe this policy removes the typical need for “Sterilization”.

Some governments are able to force their bonds down the throats of their banks without paying market interest rates, a form of financial repression; but this just weakens the balance sheets of banks and raises the odds of a banking crisis somewhere down the road.

With the banks all being owned by the Gov’t, this is the case here…

One disadvantage of a balance of payments surplus, on the other hand, is that the reserves, which are typically held in the form of US Treasury bills and bonds and other dollar securities, pay a low rate of return. Interest rates on US treasury bills are low because the market is so liquid and because default is assumed to be very unlikely — and also, during the period 2001-2004, because the Federal Reserve has held short-term interest rates well below normal historical levels. The Chinese authorities have evidently already diversified out of Treasury bills, into agency bonds and other longer term securities, which will probably help the yield somewhat. But it is more likely than not that the dollar will depreciate over the next ten years (not necessarily in the short run), in light of the large US trade deficit, which would reduce even further the return to holding dollar securities. (Diversification into the euro or other currencies has evidently not yet gone far.)

The low interest rates associated with this giant pool of money helped sow the seeds for the global financial crisis. Basically, there is too much money in RMB and not enough good USD investments, yet the Fed set interest rates too low. The result was Chinese bankers buying Fannie, Freddie and boatloads of mortgaged backed securities.

These points are drawn largely from the experience of emerging markets such as Colombia and Korea in the early 1990s. Those countries were able to sterilize capital inflows only for a year or two, before it became too difficult, due to high interest rates on the sterilization bonds and the prolongation of strong capital inflows (as in standard macro models). Chinese officials may be correct that their case is somewhat different, due to a financial system that is less open and less market-oriented.

See the “surrender” policy for dealing with foreign currency.

The capital inflow has consisted largely of Chinese citizens bringing capital flight money back home, speculating on a revaluation, and so far the authorities have not had to pay high interest rates locally to sterilize it. But they may find it increasingly difficult to sterilize further inflows.

The “inflows” are all the Chinese expatriate class returning home story was probably true when this story started, however the size of the bubble today and “Rise of China” being the most read story of the decade indicate the story has been stretched quite a ways now. Interesting that speculators always have a million reasons why it’s different this time and how other people are speculating, but not them and it’s not widespread.

Either way, if this gap is real, better to address it through appreciation than inflation.

But I doubt this is the policy that the CCP will peruse, despite how logical it may be and how much it may benefit the average citizen.

4 thoughts on “The Biggest Peg: Chinese Yuan and Sterilization Bonds”

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