the Chinese renminbi “devaluation”


Every day the Chinese government sets a mid-point for trading of its currency prior to opening.  The renminbi is then allowed to trade within a 2% band on either side of the setting.  At this morning’s setting, Beijing put the mid-point 1.9% lower than it was yesterday.  This is an unusually large amount and can be (is being) read as an effective devaluation of the currency.

What does this really mean?


In the late 1970s, when China made its turn away from Mao and toward western economics, it chose the tried-and-true road toward prosperity trod by every other successful post-WWII nation.  It tied its currency to the dollar and offered access to cheap local labor in return for technology transfer.

Late in the last decade, the country ran out of cheap labor.  So it was forced to begin to transform its economy from export-oriented, labor-intensive manufacturing to higher value-added more capital-intensive output and toward domestic rather than foreign demand.  The orthodox, and almost always not so successful, method of kicking off this transition is to encourage a large appreciation of the currency.  That causes low-end production to leave for cheaper labor countries like Vietnam or Afghanistan.

China, armed with a cadre of young, creative economists with PhDs from the best universities in the West, decided to do things slightly  differently–to hold the currency relatively stable and to boost domestic wages by a lot to achieve the same end of making export-oriented manufacturing uneconomic.  The idea is that this doesn’t bring the economy to screeching halt in the way currency appreciation does.  So far this approach seems to be working–although the shift does involve slower growth and a lot of domestic disruption.

At the same time, forewarned by the immense damage done to Asian economies by speculative activity by the currency desks of the major international banks during the 1997-98 Asian economic crisis, China elected not to let its currency trade freely.

what’s changed?

For some years, China has been upset about the fact that despite being the biggest global manufacturing power, and by Purchasing Power Parity measure the largest economy on earth, it has virtually no say in world financial or trade regulatory bodies.  Those are dominated by the US and EU.  The main reason for China’s limited influence is that its financial system isn’t open.  (The other, of course, is that fearing China organizations like the new US-led Pacific trade alliance pointed excludes the Middle Kingdom.)

So China has been gradually lessening state control over the banks, the financial markets and the currency, in hopes of being admitted into the inner sanctums of bodies like the IMF.

In one sense, this is why China is becoming less rigid in its control of renminbi trading.

why now?

There’s no “good” time to let a currency float.  China doesn’t want to cede control over currency movements at a time when the renminbi might appreciate a lot, since that would be a severe contractionary force.  On the other hand, it doesn’t want the currency to fall through the floor either, since that would result in new export plants sprouting up all over the place.

China is growing more slowly than normal and is experiencing currency outflows as a result of that.  Letting the currency slide a bit relieves some of the pressure–although it may simultaneously attract speculators to try to push the renminbi lower.  So, yes, it is a sign of economic weakness.  At the same time, the loosening comes shortly before the IMF will decide on admitting the renminbi as one of its reserve currencies.  And it follows by a few months Beijing allowing banks to issue certificates of deposit at market rates, rather than at yields set by central planners.  So it’s also a step toward a healthier, more economically advanced, future.

my take

I think worries about the stability of the Chinese economy are overblown.  I also think that traders are using the Beijing move as an excuse for selling that they’ve been wanting to do anyway.  Beijing may have been the trigger for this, but it isn’t the cause.





MSCI and China’s A shares

A few days ago, MSCI, the premiere authority on the structuring of stock market indices around the world, declared that it had been carefully considering adding Chinese A shares to its Emerging Market indices–and concluded that it would not yet do so.

What is this all about?


MSCI (Morgan Stanley Capital International) creates indices that investment management companies use to construct their products–both index and actively managed– and to benchmark their performance.

Having a certain stock, or a set of stocks, in an index is a big deal.   For passive investors, it means that they must hold either the stocks themselves or an appropriate derivative.  Either way, client money flows into the issues.

For active investors, they’re forced to at least research the names and keep them on their radar.  If they don’t hold a certain stock or group, they’re at least tacitly betting that the names in question will underperform.


If we measure economic size using Purchasing Power Parity, China is the largest in the world.  It seems odd that the country not be fully represented in at least Emerging Markets indices.



Beijing, in the final analysis, would like to have international investors studying A shares deeply and buying and selling them freely.

How so?

In many ways, the story of the growth of the Chinese economy over the past three decades has been one of slow replacement of the central planning attitude of large, stodgy state-owned enterprises with the dynamism of more market based rivals.  The heavy lifting has been done by constant political struggle against powerful entrenched, backward-facing, political interests that even today control some state-owned enterprises.  It would be nice for a change to have the market do some of the work–by bidding up the stocks of firms that increase profits and punishing those that simply waste national resources.


In addition, Beijing now seems to believe that freer flow of investment capital in and out of China can act as a safety valve to counteract the extreme boom/bust tendency that the country’s domestic stock markets have exhibited in the past.


the burning issue?

Foreign access to the A share market is still too limited.

Fir some years, China has had a cumbersome apparatus that allows large foreign institutions to deposit specified (large) sums of money inside China and use the funds to buy and sell stocks.  But becoming a so-called qualified foreign institutional investor and operating within government-set constraints is a pain in the neck.  It’s never been a popular route.

Recently, Beijing has begun to allow investment money to flow more freely between Hong Kong and Shanghai.  A HK-Shenzen link is apparently also in the offing.

In MSCI’s view, this isn’t enough free flow yet.  I think that’s the right conclusion.  Nevertheless, weaving A shares into MSCI indices is only a question of time.

my thoughts

As professional securities analysts from the US and elsewhere turn their minds to A shares, there stand to be both big winning stocks and equally large losers.  The big stumbling block will be getting reliable information to use in sorting the market out.

the Chinese economy (i): background

size by GDP

According to the CIA World Factbook, the US is the largest economic power on the globe, with 2013 GDP (calculated using the Purchasing Power Parity method) estimated at $16.7 trillion.

The EU is a close second, with GDP of $15.8 trillion.

China is in the #3 spot, with GDP of $13.4 trillion.

Together, the trio make up about half the world’s GDP.  (A quarter century of stagnation has left former co-#1, Japan, a mere shadow of its former self, with GDP of $4.7 trillion.)

China’s economic strategy

Since turning away from central planning toward a market economy under Deng Xiaoping, China has faced two related issues:

–creating enough new jobs to absorb new entrants to the workforce, thereby avoiding political instability, while at the same time,

–reining in the inefficient, loss making, often corrupt state-owned industrial sector, which accounted for three-quarters of all employment in the late 1970s.

Two other constraints:  China had to do this without an effective central bank and with a cadre of state and local government officials who thought (many still do) that the fastest and most lucrative road to the top was to create more labor intensive, inefficient (and corrupt) local analogues of big state-owned enterprises.

China has achieved spectacular economic growth by embracing capitalism.  To some degree, the remaining state-owned sector, which now accounts for just over one quarter of the economy, has also shaped up.  But while doing this, China has tended to lurch between periods of substantial credit restriction to try to force state-owned enterprises to become more efficient or die, followed by excessive expansion when layoffs become too severe.

the latest wrinkle

Emerging economies, following the post-WWII Japan model, start by offering cheap labor for simple manufacturing businesses, so that they can acquire training and technology from foreign firms.  At some point, a given country will run out of labor.  It must then transition to higher value-added endeavors.  Few succeed without a lot of heartache, because–I think–vested interests attached to the status quo are so powerful.

China now finds itself at this transition point, an issue which dominates its current economic policy.

More tomorrow.


are South Korea and Taiwan emerging markets?: implications for index mutual funds/ETFs

Korea and Taiwan aren’t emerging economies…

Korea has been a member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the association of developed nations, since 1996.  Taiwan would presumably be a member, too, if it were not for China’s insistence that Taiwan is not a separate country, but a prodigal province of the mainland.

On a GDP per capita basis, Korea and Taiwan rank #33 and #37 in the world, respectively, just above the Czech Republic, which is also an OECD member.  On a Purchasing Power Parity basis, the two rank #25 and #20 by their per capita GDP–around the same level as the UK, France and Japan.

Looking at their place in world trade, neither is an exporter of raw materials or agricultural products in the way Australia or New Zealand (both classified by index compiler MSCI as developed countries) are.  Instead, both sell advanced technology and machinery products, like computers and smartphones.

…but their stock markets aren’t well-developed.

My experience is that company financial statements aren’t reliable in either country.  Neither governments nor company managements in either country care to have foreigners as shareholders, and treat them poorly.  There’s also a significant amount of intrusion into market workings by politically powerful entities in both.  The fact of this interference isn’t the issue; that happens everywhere.  It’s the extent–and maybe my lack of familiarity with the local rules–that bothers me.  In this regard, both Taiwan and Korea seem to me like Japan, only on steroids.

Every one of these factors is characteristic of emerging markets, not developed ones.

is MSCI about to reclassify both stock markets as developed?

There’s nothing new about what I’ve written above.  It’s been the situation for at least a decade (in stock market terms, it was worse before).

What is new, however, is that both the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times have published recent feature articles suggesting that the MSCI will reclassify both Korea and Taiwan as developed markets later this month.

that might be an issue for holders of emerging markets index funds/ETFs

I’m most familiar with these entities in the US, but I think what I’m saying holds true for EU funds/ETFs as well:

Mutual funds/ETFs are both instances of a special type of corporation that is exempt from corporate tax.  It gains this exemption by, among other things, distributing all income (net of expenses) and realized capital gains to shareholders–who must pay tax on them.  Typically, distributions are made once annually, shortly after the tax year for the fund/ETF ends.

Together, Taiwan and Korea make up about a quarter of the MSCI Emerging Markets stock index (the largest other index constituents are China and Brazil).  If both countries are reclassified, index funds/ETFs will be required by their charters to sell all their Taiwanese and Korean holdings and reinvest the proceeds back into the revised Emerging Markets index.  That will presumably generate a large capital gain to be distributed to shareholders.

four quirks about a possible distribution

1.  It’s a fact of life about funds/ETFs that the holder who pays tax on a fund’s capital gain is the person who receives the distribution–not necessarily the person who enjoyed the rise in price of the stock that’s been sold.  If you buy a fund/ETF share today and receive a massive capital gains distribution tomorrow, you’re on the hook for any tax due, not the holder of the share while the capital gain was being amassed.

2.  Any distributions are net of any accumulated realized losses.  In the case of the Vanguard emerging markets index fund, which I hold, it had unrealized gains of $7.5 billion on April 30, 2011, the date of the most recent semi-annual report, but accumulated losses of $2.4 billion.

3.  Distributions are usually made at the same time every year.  For US funds, which typically have an October tax year, distributions come most often in late November or early December.  But a distribution can be made earlier–and often is, if the fund manager fears shareholders intend to sell their holdings to avoid receiving a large taxable distribution.  In other words, a Taiwan/Korea-related distribution could come as early as in July.

4.  Virtually everyone who buys a fund/ETF signs up for automatic reinvestment of distributions, so that the distribution itself results in almost no outflows. Only anticipatory sales, made to avoid a distribution, do that.

fund groups aren’t talking

I called up Vanguard the other day to ask about this issue.  My own back-of-the-envelope reckoning is that a distribution from the Vanguard emerging markets fund, if any, will be small (25% of the accumulated unrealized gains of $7.5 billion would be $1.9 billion, less than the $2.4 billion in accumulated losses).  And I own my fund shares in an IRA, so a distribution doesn’t affect me, in any event.  But I was curious.

My Vanguard representative was aware of the issue, but said everything depended on what MSCI does later this month.  I asked for the April 30th tax situation for the fund, but she wasn’t able to find it.  I looked it up online after I hung up.

relevant tax data are easy to find

Look for the latest annual/semiannual/quarterly report for your fund/ETF.   It will have a list of holdings and their market value (but not their individual cost basis).  At the end of the list, there’ll be aggregate cost and market value data.  In a section following right after that, the fund will show its accumulated realized losses.

2008 is a key year

The emerging markets index lost over half its value that year.  Although there’s no way of being certain with any individual fund, twenty some years of managing this type of money tell me that all the redemptions that created Vanguard’s accumulated losses came at the bottom or shortly after–probably in large part from people who bought shares in 2007.

Any fund/ETF that’s large now but was just getting started in 2008 probably has little in the way of accumulated losses to offset realized capital gains.  Entities like this are where the risk of a large taxable distribution are highest, in my opinion.  We’ll know more on June 21st, when MSCI does its next revision of the index.


G-7 intervention to stop the yen’s rise: will it work?

Please take my survey.  Thanks to everyone who has done so already.  If you haven’t yet, I’d appreciate it if you’d do so.  It’s brief, anonymous and will help me focus future posts.

PSI reader survey.

Will G-7 intervention work?

Yesterday, the G-7 group of major industrial countries announced plans for coordinated intervention in the foreign exchange markets in order to halt the rise of the yen against the currencies of other developed nations.  In the wake of last week’s earthquake and tsunamis, the yen had risen by about 5% against the dollar.  Will the G-7 be successful?

The short answer is “…most likely, no.”

How so?

The main reason is that the major international commercial banks, who are the main forces in the global currency markets, are far larger and have greater financial resources than national governments do.  That might not have been true twenty-five or thirty years ago, but it is today.  Even the G-7 nations acting together don’t have the financial firepower to oppose a concerted move by the banks.  In the past, it hasn’t helped either that governments have typically tried to defend currency values that were politically attractive but economically unsound.

Japan the most skillful government player

I’ve been watching the currency markets as a global investor for over twenty-five years.  Over that time, the country that, to my mind, has the best record in influencing the direction of its currency is the Japan.  Understanding it can’t oppose the banks directly, it has waited until a wave of speculation has almost exhausted itself and then applied enough pressure to send the yen in the opposite direction.

Japan’s present stance is a curious one, though.  The current administration in Tokyo, the Democratic Party of Japan, came into office with the intention of reversing the long-standing (and very outdated) policy of the Liberal Democratic Party of always aiming to weaken the yen in order to help the prospects of export-oriented industries.  Nevertheless, when the original DPJ finance minister tried to enforce the new policy, he was replaced with someone more willing to cater to the Keidanren.  The new minister immediately began selling the yen in what I saw as simply a wasteful attempt to establish his pro-industry bona fides.  That was Naoto Kan, who is now the prime minister.  Who knows what he’ll do now.

A second curious aspect of the situation today is that there’s no good reason for the yen to be a strong currency.  The country’s workforce is shrinking.  The government is ineffective and heavily in debt.  The budget is in deficit.  And the country hasn’t shown any real growth in over twenty years.  Japan’s most “positive” feature  vs. the euro or the dollar is that it’s a known quantity and has less near-term potential for negative economic developments than the EU or the US.

Why has the yen been rising, then?  After the Kobe earthquake in 1995, Japan repatriated large amounts of money invested abroad.  Insurance companies needed funds to pay claims.  Parties–individual or corporate–who had no third-party insurance needed money to rebuild.  this activity drove the yen up by about 20% against the dollar in the months following the earthquake.  It’s probably too soon for this to be happening again.  The yen probably started to rise early this week as speculators began to bet the same thing would happen again.

Interestingly, the yen gave back almost all its gains as soon as the G-7 announced its plans and Tokyo was seen selling the yen aggressively in the currency markets.  To me, this suggests that the big players in the market haven’t decided what to do yet.  In the end, though, it will be the banks, not the G-7, that decide whether the yen strengthens or not.

investment implications

What’s the significance of a rise in the yen for investors?

An appreciating currency has two effects:

–it slows economic growth in local currency terms, and

–it reorients what economic energy there is–away from export-oriented industries, and toward domestic-oriented firms and importers.

If you were investing in Japan and thought the yen would rise, you would overweight domestic firms and underweight exporters and other companies with large foreign-currency exposure.  But the most sensible thing for most people to do, as I suggested a couple of days ago, is just to stay away.  (I own two social networking stocks in Japan, DeNA and its smaller competitor, Gree.  For now, I’m keeping them both.  These are youth-culture special situation stocks that are growing very fast, so I think they’ll be relatively unaffected by problems in the overall economy.  But I wouldn’t advise anyone to follow my lead.)