And the award for EM safe haven of choice goes to …

By Claus Vistesen

… China!

At least this is the conclusion from some fascinating number crunching from JPMorgan’s Flow & Liquidity team in their report last week. I had a feeling that this was the case looking at the surge in Chinese FX reserve growth (capital inflows) in the past 6-12 months, but it is still interesting to see such clear evidence from the data.

Here is F&L on the outflow data;

(…) around $80bn of capital left these 22 EM economies [read: essentially EM ex China and the Middle East] cumulatively since last May. This $80bn outflow is likely understated by $20bn due to the 1.6% decline in the dollar between the end of May and end of February, as a weaker dollar pushes up the dollar value of non-USD denominated reserves. Adjusting for this leaves us with around $100bn of estimated capital outflow from these 22 EM countries between May and February.

This estimate of $100bn worth of EM outflows since the tapering scare began in May/June last year is not the controversial number. The main question is then where the money went and here it gets very interesting.

This capital outflow does not necessarily reflect capital leaving the EM universe as a whole. In fact it seems that China, perceived as safe haven, has attracted a similar amount over that period. Using similar calculations of FX reserve changes adjusted for current account flows, we arrive at a $125bn cumulative capital inflow into China between May and December, as the outflows of last May/June more than reversed in subsequent months. Of this $125bn figure, around $25bn reflects the 2% decline in the dollar between the end of May and end of December. This leaves us with around $100bn of estimated capital inflow into China between May and December.

What is particularly interesting about these numbers is that the breakdown reveals that only a small fraction of this, $20bn according to JPM, reflects net FDI. The rest represent so-called hot money flows in the form of portfolio flows and short term flows into demand deposits (to take advantage of sharply higher interest rates in China).

With the CNY just having seen its strongest bout of volatility in a long time last week it may seem rather inopportune to publish a note on the inexorable and inevitable rise of the CNY. Personally, I would be wary taking the consensus view at face value here. In fact, on many accounts the CNY looks overvalued here and this is exactly what the market is also telling us I think (at least in the short run). CNY volatility and weakness are also the two main markers I would be watching for signs of capital outflows and ultimately how China could become a big headache for the rest of the world.

All this however does not detract from the fact that JPM gets the completely unofficial award this week for the best sell side data crunching exercise. The tapering scare that emerged last summer has been linked to all kinds of bad outcomes for emerging markets as a whole. Clearly, this is not an accurate description and something which investors should not lose focus of.

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