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China orders retreat from risky assets
By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
The Telegraph, London
Wednesday, February 10, 2010
China has ordered managers of its vast currency reserves to withdraw from risky dollar assets and retreat to core debt guaranteed by the US government, a clear sign that Beijing is battening down the hatches for fresh trouble on global markets.
A Communist Party directive leaked to the Chinese-language edition of the Asia Times said dollar reserves should be limited to US Treasuries or agency mortgage debt such as Freddie Mac that enjoys Washington's implicit backing.
BNP Paribas said the move has major implications for global risk assets. "The message from Beijing is that we don't like this environment," said Hans Redeker, the bank's currency chief.
"When the world's biggest investor turns risk-averse, that is something you take notice of. We think this could become the new theme for the markets in the medium-term," he said.
The directive covers both the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) and China's state-controlled commercial banks. Together they have an estimated $3 trillion of foreign holdings.
The exact breakdown of China's holdings are a state secret but it is understood that SAFE bought large amounts of corporate debt as well as municipal and state bonds during the boom years of 2006 and 2007. Any move to liquidate holding of California debt at this crucial juncture could have serious implications.
The exact motives for China's shift of strategy are unclear. Analysts say the authorities may fear that the end of quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve could cause risk spreads to widen sharply, triggering heavy losses. The shift in policy appears unrelated to the US spat with China over Taiwan.
SAFE has some very sophisticated economists. The chief investment officer of its reserve management department is Changhong Zhu, until recently head of derivatives for the hedge fund operations of the giant US financial group PIMCO, and viewed as one of the "rock stars" of the global hedge fund industry.
The move by Beijing comes at a time when China's current account surplus is falling. This reduces reserve growth, reducing the supply of global liquidity.
Mr Redeker said this will have the paradoxical result of boosting the dollar. Flight from risk can lead to an automatic rise as hedge funds, banks, and investors across the world cut back leverage on dollar balance sheets.
David Bloom, head of currencies at HSBC, said the explosive dollar rally over the last six weeks has been the reversal of the dollar carry trade. "It has been short, sharp, and vicious. People borrowed in US dollars to invest in places like Brazil, Turkey, and New Zealand and now it is unwinding."
"We don't think the dollar rally is going to last much beyond the first quarter because we're in a new world of rotating sovereign crises where politics matters again. It's Greece right now but it could be the UK next, and then US which has yet to take any steps at all to tackle it fiscal deficit," he said.
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