Written by Joseph Joyce

China’s capital outflow last year is estimated to have totaled $1 trillion. Money has been channeled out of China in various ways, including individuals carrying cash, the purchase of foreign assets, the alteration of trade invoices and other more indirect ways. The monetary exodus has pushed the exchange rate down despite a trade surplus, and raised questions about public confidence in the government’s ability to manage the economy. Moreover, the changes in the composition of China’s external assets and liabilities in recent years will further weaken its economy.

Before the global financial crisis, China had an external balance sheet that, like many other emerging market economies, consisted largely of assets held in the form of foreign debt—including U.S. Treasury bonds—and liabilities issued in the form of equity, primarily foreign direct investment, and denominated in the domestic currency. This composition, known as “long debt, short equity,” was costly, as the payout on the equity liabilities exceeded the return on the foreign debt. But there was an offsetting factor: in the event of an external crisis, the decline in the market value of the equity liabilities strengthened the balance sheet. Moreover, if there were an accompanying depreciation of the domestic currency, then the rise in the value of the foreign assets would further increase the value of the external balance sheet. and help stabilize the economy.

After the crisis, however, there was a change in the nature of China’s assets and liabilities.Chinese firms acquired stakes in foreign firms, while also investing in natural resources. The former were often in upper-income countries, and were undertaken to establish a position in those markets as much as earn profits. Many of these acquisitions now look much less attractive as the world economy shows little sign of a robust recovery, particularly in Europe.

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