The Great Escape from China

CAMBRIDGE – Since 2016 began, the prospect of a major devaluation of China’s renminbi has been hanging over global markets like the Sword of Damocles. No other source of policy uncertainty has been as destabilizing. Few observers doubt that China will have to let the renminbi exchange rate float freely sometime over the next decade. The question is how much drama will take place in the interim, as political and economic imperatives collide.

It might seem odd that a country running a $600 billion trade surplus in 2015 should be worried about currency weakness. But a combination of factors, including slowing economic growth and a gradual relaxation of restrictions on investing abroad, has unleashed a torrent of capital outflows.

Private citizens are now allowed to take up to $50,000 per year out of the country. If just one of every 20 Chinese citizens exercised this option, China’s foreign-exchange reserves would be wiped out. At the same time, China’s cash-rich companies have been employing all sorts of devices to get money out. A perfectly legal approach is to lend in renminbi and be repaid in foreign currency.

A not-so-legal approach is to issue false or inflated trade invoices – essentially a form of money laundering. For example, a Chinese exporter might report a lower sale price to an American importer than it actually receives, with the difference secretly deposited in dollars into a US bank account (which might in turn be used to purchase a Picasso).