For the past year, Chinese selling of Treasuries has vexed investors and served as a gauge of the health of the world’s second-largest economy.
The People’s Bank of China, owner of the world’s biggest foreign-exchange reserves, burnt through 20% of its war chest since 2014, dumping about $250 billion of U.S. government debt and using the funds to support the yuan and stem capital outflows.
While China’s sales of Treasuries have slowed, its holdings of U.S. equities are now showing steep declines.
The nation’s stash of American stocks sank about $126 billion, or 38%, from the end of July through March, to $201 billion, Treasury Department data show. That far outpaces selling by investors globally in that span -- total foreign ownership fell just 9%. Meanwhile, China’s U.S. government-bond stockpile was relatively stable, dropping roughly $26 billion, or just 2%.
"China’s U.S. portfolio doesn’t just consist of Treasuries,” said Brad Setser, a senior fellow at Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “To gauge China’s activity in the market it’s increasingly important to look beyond the Treasury market.”
The liquidation of shares suggests China’s central bank was still under pressure to raise dollars and smooth the yuan’s depreciation even though Treasuries selling abated, including through suspected custodial accounts in Belgium. The equities reduction reminds investors that while China’s $1.4 trillion trove of Treasuries dwarfs its other foreign assets, it has accumulated enough U.S. stocks to influence global markets.
“Selling some of its equities is a reasonable way of raising the cash needed to finance the big drawdown in reserves,” said Mr. Setser, a former deputy assistant secretary for international economic analysis at the Treasury.
The PBOC’s press office directed questions to the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the arm of the central bank that manages the nation’s reserves. Officials at SAFE didn’t respond to a request for comment.
While the amount China unloaded is a sliver of the $23 trillion U.S. equity market, it’s significant when compared with holdings of other big investors. The largest American mutual fund, the Vanguard Total Stock Market Index Fund, oversees about $373 billion.
The Treasury doesn’t break down its data into private and official holdings. Yet China’s capital controls limit the candidates capable of amassing such a hoard of U.S. equities. Also, private Chinese ownership of foreign stocks remained stable in 2015, signaling that the selling originated from an official source, SAFE data on international investments indicate.
Given that China’s private holdings of equities abroad are smaller than the nation’s U.S. holdings as reflected in the Treasury tally, “one can reasonably infer that SAFE, whose reserve assets are not included separately in the net international investment position, holds many of the equities," Mr. Setser said.
Switching to selling stocks allows the PBOC to retain safer, more liquid assets such as Treasuries that it can unload easily in times of turmoil. Two rounds of declines in the yuan in the last 10 months spurred market volatility worldwide and led investors to monitor China’s reserves as a measure of how much of its war chest the country was burning through to combat capital flight.
Dumping equities may prove to be a savvy move, considering that the S&P 500 Index has gone 13 months without a new high on a closing basis. China, which more than doubled its holdings of U.S. stocks during the bull market that began in 2009, wouldn’t be alone among government-affiliated sellers of investments abroad. Sovereign funds from Qatar to the United Arab Emirates and Russia have been liquidating assets since crude began tumbling in 2014.
“The Chinese, or other people for that matter, are taking the view that sitting in U.S. equities is presumably quite risky, and I’m not surprised they’re shifting," said Fredrik Nerbrand, global head of asset allocation at HSBC Bank Plc in London. “This seems like more of a generation of cash more than anything else, and probably a de-risking of their portfolio.”