If this keeps up, Trump won’t have to do anything to punish China’s economy

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People try to catch 100-yuan banknotes flying inside a dome during a store’s promotional event in Nanjing, China.
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Reuters

China’s foreign exchange reserves fell yet again in November, thanks to the unrelenting upward march of the US dollar and the yuan’s continued slide down.

Gross reserves decreased $69.1 billion, the largest drop in 10 months, falling to $3.05 trillion in November, the People’s Bank of China said on Wednesday. That’s down from a peak of $4 trillion in 2014.

Meanwhile, net reserves – gross reserves less foreign debt – have fallen to a jaw-dropping $1.7 trillion, according to data from the hedge fund Kynikos Associates.

This is all happening because money is flowing out of China as the yuan’s value falls, and economists think it will continue to fall on expectations that the US Federal Reserve will raise interest rates.

“Beyond the headline data, other indicators point to increasing capital outflows and bearish sentiment on the yuan,” Bloomberg economist Tom Orlik wrote in a note following the data print. “Based on the change in FX reserves net of the estimated trade surplus and the impact of currency movements, outflows may have edged up to $80 billion in November from $75 billion in October. China’s corporates continue to hold on to almost half of their forex earnings – a sign that yuan depreciation expectations remain high.”

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Business Insider; Data source: Kynikos Associates

The government is also using up foreign reserves to stop the yuan from falling faster than it is. In its announcement, the government cited “market operations” as a reason for falling reserves.

This is contrary to what US President-elect Donald Trump has said about China – that it’s purposely depressing the value of its currency.

In fact, the Chinese government wants the opposite. Since the middle of 2014, it has been trying to strengthen its services sector – retail, banking, etc. – through domestic consumption. It can’t do that, though, if the yuan is weak and Chinese people lack purchasing power. It’s one of the worst-case scenarios for the government.

What’s more, declining foreign exchange reserves have historically caused major yuan volatility. You may recall that this was the source of violent market moves at the beginning of 2016 that caused stock markets around the world to flash red.

There’s only one way to stop all this, according to Patrick Chovanec, managing director and chief strategist at Silvercrest Asset Management:

Reform in this case means the country deals with its massive corporate debt and overcapacity issues and strengthens the private sector. Fortunately, Chinese leaders want to do a lot of this stuff. Unfortunately, these things are all really hard.

And the declining reserves show that China’s running out of time.