Expert Zone

Straight from the Specialists

Chinese investment in US: $2 trln and counting

Chinese one yuan coins are placed on 100 yuan banknotes in this illustrative photograph taken in Beijing February 8, 2011. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic/Files
(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

If most members of Congress were asked how much China has invested in the U.S., they would respond with about $900 billion. This is a notable sum. Yet it’s too low by $1 trillion and possibly more. If many participants in financial markets were asked about Chinese investment in the U.S., they would fret over the possibility of disinvestment. This seems perfectly reasonable. At present, though, it’s essentially impossible.

The Department of the Treasury just issued its preliminary report of foreign holdings of American securities. It puts Chinese investment in the U.S. at $1.61 trillion, including $1.1 trillion in Treasury bonds, as of June 30, 2010. These are not entirely accurate, but are far more accurate figures than given in the unrevised monthly Treasury report of foreign holdings used by Congress and the media alike. To illustrate: the total for Chinese Treasury holdings was previously $844 billion. Upon revision, it is now $1.11 trillion.

There are two obvious problems. First, the large amount of U.S. dollar assets held by the PRC is obscured by poor numbers. Second, there is widespread misunderstanding of why China holds dollars. It does so due to its own balance of payments system. Until the PRC changes its own rules – which it so far has declined under intense foreign pressure – it has no choice but to buy. Disinvestment cannot occur.

More important than the yuan: Opening China’s capital account

Chinese one yuan coins are placed on 100 yuan banknotes in this illustrative photograph taken in Beijing February 8, 2011. REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic
(The views expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not represent those of Reuters)

The entire global economy would benefit if the dollar-yuan exchange rate were driven by market demand. It would contribute to a U.S.-China economic relationship that is more balanced, more sustainable and more beneficial to people in both countries in a way that a government-ordered revaluation would not.

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