China's hottest export may be its money

October 17, 2017, 4:25pm

China’s emergence as the world’s second-largest economy — a historic boom that pulled about 800 million Chinese out of dire poverty while simultaneously putting downward pressure on wages across the world’s wealthiest countries — is arguably the most important economic story in the last 50 years.

But where does China go from here? Its economy has slowed from a breakneck annual pace of between 12 and 14 percent a decade ago, to a more stable rate of roughly 6.9 percent, according to the somewhat-fudged official statistics.

Advertisement

Along with consolidating President Xi Xinping’s already significant power over China’s ruling party, the highly secretive, twice-a-decade Communist Party Congress, which will start Wednesday, is sure to focus on grinding out more economic growth. To that end, Xinping is also expected to focus on strengthening the party’s grip over significant swaths of the economy, including industries like energy, banking and telecommunication industries. The government hopes to “coax” additional capital investment — that is things like plants, infrastructure and real estate — into the economy from private players.

But if you look across global markets, you can see that capital doesn’t necessarily want to cooperate, and in fact, appears eager to slip the grip of the party.

For instance, the yield on Chinese government bonds rose in recent days as wealthy investors sold off their stockpile of the safe investments traditionally used to save cash. Yields on the Chinese 10-year government bond rose to 3.71 percent, the highest level in almost three years.

It’s important to note that bond yields rise for a bunch of reasons, such as faster economic growth and expectation of higher interest rates from central banks. (Economic officials did recently say growth will remain at 7 percent in 2017.) But other parts of the markets also show money leaking out of the Chinese economy.

Bitcoin is a favorite area for Chinese people eager for a conduit to move money out of the country’s closed financial system — a New York Times analysis found that 42 percent of all bitcoin occurred on Chinese exchanges in 2016. And a report from Goldman Sachs in 2015 found that 80 percent of bitcoin transactions involved the Chinese currency.

Advertisement

It’s not showing any sign of slowing — the cryptocurrency is up more than 800 percent over the last 12 months alone, notching a series of record highs bringing it close to $6,000.

Meanwhile, other hotspots for affluent Chinese to park their money have grown to include real estate in countries such as Australia and Canada. The influx of Chinese cash into those relatively small countries also resulted in a sharp spike in property prices over the last year.

None of this amounts to a significant crisis for the Chinese economy, which has seen episodes of large-scale capital flight in recent years that haven’t done too much to derail growth.

But it also suggests wealthy Chinese continue to have doubts about the durability of China’s economic progress. And at least some of them are interested in taking their winnings from the decades-long Chinese economic miracle and moving it to a safer locale with more robust property rights and respect for the rule of law. That’s not exactly a vote of confidence in China’s economic system.