Reality Check: China Now Owns a Record $1.317 Trillion of U.S. Government Debt

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Matt Egan  reports:  China stepped up its purchases of U.S. government debt late last year, increasing its holdings of Treasurys to an all-time record of $1.317 trillion in November, government data released this week revealed.

The statistics underscore how reliant the U.S. and Chinese economies are on one another even as political tensions occasionally emerge.

According to figures inadvertently released Wednesday evening on the U.S. Treasury Department website, China’s holdings of Treasurys increased by 0.9% in November to $1.317 trillion, up from $1.305 trillion in October. Year-over-year, China’s holdings rose 11.3% from $1.183 trillion.

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China’s Shadow Currency

Image Credit: REUTERS/Chance Chan

Image Credit: REUTERS/Chance Chan

Matthew Lowenstein writes:  China’s economy is straining to keep up a semblance of its former growth rate. The surest sign is the way a shadow market in bank paper has evolved to substitute the commodity that China is increasingly running short of: cash.

Bankers are passing around their own ersatz currency, stimulating trade with what, in effect, are off-the-books loans. As in the wildcat currency era of the United States, the antebellum period before America had a national currency, this paper trades at a discount from province to province. It is increasingly used for speculative purposes, is potentially inflationary, and is hard to regulate. The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has been unable or unwilling to crack down, lest it provoke a serious slowdown. But when the world’s second largest economy must resort to passing around IOUs, the financial community should take note.

Bankers acceptance notes (BANs) are nothing more than a post-dated check with a bank guarantee. For example, a buyer in Chongqing might have a hard time passing checks to vendors in Shanghai. But if the purchaser gets his paper signed by, say, Bank of China, his check now has the guarantee of a major financial institution: it is money good. BANs facilitate trade by obviating the need for vendors to assess the creditworthiness of purchasers. But in China, this prosaic instrument of commerce has become a kind of shadow currency that allows under-reserved banks to purchase deposits, fuels speculation, and undermines the central bank’s control over the money supply.

“From the bank’s point of view, Banker’s Acceptance Notes are all about getting deposits,” explains a banker in Zhengzhou. In a typical transaction, a customer with cash in his pocket can put down 100 RMB as a security deposit and walk away with double that amount in BANs. The bank is pleased because it receives hard currency in return for its own funny money. The customer is delighted: he has turned 100 RMB in cash into 200 RMB in something almost as good. In effect, the bank has given the customer a 200 RMB loan without using a cent of cash.

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