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Here’s one of the most depressing articles I’ve read in a long time, and it deals with a (big) piece of U.S.-China economic relations to which I haven’t paid enough attention so far:  flows of financial investment.

It’s depressing because it shows that, although the Trump administration has (rightly, in my view) begun to decouple America’s economy from China’s, and made impressive progress in trade and foreign direct investment (purchases of “hard assets,” like factories and labs and enterprises and real estate), portfolio investment (purchases of stocks and bonds) into China from around the world is not only continuing – it’s booming. And these capital flows, including resources from Americans, are already much bigger than direct investment flows and are  rapidly approaching even the mammoth scale of trade flows.

According to this Financial Times piece, in total, investors outside China this year have bought about $150 billion worth of Chinese stocks and bonds – including Chinese government bonds. (Not that the debt of Chinese entities practically speaking differs fundamentally from national and local Chinese government debt, since there’s no private sector worthy of the name in China.)

The Financial Times reports that the vast majority of these inflows are bond purchases, meaning that investors outside China are lending to all manner of borrowers inside the People’s Republic. But buys of stocks in the Chinese entities commonly and misleadingly described as “companies” that presumably closely resemble their counterparts in genuine free market systems matter as well, because they, too, make new resources available to the Chinese regime. And after suffering from net outflows earlier this year, when Beijing locked down much of the country’s economy after the CCP Virus broke out, Chinese stocks are enjoying net inflows once again.

Moreover, China is starting to enjoy this foreign capital windfall just as its own ability to generate the savings needed to finance the huge debts that have fueled the latest phase of its ongoing economic expansion has begun weakening. Indeed, the need to replace faltering domestic capital sources with foreign capital is exactly what’s behind Beijing’s recent spate of decisions to reduce the barriers to overseas investing in China’s financial markets.

Foreign purchases of Chinese financial assets are still dwarfed by China’s global trade surplus (i.e., its profits) this year, which stands at just under $500 billion through November. But they’re now twice as great as global direct investment in China (about $115 billion through October, Beijing reports).

Obviously, the Trump administration can’t directly control non-U.S. foreign investment into China. But capital coming from the United States hasn’t exactly been chump change. I haven’t been able to find official data, but Steven A. Schoenfeld of the investment research and advisory firm MV Index Solutions, who has been investigating this issue for several years, has written that, in 2019, “nearly $400 billion of new foreign investment into Chinese equities was driven by changes in allocations within benchmark indexes, with American investors accounting for more than a third of these massive portfolio flows.” In addition, he has estimated that the 30 largest U.S. public workers’ pension plans had invested more than $50 billion in Chinese entities as of the beginning of this year. (Full disclosure: Steven is a long-time close personal friend.)

The Trump administration belatedly has tried to curb American portfolio investment in China, and has both forced a big federal workers’ pension fund to halt a planned great increase its China holdings, and has ordered a ban on all U.S. financial investment in dozens of companies linked to the Chinese military.

But unless more comprehensive curbs are enacted, the decisions by Wall Street research firms to boost China’s presence in the stock indices they construct, and which both government pension and private fund managers generally try to track, will still ensure that these investors’ exposure to China keeps rising. And the lure of expanded opportunities in China’s already huge and potentially huge-er financial services market, and its still healthily growing real economy, will continue fueling American and other foreign investors’ appetite for both Chinese stocks and bonds. Ironically, the President’s Phase One trade deal could help sustain and even increase U.S. investments in China via the commitments China has made to ease barriers to entry for American finance companies.

In fact, Steven Schoenfeld’s research makes clear that overall, despite these Trump administration curbs, total foreign holdings of Chinese stocks and bonds could approach and even exceed the half trillion dollar level in the next two or three years. These sums would equal several percentage points of China’s total economy.

Nor does the foreign financial support for China stop there. Although the Trump administration and Congress have been working to tighten the standards Chinese entities must meet to list on U.S. stock exchanges, their presence in the three biggest such financial markets as of October had allowed them to achieve total market capitalization of $2.2 trillion.

Of course, the Trump years seem to be nearing a close, raising the question of whether apparent President-elect Joe Biden will try to tighten the clamps on U.S. capital flows further and even encourage American allies to do the same, or whether he’ll simply let current trends continue, or open the flood gates further.  Something we do know for sure:  Investors in Chinese markets seem awfully confident that Washington will let them continue with their version of selling Beijing the rope with which it can hang the free world.  Why else would Chinese stock prices be way up since his apparent election? 

Line chart of Net purchases of Chinese equities via stock connect programme YTD ($bn) showing Biden win spurs return to Chinese stocks