Opening Up
Bloomberg Markets|December 2020 - January 2021
China’s entry into the WTO upended global manufacturing. Now it’s poised to disrupt the financial system— and the consequences could be just as dramatic and surprising
CHRIS ANSTEY and ENDA CURRAN

CHINA’S 2001 ENTRY into the World Trade Organization transformed the global economic order. Yet even as China became the factory to the world, its financial system remained a closed shop, with strict controls on the flow of money in and out. For years there’s been talk of a “two-way opening,” but slow progress. Now the admission of foreign investors into China’s $15 trillion bond market—cemented this year when the country rounded out its inclusion in all three of the top global indexes—may just mark the big bang equivalent to WTO entry.

Global pension funds, starved for yield in a low-growth world, will now have access to safe government debt that pays more than 3%. And if officials deliver on their pledges to open up, reinforced in the Communist leadership’s 2021-25 five-year plan outlined in October, Chinese investors may soon find it a lot easier to snap up shares in Apple, Starbucks, or Tesla—not just their phones, cappuccinos, and cars. The Chinese could join their government, which has long been a major buyer of overseas assets such as Treasuries, as a powerful source of funding.

“China will turn from an exporter of goods to an exporter of capital, with significant consequences, of course, for the world,” says Stephen Jen, who runs Eurizon SLJ Capital, a hedge fund and advisory firm in London.

But what will the consequences be? Major changes to the financial system in the past have produced some unfortunate results. The euro’s 1999 introduction sowed the seeds for the region’s debt crisis a decade later. A wave of overseas savings that poured into the U.S. during the 2000s helped trigger the mortgage boom that catastrophically burst in 2007-08. Bloomberg Markets gathered views on how the opening might affect the future of global finance in the years ahead. Here are some of the themes that emerged.

Chinese Savers Go Global

Jen, who started his career at Morgan Stanley covering the impact of the Asian financial crisis on the foreign exchange market, sees China’s capital market opening as the biggest structural change to international finance since the launch of the euro.

Sustained inflows of foreign capital could make Beijing comfortable about loosening the controls that have bottled up domestic money in China for so long. Indeed, it would probably have to; otherwise the yuan would strengthen, eroding the country’s export competitiveness. That would let loose a wave of Chinese savings on the world—Jen estimates there’s as much as $5 trillion of pent-up Chinese demand for investments outside China. That could resemble the petrodollars that flowed from oil-exporting countries in the 1970s, which ended up financing a huge, and tragically unsustainable, borrowing spree by Latin American nations.

“Outflows will probably be offset by the inflows for a few more years,” Jen says of China. Petrodollar-like net outflows might take a few more years to materialize, “but that is definitely a scenario we will need to deal with,” he says.

A Slice of the Action

To gain exposure to China’s rapid economic expansion, global investors generally have had to buy proxy assets such as the Australian dollar, commodities, or a small range of Hong Kong-listed Chinese shares. China’s bond market opening gives them direct exposure. It also provides an alternative to Japanese government bonds and other low- or negative-yielding sovereign debt, says Ed Al-Hussainy, a senior analyst for global rates at Columbia Threadneedle in New York, which had $476 billion under management in October and has been stepping into the China market recently.

“The demand is off the charts for anything liquid with a little bit of pickup in yield over Treasuries,” he says. “People are willing to pay up for liquidity, and that’s the key thing that’s improving in the Chinese onshore market. So inevitably we’ll be pushed in that direction.”

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