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Renminbi seventh of reserve currencies

by Adam Cotter

Renminbi seventh of reserve currencies


At the end of March the International Monetary Fund reported holdings of $85bn of renminbi claims in the foreign exchange reserves of the world’s central banks. This statement, covering the last quarter of 2016, was the first official IMF analysis since China’s currency was included in the special drawing right, the Fund’s composite currency unit.

Of the eight currencies included in the IMF’s ‘composition of official foreign exchange reserves’, the renminbi is the seventh most widely held. The Chinese currency trails the dollar, euro, sterling, yen, the Canadian dollar, and the Australian dollar. US reserve asset supremacy remains, with the dollar accounting for 64% of reported reserves, adding up to $5.1tn. The renminbi accounts for just over 1% of the $7.9tn disclosed in a total of 146 reporting central banks and other reserves-holding entities.

The latest IMF data match the findings of an earlier, less comprehensive survey in August 2015, showing that 38 monetary authorities held renminbi assets in 2014, making up 1.1% of global holdings of ‘official assets’ (a wider definition than ‘reserve assets’), against 27 holders (0.7% of the total) in 2013.

Renminbi’s status will mature
When the IMF included the renminbi in the SDR basket from October 2016, it gave the currency a weight of 11%, or one-third the share of the euro and one-quarter of the dollar. This indicates that the Fund expects the renminbi’s status as a major reserve currency to grow significantly.

Beijing promotes the international use of its currency through swap arrangements and by supporting trade settlement in renminbi. The authorities are improving foreign investors’ access to Chinese capital markets. However, Chinese policy-makers must do more to allay concerns over currency manipulation, financial market transparency and rising debt levels. One problem is that there are too few renminbi-denominated liquid assets for reserve managers to own.

Asian monetary authorities hold most global foreign reserves. Capital preservation and liquidity are the priority. China’s size implies reserve managers should hold around 20% of their liquidity in renminbi in due course. Such an allocation implies that central banks should own a similar share of China’s $9tn bond market. While Chinese policy-makers have tried to attract foreign reserve managers, central banks have yet to invest meaningfully in Chinese bonds.

Internationalisation remains an aspiration
The use of the renminbi in global trade has diminished. In December, it accounted for 1.7% of payments, down from 2.3% a year earlier, according to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication. Over the whole of 2016, the value of payments made in renminbi fell by almost one-third.

Both Yi Gang, deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, and Pan Gongsheng, director of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, have indicated that keeping the renminbi stable is a priority.

Internationalisation of the currency remains a long-term aspiration. But in the short term, demand for Chinese assets will not be able to offset the pressure for capital outflows. A continuing government clampdown on corruption by politicians and other public officials, in addition to renminbi uncertainty, is discouraging investment into China.

The $7tn equity market may provide additional depth, but central banks will continue to act cautiously. In March the MSCI opted against wider inclusion of Chinese A shares into its emerging market benchmark.

In the long term, full inclusion in the MSCI and FTSE benchmarks could lead to more than $600bn in equity inflows. Though China faces several tests on its path towards market liberalisation, the renminbi’s global status as an
international reserve currency can only improve from this humble start. 

Cotter chart

Adam Cotter is Head of Asia and Chief Representative, Singapore, at OMFIF.