China’s policymakers have long pointed an accusatory finger at the impact of hot-money inflows on inflation and asset bubbles. To what extent that is true has been difficult to assess. Quantifying such speculative investment inflows is tricky. In essence, analysts look for foreign-exchange reserves not explained by traditional transactions such as trade and foreign direct investment.
The State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) has taken a stab. The numbers it comes up with are $75.5 billion for 2010, and, after netting out cross-border yuan settlement, $35.5 billion, which is equivalent to 7.6% of the year’s total increase in foreign-exchange reserves. By way of comparison, SAFE reckons, total hot-money inflows in 2009 were $29.1 billion and averaged $25 billion a year over the previous decade, accounting for the equivalent of 9% of annual foreign-exchange reserve increases on average. (The is no netting out number as cross-border yuan settlement is recent.)
The numbers suggest that hot-money inflows account for a relatively small part of capital inflows, and are but a spec compared to the size of the economy as a whole. They took a large leap last year and any extra irritant to inflation is unwelcome to policymakers struggling to drain the excess liquidity from the economy in a controlled and orderly way. They also suggest that China is having increasing difficulty in maintaining effective foreign-exchange controls.