IFDP 2017-1208: China’s Current Account: External Rebalancing or Capital Flight?

This is an International Finance Discussion Papers (IFDP) published by the Board of Governors of the U.S. Federal Reserve System

Anna Wong | This paper examines an anomaly in China's current account: its large and rapidly growing travel expenditure. Drawing evidence from counterparty data, Chinese international arrival statistics, and gravity equation models extended to travel trade, I find that a significant amount of China's travel spending in the period 2014-2016 could not be explained by accounting factors or economic fundamentals. The unexplained travel imports are inversely associated with domestic growth and positively associated with renminbi depreciation expectations against the dollar, suggesting that they are less likely to be consumption of goods and services abroad than domestic residents' acquisition of foreign financial assets. Adjusted for these potential disguised outflows, China's current account balance could be higher than reported by around 1 percent of GDP in 2015 and 2016, a period when the Chinese economy slowed noticeably as it shifted away from investment-driven growth (i.e. "internal rebalancing"). These results suggest that Chinese households, through the travel channel, have in part replaced the official sector in directing domestic surplus savings abroad in recent years. While the official sector preferred liquid foreign government assets, Chinese households appear to prefer private foreign assets.

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