You can almost hear the exhales from China’s central bankers. Today the country’s currency, the yuan, rose for the third day in a row after finishing last week at an eight-and-a-half year low against the U.S. dollar.
The yuan has been on a oneway slide ever since Donald Trump’s presidential victory earlier this month sent the U.S. dollar screaming upwards. (Because currencies move in relation to one another, and the yuan is heavily influenced by the dollar, a U.S. dollar rise means a yuan loss, all things being equal.)
During that slide, Chinese officials were working hard to support the yuan from crashing even further and inciting panic about the country’s financial position. It appears they have succeeded for now.
But a look into last week’s trading suggests how fragile China’s currency remains, and how likely it is the yuan will continue striking fear into Chinese central bankers for a while.
Last Friday, China’s central bankers set the yuan’s “fixing rate” at a stronger level than it closed the night before—this despite a rising U.S. dollar the day before and overnight. A stronger dollar would normally mean a weaker fixing rate. In fact, it was only the second time a stronger rate had been set amid a rising dollar since Trump’s victory.
That suggested it was China’s central bankers, not the market, who were signaling a stronger yuan.
Since the yuan’s fixing rate only has three components—the earlier day’s closing rate, the U.S. dollar’s moves, and a discretionary component for central bankers—HSBC’s foreign exchange analyst Joey Chew calculated in the two and a half week’s since the U.S. presidential election, the Chinese authorities have skewed the fixing rate by 0.05 points. They aggressively supported the currency using China’s piles of foreign reserves.
That meant instead of the yuan opening around 6.916 last Friday, it could have been 6.966 and moving closer to the level of 7 to 1 U.S. dollar, which could have sparked more panic.
“It is likely the drop in [foreign exchange] reserves for the month of November will be larger than the year-to-date average,” because of central bank spending to prop up the yuan, Chew predicted.
China’s foreign exchange reserves fell $45.7 billion last month, to $3.12 trillion. Even with a big drop in November, China still holds plenty. And a large portion of the yuan’s outflows isn’t leaving China’s borders as much as it is being exchanged for stronger dollars by wealthy citizens and businesses. This should stop a full-on capital crisis from hitting China.
But the past few weeks have proven how shaky the yuan remains, and how much China’s bankers know it.