Never short a country with $2 trillion in reserves?

Michael Pettis – China Financial Markets

Copyright Michael Pettis
An excerpt from a discussion here of Tom Friedman’s recent writing on China. The link to the entire piece follows this snippet.
He (Friedman) also says:
Now take all this infrastructure and mix it together with 27 million students in technical colleges and universities — the most in the world. With just the normal distribution of brains, that’s going to bring a lot of brainpower to the market, or, as Bill Gates once said to me: “In China, when you’re one-in-a-million, there are 1,300 other people just like you.”
Aside from perhaps his overestimating the quality of the education system, this is very bad statistics, and perhaps shows how easily we can get intellectually overwhelmed by large numbers. If China indeed has the same distribution of geniuses, or talent, as other countries, the fact that it has so many people won’t make it richer (and what about India?). After all if you cut China into four countries, each country will have only one-fourth the number of geniuses. Does that really mean that the four countries together are stupider? If we combine the US, Canada and Mexico into one country, its a pretty safe bet that the total number of geniuses will be more than any of the three countries currently possess, but will average intelligence rise? Can we really make the three countries richer that way (of course there may be good economic arguments for suggesting that unifying North American into a single country will make it richer, but the larger number of geniuses is not one of these arguments).
Ok, we can argue about these things, and we can agree to disagree, but where he completely blew it was, I suspect, on the one topic are where he was absolutely certain he could not be wrong.
Too bad, because he was. Friedman proposed, yet again, a common misconception over the meaning of China’s huge accumulation of foreign reserves. He argued that thanks in part to the size of the reserves it would be impossible to make money by shorting China. “First,” he warned, “a simple rule of investing that has always served me well: Never short a country with US$2 trillion in foreign currency reserves.”
Really? Friedman proposed the rule sarcastically – as both untestable and too obvious to need testing. It is so obvious that no country has ever had such high levels of reserves, so you can’t really test the hypothesis, but it’s also pretty obvious that a country with $2 trillion in reserves is in great shape. Anyone who wanted to short it must be pretty stupid, right?
But it turns out that reality is not as obvious as he imagines. Let us leave aside that the PBoC’s reported reserves are a lot more than $2 trillion, and that if correctly accounted they would be pretty close to $3 trillion. China’s foreign reserves are certainly huge. They add up to an amount equal to about 5-6 % of global gross domestic product.
But they are not unprecedented. Twice before in history a country has, under similar circumstances, run up foreign reserves of the same magnitude.
The first time occurred in the late 1920s when, after a decade of record-beating trade and capital account surpluses, the United States had accumulated what John Maynard Keynes worriedly described as “all the bullion in the world”. At the time, total reserves accumulated by the US were more than 5-6% of global GDP. My back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that this was probably the greatest hoard of central bank reserves ever accumulated as a share of global GDP, but please check before you accept this claim.
The second time occurred in the late 1980s, when it was Japan’s turn to combine huge trade surpluses, along with more moderate surpluses on the capital account, to accumulate a stockpile of foreign reserves only a little less than the equivalent of 5-6% of global GDP. By the late 1980s, Japan’s accumulation of reserves drew the sort of same breathless description – much of it incorrect, of course – that China’s does today.
Needless to say, and in sharp rebuttal to Friedman, both previous cases turned out badly for long investors and brilliantly for anyone dumb enough to have gone short. During the early years of the Great Depression of the 1930s, US stock markets lost more than 80 per cent of their value, real estate prices collapsed, and the US economy contracted in real terms by an astonishing 30-40 per cent before recovering in the 1940s.
Japan’s subsequent experience was economically less violent in the short term, but even costlier over the long term. During the period following its astonishing accumulation of central bank reserves, its stock market also lost more than 80 per cent of its value, real estate prices collapsed, and economic growth was virtually non-existent for two decades.
The idea that massive levels of reserves are a guarantor of economic stability is, in other words, based on a profound misunderstanding both of history and of the nature of reserves. Reserves of course are not useless as an enhancer of financial stability, but their use is for very specific forms of instability. Having large amounts of reserves relative to external claims protects countries from external debt crises and from currency crises.
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