Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee
Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee

China’s foreign exchange reserves fell by US$41 billion to US$3.011 trillion in December, a decline that was less than expected but still edged the reserves closer to a drop below the US$3 trillion mark that could rattle confidence in the currency.

The December figure reported by the People’s Bank of China on Saturday morning is the sixth straight monthly fall in the country’s foreign exchange reserves. The reserves declined by US$69.06 billion in November.

Beijing has repeatedly intervened to support the yuan when it weakened too sharply, using up more than US$300 billion of forex reserves in 2016 and prompting them to sell some of their massive holdings of US government bonds.

Inevitably, Beijing will continue to support the currency to prevent it breaking the 7 yuan-per-dollar level but faces challenges in stemming capital outflows and further depreciation. Banks have been asked to tighten monitoring of residents and corporations moving funds offshore.

The People’s Bank of China data show foreign reserve holdings to be slightly higher than the median estimate for US$3.010 trillion in a Bloomberg survey.

China strengthened the yuan-dollar fixed rate by 0.9% on Friday, the most since 2005, sending a strong message to all that Beijing is stepping up its fight against bearish bets on the yuan.

“PBOC’s surprise attack in the currency market is a high-stakes wager and it could prove to be short-lived,” said a bond fund portfolio manager in Hong Kong who declined to be named.  “Capital flight might take a breather in coming weeks but will return with a vengeance if China fails in turning sentiment around,” said the manager who handles more than US$5 billion in investments.

Newspapers operated by the Communist Party of China have been publishing commentaries warning Chinese not to blindly exchange their savings into foreign currencies.

China’s authorities have allowed liquidity in the offshore yuan market to run dry since the beginning of December, permitting interest rates to climb steadily during the past few weeks that culminated in a stampede by traders to exit yuan short positions on Thursday and Friday.

Overnight funding expenses for the Chinese currency in the offshore market of Hong Kong surged to more than 61% on Friday, a prohibitively high interest costs for traders to put a bearish bet on the yuan and over 30-times comparable rates in the onshore market.

The interest rate for one-day borrowing in Shanghai receded to just 2.11% by the end of the first week in 2017, following a year-end climb that peaked at 2.32% on December 23.

Chinese authorities might have scored a reprieve in the currency markets by squeezing offshore yuan short sellers with prohibitive funding costs, but Beijing’s work to restore confidence in the yuan at home and abroad has only just begun.

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