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Why Everyone Is So Nervous About What China Does Next, In One Chart

Whether the motive behind China's stunning August 11 devaluation announcement was to get one step closer to the SDR basket by promoting a market-based FX regime demanded by the IMF, to further ease financial conditions in China, to boost exports, or merely to telegraph to the Fed that with the US preparing to hike rates China will no longer be pegged to the USD, is unclear, but one thing that is certain is just how much everyone (if not this website) was shocked by the PBOC announcement. Goldman summarizes it best: "The sharp 3% devaluation in the CNY fix last week was a surprise to us."

What happens next? Clearly more devaluation, or else China would not have pursued this step, especially since the paltry 4% deval in one week will hardly move the needle on Chinese exports, which is the real reason why China did this move (weeks after it boosted its official gold holdings by 57%). Goldman also admits as much: "It is hard to have a high degree of conviction in anticipating the increasingly fitful reactions of the Chinese policymakers, and by extension the near-term direction of the CNY. But on a longer horizon, the risks are tilted towards further CNY weakness."

The weakness is further guaranteed when one considers that China has all but tapped out its credit capacity (where even the IMF admits China's debt/GDP is headed to 250%), forcing the country to seek growth not from within (via credit creation), but without, in the form of beggaring its neighbors and promoting its competitiveness using external devaluation (a similar internal devaluation to what Greece has undergone in the past 5 years would result in a very violent civil war), i.e. currency war, as much as the serious people want to avoid calling it for fear headlines such as these (from overnight) will become a daily event...

  • TAIWAN DOLLAR FALLS TO WEAKEST SINCE NOV. 2009
  • INDIA'S RUPEE DROPS TO LOWEST LEVEL SINCE SEPT. 6, 2013.
  • TURKISH LIRA DROPS TO RECORD 2.85 PER DOLLAR, DOWN 0.6% TODAY

... and the FX war will spiral out of  control.And yet that is precisely what will happen.

This is how Goldman pivots to the unpleasant reality of not only China now aggressively engaging fellow exporters, but those same fellow expoerters devaluing preemptively before China gets them:

It is hard to have a high degree of conviction in anticipating the increasingly fitful reactions of the Chinese policymakers, and by extension the near-term direction of the CNY. But on a longer horizon, the risks are tilted towards further CNY weakness. The core of this argument rests on our view that China’s bumpy downshift in growth is likely to extend, making for greater macro and market volatility along the way. China has experienced a substantial credit build-up, which will need to be unwound in coming years. As Andrew Tilton and team have discussed, unwinding such a large credit imbalance is typically associated with a period of below-trend domestic demand growth, and this is coinciding with slowing potential growth as the impulses from labour and capital deepening slow. China’s current account surplus is also not what it used to be, with a growing services deficit offsetting a still large trade surplus. Given this macro backdrop, where a greater contribution to growth from net exports would be very welcome, a 25% appreciation in trade-weighted terms – as the CNY has experienced over the past three years on account of its tight link to the USD – looks increasingly untenable.

And while nobody wants to admit it, the writing on the wall is clear: the age of all out FX warfare is upon us, and only the Fed believes it is immune... if only for the time being.

The clearest implication of China joining the currency depreciation train is that it further increases depreciation pressures on the rest of the EM FX complex. There are two important channels of transmission here: First, because China as a producer competes with several EMs in global markets, those EM exporters just became a touch less competitive relative to Chinese exporters; and second because China as a consumer is also a large destination for exports from the rest of EM, although in this case there is at least the possibility of a partial offset from any improvement in demand if an easing in financial conditions is delivered. So for EMs that have been trying to address their external balance, and have seen depreciating currencies since 2013, some of that relative price shift has just been undone. And if the recent CNY moves are the start of a journey, even undoing half of the accumulated trade-weighted appreciation of the last three years, this may provoke a meaningful additional bout of currency depreciation across the EM complex.

Translation: once begun, the currency war, which for the time being is being fought with conventional means, has no choice but to become nuclear.

Here, in one chart, is the reason why anyone following China's devaluation is very nervous. And if they aren't yet, they should be. Because if China is indeed intent on catching up with the rest of the EM complex - whose FX is trading about 30% lower - then the resulting devaluation will lead to nothing short of a global FX neutron bomb.