Projecting China's Current Account Surplus

Policy Brief
April 2012

For several years China has run current account surpluses that have been widely seen as the most serious source of global imbalances on the surplus side. Its exchange rate intervention limited appreciation of the currency and led to a buildup of external reserves to more than $3 trillion. Nonetheless, the surplus has fallen from 10 percent of GDP in 2007 to 2.8 percent in 2011, even though in September the International Monetary Fund projected the 2011 surplus at 5.2 percent of GDP and forecast a rebound to 7.2 percent of GDP by 2016. This policy brief examines whether the moderate 2011 surplus was a transitory aberration or a sign of a new trend. A statistical model explains the bulk of the reduction in the surplus as the consequence of the real exchange rate appreciation of about 20 percent that occurred from 2005–06 to 2009–10. Slow global growth, a rising oil deficit, and erosion in the capital income balance were additional causes. Projections based on this model and another used by the author indicate that if the exchange rate remains unchanged, the surplus is likely to be in a range of 2–4 percent of GDP in 2012–14 but rebound to 4 to 5 percent of GDP by 2017. If instead the government continues real appreciation at the 3 percent annual rate pursued since June 2010, by 2017 the current account would be approximately in balance.