Posted by on October 28, 2017 1:00 am
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Earlier this week, we pointed out that the ‘PetroYuan’ is on the verge of becoming reality with Graticule’s Adam Levinson noting that the birth of a yuan-denominated oil contract will be a “huge story” in the fourth quarter, and will be a “wake up call” for investors who haven’t paid attention to the plans.

As a reminder, nothing lasts forever…

Judging by the interest in the topic, investors are less informed than many believed and so the different teams within Société Générale Cross Asset Research examine what this contract would mean for the global oil markets and for the internationalisation of the yuan – if it gets off the ground.


Part 1 The proposed yuan-denominated crude oil futures contract

  • Why is a yuan-denominated Chinese crude futures contract interesting to think about?  Why is it potentially significant?
  • Would yuan-denominated Chinese crude futures affect the physical markets?
  • Has China actually proposed changing its crude buying from USD to yuan?
  • What about the crude producers and exporters?
  • How much non-USD crude trade currently exists?
  • If small volumes don’t change how the oil market operates, how big would the volumes have to be to make a difference?
  • Is there another commodity that trades in multiple currencies at different exchanges that we can learn lessons from?

Part 2 Another step towards currency internationalisation?

  • Why does China want to introduce a yuan-denominated crude oil futures contract? 
  • How can the yuan succeed in becoming a reserve currency?
  • What does the status of an international currency mean for the yuan?
  • What will an internationalised yuan mean to China’s FX reserves?

*  *  *

Part 1: The proposed yuan-denominated crude oil futures contract

In November 2013, the Shanghai International Energy Exchange (INE) was established. Fully owned by the Shanghai Futures Exchange, the INE began efforts to offer an alternative crude oil futures contract to the global oil markets. After four years, these efforts are continuing. The proposed contract is for medium sour crude oil, is physically deliverable, and – most significantly – would be denominated in yuan.

We begin with the oil markets.

Why is a yuan-denominated Chinese crude futures contract interesting to think about? Why is it potentially significant?

Such a contract would be a tool that would make it possible for crude exporters selling to Chinese refiners to hedge their sales in yuan. This could help any future effort by China to import crude using yuan; on the other side of the coin, it could also help any future effort by various crude exporters to sell crude in a currency other than USD. 

In the abstract, the potential volumes are large, which is why this is worth thinking about.  China is the world’s biggest crude importer, with net imports in January-July 2017 of 8.4 Mb/d (and trending higher); the second biggest crude importer is the US, with net imports of 7.2 Mb/d in January-July 2017 (and trending lower). 

To put this into context, according to the IEA, in 4Q17, global product demand will be 98.5 Mb/d and global crude demand will be 82.2 Mb/d (including refinery runs and direct burn).  Crude trade is much less, at 42.4 Mb/d in 2016, according to the BP Statistical Review; this excludes crude that is produced and consumed in the same country. In other words, Chinese net crude imports account for over 10% of the global crude market and almost 20% of global crude trade. 

Would yuan-denominated Chinese crude futures affect the physical markets?

No, not at all. That’s not what this is about – there would be no impact on physical supply (like the example of natural gas – see below). In theory, if this were to happen, it would purely be about pricing. The global oil markets are denominated almost entirely in USD, so it is interesting to think about that landscape changing.

Has China actually proposed changing its crude buying from USD to yuan?

No. In recent years, there has been occasional general talk from China of moving away from the USD for purchases of crude oil and other commodities; however, we are not aware of any serious or concrete proposal on the table to start buying crude in yuan any time soon. That said, it is worth acknowledging that most Chinese crude buying is done by three large stateowned oil companies. Therefore, if it so chooses, the Chinese government certainly has the ability to push such an agenda; similarly, the government has the ability to push the use of INE crude futures for hedging crude in yuan.

What about the crude producers and exporters?

This is an important question to ask because it’s not just about what the Chinese want. As with any commercial transaction, both the buyer and the seller need to agree. In the case of crude oil, they need to agree on the volume, price, type and quality of crude as well as the delivery date and delivery location, among other things. However, the currency is almost always the USD – that is not a point of negotiation.

Over the years, including 2017, major crude producers such as Iran, Russia and Venezuela have talked about selling and exporting crude in non-dollar currencies. The reasons have been general geopolitical tensions with the US and Europe, and more specifically, oil-related sanctions; the use of non-dollar currencies may offer a way to circumvent oil-related sanctions, at least partially.  

Hypothetically, if China were to have serious talks with Iran, Russia and Venezuela about importing crude and paying in yuan, that would be important because it would add another dimension to the geopolitical analysis. If sanctioned countries could simply side-step the measures by selling crude in yuan or other non-dollar currencies, it would mean that the risk of supply disruptions and potential upside risk for oil prices would be reduced.

How much non-USD crude trade currently exists?

It is very difficult to make an accurate and confident estimate. Again, depending on the political context, talk of non-dollar crude trade from the countries mentioned above comes and goes, and sometimes some deals are done more for political and public relations purposes than for anything else. 

Our “guesstimate” is that such volumes probably amount to no more than 300-350 kb/d out of the 82.2 Mb/d global crude market noted above. For reference, to put that in terms of physical crude trade, 5 VLCC-size tankers each month carrying 2 Mb each would equal 333 kb/d. We would consider that, or its equivalent in smaller vessels, to be a generous estimate. We would consider 10 VLCCs or equivalent each month, or 666 kb/d, to be an extreme upside estimate but highly unlikely. This excludes barter arrangements and loans-for-crude deals. China lent Russia large sums of money after the global financial crisis in 2008-2009 in exchange for longterm crude supply deals; more recently, China had such an arrangement with Venezuela.

The bottom line, in our view, is that actual crude trade paid in cash but not using USD has never amounted to more than a few token cargoes. Importantly, when this does happen, the entire transaction and negotiation of the price is done in USD as usual, with pricing done the normal way; for example, both Urals and Dubai, which are key marker crudes in their own right, are priced as differentials to Brent. The only difference when a non-USD currency is used is that a last step is added, where the amount for the invoice is converted from USD into a different currency.

If small volumes don’t change how the oil market operates, how big would the volumes have to be to make a difference?

The question is really: what is the tipping point? How much non-USD crude trade does there need to be for the entire negotiation to take place in yuan, or rubles, or euros?  In other words, what does it take for price discovery and price formation to take place not in USD but in another currency?

The short answer is that we don’t know. But something on the order of 7-8 Mb/d of crude trade seems to be a sensitive level from a practical standpoint. How do we come up with this?  It’s simple: we are thinking about Saudi Arabia. Saudi crude exports have averaged 7 Mb/d through the first eight months of this year; in 2016, before the current OPEC cuts took effect, they averaged 7.6 Mb/d. The 7-8 Mb/d range works out to 16-19% of the 42.4 Mb/d global traded crude volumes.

Our view is that physical efforts to shift global crude trade away from US dollars seem doomed to failure unless the Saudis fully participate. Usually in matters of pricing, the other Middle East exporters follow the lead of the Saudis, so there is a “double whammy” effect and the volumes could start to increase quickly.

In this context, the warming relationship between Saudi Arabia and Russia becomes more interesting, too. Could the two countries cooperate on this in the same way they’ve cooperated on cutting production this year, in order to stabilise prices? Perhaps. That would add even more volumes because Russia is the second-biggest crude exporter in the world.  According to the BP Statistical Review, Russian crude exports averaged 5.5 Mb/d in 2016.

However, the geopolitics of oil quickly gets complicated. Why would the Saudis want to do something (like encourage non-USD crude trade) that would benefit Iran? This is always true, but is even more true now at a time when US-Iran tensions are ramping up and the US is threatening to re-impose oil sanctions on Iran. Also, why would the Saudis want to do something that would diminish the value of their currency, which is pegged to the USD, their huge USD reserves, and other USD-denominated assets?

If it would take the Saudis to make a real fundamental change in moving the oil markets away from a sole reliance on the USD to a multiple currency market, from a Saudi perspective, the arguments “against” are at least as strong as the arguments “in favour”. In short, we are sceptical of Saudi support for such a move.

Rather than support from Saudi Arabia or a cooperative effort between Saudi Arabia and Russia, a more realistic and higher-probability scenario would be a move to non-USD crude exports led by Russia on its own or perhaps a cooperative effort between Russia and Iran – with China being the key crude buyer, using yuan, in all the scenarios. Without the inclusion of Saudi Arabia and other Middle East exporters such as the UAE, Kuwait and Iraq, the volumes involved with Russia and Iran would be much less; this would make a fundamental change in oil price formation away from USD slower and more difficult but not impossible.

Is there another commodity that trades in multiple currencies at different exchanges that we can learn lessons from?

The answer to this question is yes and the best example is natural gas. The point of making this comparison is that ultimately different denominated prices in the same underlying commodity do not affect the physical balances but do influence trade flows, arbitrage and market analysis.

The US natural gas market is the largest regional market in the world (IEA estimates it alone represented 21% of total global gas demand) and is almost entirely priced in USD (AECO, Canada’s most liquid supply point, prices in CAD/GJ). The US LNG market (imports and exports) are also denominated in USD.

The global LNG market is heavily indexed to USD as well, but that is due to the dominance of oil indexation in long-term LNG sales agreements; the USD dominance of the global LNG market thus reflects the dominance of USD in oil prices.

In Europe (which represents 13% of total global gas demand according to IEA estimates), there are two main natural gas price points. In the UK, the National Balancing Point (NBP) – the hub of UK gas trading – is denominated in GB pounds and pence/therm. In the Netherlands, the hub of natural gas trading is known as Title Transfer Facility (TTF), and this contract is in euros and euro cents per MWh. Recently, there has been an observed shift in the dominance of these price points regionally; critically, this is a function of the physical characteristics of the market rather than the currency used or the exchange rate.

Historically, NBP was the most liquid point and also the price structure included in European LNG sales contracts, making it the dominant global representation of the European market. Recently, however, TTF has seen an increase in liquidity (increased open interest) and has become increasingly reflective of the physical continental European market. Factors such as the higher carbon price in the UK, which has an impact on gas competitiveness/pricing within the regional power generation stack, the declining trend of the UK production profile, and the region’s increased dependence (seasonal switching) on the Interconnector pipeline between the UK and continental Europe have all contributed to the reduced ability of NBP to reflect the wider European market; hence the rise of TTF. Importantly, it is the changes in the physical market that have changed the competitive landscape among TTF and NBP, and it has little to nothing to do with the different exchange rates (although Brexit may have decreased NBP’s popularity).

The existence of varying price structures in the global natural gas market is a critical comparison to make for oil, which has the potential to see a rise in pricing in currencies other than the USD. It is important to emphasise that even with multiple price structures, global natural gas trading behaviour is dominated by physical market conditions. At the same time, there is sometimes an influence from fluctuations in exchange rates, making analysis of flows, arbitrage, and trading somewhat more complicated; however, supply and demand dynamics are not fundamentally affected.

Part 2: Another step towards currency internationalisation? 

Why does China want to introduce a yuan-denominated crude oil futures contract? 

The Chinese government wants the yuan to become an international currency. This means that it wants the yuan to be used widely in international transactions (a settlement currency), to be adopted as a pricing currency for goods and services in global markets (an invoicing currency), and to be considered as a store of value by international investors (an investing currency). The goal of internationalisation also goes hand in hand with the profile objective for the yuan to obtain a reserve currency status since these two are highly correlated. While it is currently unclear (or too early to discern) whether China is aiming for the yuan to become the reserve currency – dethroning the dollar – Chinese policymakers are certainly eyeing the yuan as one of the major reserve currencies.

China has been working much harder on this project since 2009. The process has moved at varying speeds depending on capital account pressures, domestic asset prices and growth considerations, but much progress has been made (see the timeline on the next page). A quarter of China’s exports and imports are settled in yuan, although most of them are still invoiced in other hard currencies.

The proposed yuan-denominated crude oil futures contract to be listed on the Shanghai International Energy Exchange (INE), fully owned by the Shanghai Futures Exchange, is another step on the road to promote internationalisation and erode the USD hegemony in the global financial system. While over the years, there have been some relatively small volumes of oil traded in non-USD currencies, including the yuan (as discussed in the oil section above), the value of oil is still priced in dollars. One of the main impacts of the proposed new crude futures contract, and presumably one of the intentions behind the proposal, is that by providing a yuandenominated financial hedging tool for crude oil, this will likely help to promote the appeal of the yuan as a pricing currency in global oil trade.

From the Chinese policymakers’ perspective, China should arguably have a bigger say in the pricing of commodities since it has become the biggest consumer of many of them. Also, the petro-dollar system seems to be a successful model to imitate: first, the yuan would be more widely accepted by natural resource exporters, and in turn, these exporters could invest their yuan revenues (as FX reserves) into yuan-denominated financial assets.

How can the yuan succeed in becoming a reserve currency?

To improve the yuan’s chances of becoming an international and reserve currency, the main areas of development would be strengthening the institutional framework, fully opening the capital account to foreign residents, allowing market forces to play a greater role and establishing and managing a policy framework that alleviates the risk of crisis over an extended period.

China technically joined the reserve currency club when the IMF added it to the SDR basket in September 2016. The narrow definition of a reserve currency is for currencies used for international trade and willing to be held by other central banks as part of their reserves. On these narrow criteria, China has achieved what few currencies have been able to do.

Realising “true” reserve status and supplanting or even meaningfully competing with the USD in the global financial system is a very high hurdle that will take time (maybe 10-20 years) and require further enhancements in various areas. A broader set of criterion (listed below) of a reserve currency highlights the enormous challenges that China faces:

Medium of exchange. Entities outside China would need to widely adopt the RMB for transactional purposes (i.e. trade settlement). The yuan trade/investment settlement, the offshore yuan market and the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) would need to be promoted. China is making steady strides in this area, with now 25% of China’s cross-border transactions settled by yuan. According to the SWIFT, however, the yuan share in international payments has not been able to advance and has hovered around 2% since late 2014.


Store of value. Individuals, companies and central banks would need to have faith in the currency as able to preserve wealth. About 60 central banks now hold some RMB assets in their portfolios, but this amount only represented 1% of total global reserves at the end of 2016.


Liquidity and market access. To become widely accepted, a currency would need to have high liquidity with foreigners having unencumbered access to local financial markets. China has created numerous schemes for global investors to access its equity and bond markets, but it is only a start, with foreign investors’ share in onshore capital markets at merely 2%. Further liberalising the capital account for foreign residents would be a necessary condition.


Institutional framework. Ultimately, confidence in the legal, regulatory and policy framework would need to be paramount for foreigners to hold large quantities of the currency. The current (USD) and previous (GBP) dominant global reserve currencies already had these qualities before attaining their status.

In many ways, China is working in reverse order – pushing internationalisation before the others condition are in place. Critically, policy priorities would need to be reoriented. It will be a challenge for China to meaningfully challenge the USD’s dominance, but it is not insurmountable over the next 10-20 years provided China takes steps in opening up (full capital account convertibility), giving up control of markets and strengthening and improving transparency in its legal, regulatory and policymaking framework.

What does the status of an international currency mean for the yuan?

Before the reserve currency status can support the yuan, the yuan may have to continuously prove itself as a stable currency to boost its status as a reserve currency. We think that the fundamental factors of economic growth, debt risk and interest rate differentials will continue to play dominant roles in the yuan’s FX trends over the medium term.  
A quick check of the history of the four major currencies – the dollar, euro, yen and sterling – since the 2000s suggests a visible and positive correlation between a currency’s traded weighted performance and its share in global FX reserves. However, correlation does not necessarily mean causality, and the causality can go both ways.

For instance, in the case of the yen and sterling, however, changes in their valuations look to have led their changing popularity among global reserve managers. The strength of the yen between 2009 and 2013 did not attract significantly more reserve inflows right away, probably because of the lacklustre economic development at the time. Sterling only started to gain a share in global reserves in 2003 despite its persistent strength since late 1990s.

For the yuan, we observe that the pace of yuan internationalisation was faster during the phase of currency appreciation or stability and slower when the yuan depreciated. This came despite the continuous policy efforts.

For the past seven years, USD/CNY has moved surprisingly closely with US-China yield differentials, and in the past three years the correlation of CNY to broad dollar moves has increased. Contrary to popular belief, the CNY shows few idiosyncratic tendencies and rather behaves in a similar manner to other EM/G10 currencies.

No matter what happens, the correlation between the CNY and the USD could remain high. The simple fact is that the correlation across most currencies is high over the cycle given that many top-down macro factors tend to drive FX over the medium term. 

The CNY may, however, play an increasing role in leading currency cycles, just as the USD does now. This would mean an increasing importance of Chinese data, monetary and fiscal policy in affecting global currency trends.

What will an internationalised yuan mean to China’s FX reserves?

The project of yuan internationalisation comprises currency liberalisation, capital account open-up and domestic capital market deepening. Liberalising the currency implies that the central bank will intervene less and less in the currency market, and a relatively stable level of FX reserves is therefore most consistent with the goal of making the yuan an international currency. 

Indeed, Chinese policymakers have repeatedly expressed their commitment to making the yuan a more flexible currency, freer from direct currency interventions by the central bank. However, it is also a stated goal for the yuan to maintain relatively stability against a basket of China’s major trade partners’ currencies. These two goals are only compatible when there is no major depreciation (or appreciation) pressure on the yuan resulting from major outflow (or inflow) pressure. 

China’s FX reserves can recover this year after the $1tn drop over the previous 2.5 years because the yuan has managed to stabilise against the dollar and a basket of currencies. The yuan’s stability should be a function of 1) dollar weakness, 2) capital controls and 3) China’s stable growth this year. These three factors will likely be the main drivers of the trend in China’s FX reserves over the next few years. While there remains much uncertainty around the dollar, it seems that Chinese policymakers have honed the skill of capital controls. This ought to reduce the risk of sharp declines in FX reserves going forward.

In the meantime, we think the chance of China persistently increasing its FX reserves is also limited unless the weak dollar trend continues and accelerates. The relationship with the US is one factor, and domestically there will likely remain strong demand from Chinese households and corporates for investment diversification if China continues to rely on rapid debt growth and money creation to sustain its economic model (see Anatomy of China’s outflows). As the developments in 2015 and 2016 proved, such capital outflow pressure could outweigh the support from a decent current account surplus for the yuan.

What will the yuan’s internationalisation mean to global FX reserves?

China’s share of global reserve portfolios should increase over time. Depending on whether it achieves true reserve currency status in the eyes of foreign participants, that share will be either low (5%), high (25%) or very high (25%+). 

Emerging market central banks still need a significant amount of dollars to undertake intervention assuming their currency regimes are not fully flexible, and a precautionary stockpile is desired to manage balance of payments shocks. Against all EM currencies, except most notably the CEE euro bloc, the dollar is by far the most widely traded and liquid FX cross. Virtually all intervention is done in USD crosses, and one prerequisite for central banks to shift their anchor currency to the RMB would be CNY crosses that are tradable without underlying dollar transactions being required. For instance, while EUR/CNY is quoted and traded onshore through the CFETS, it requires dealers to facilitate the trade through two separate transactions (USD/CNY and EUR/USD). The sheer size of the Chinese economy, growing global financial linkages and increasing RMB trade settlement will see a shift in this direction over time, but it will be a very long and slow process. Products such as the proposed yuan-denominated crude oil futures contract will help to marginally speed up the progression. 

Reserves can be divided into two broad categories: precautionary and excess. The precautionary portion needs to be in liquid assets to meet demand for foreign currency/dollars on short notice and mitigate balance of payments stress. Currently, these are mostly held in US government bonds or deposits, followed by European bonds, then UK, Japan, Canada and Australia down the list. China is below these. Gold is liquid but somewhat lower on the scale compared to deposits or government bonds, so there are natural limitations to how much central banks would hold. 

The excess portion of reserves can be invested in anything, and central banks have an excess globally. Central banks have undertaken various diversification efforts over the past few decades, with the share of euros in global reserve portfolios for example having increased from 20% in 2002 to 27% in 2008 before falling back to 20% in 2016. Central banks have been more active in holding commodity currencies (CAD and AUD) over the past five years.  
Russia has been buying a lot of gold. To do this, it either sells existing USD or other currency holdings, or when it intervenes and accumulates dollars it then diverts the currency to gold instead of treasuries. If central banks have excess reserves or do not want to accumulate more dollars, they could hold gold instead. 

The proposed yuan-denominated crude oil futures contract reduces the need to use dollars for the transaction, but it does not change the outcome or address the fundamental question: do central banks want/need USD or yuan? They could have bought yuan previously. The proposed yuan-denominated crude oil futures contract does not make it an easier process. But for those countries subject to sanctions, it might be attractive. According to the 4Q16 IMF COFER report (link), foreign central banks held USD85bn in allocated reserves in the CNY (or 1% of global reserves). Total foreign holdings of Chinese bonds amounted to USD135bn, according to ChinaBond, suggesting the vast majority of holdings are from central banks.

If reserve manager allocations to the RMB doubled over the next five years, and if those inflows were spread out evenly over the period, they would amount to roughly USD6bn per quarter (or another USD100bn). While not insignificant, that is still a drop in the ocean compared to other balance of payments components. However, if reserve manager allocations reached the weighting of the JPY in allocated global reserves (4%), the inflows could be closer to USD500bn over five years. An allocation equivalent to the euro (around 20% of global) reserves could see nearly USD1.5trn in inflows.

It could be challenging for the CNY to reach a high weight if global reserves are not rising. In 2002-2008, when central banks were diversifying into euros, global FX reserves were rising sharply and a significant portion of the growth in reserves was due to China. During this period, central banks were buying dollars through intervention (in an attempt to keep their currencies weaker than otherwise) and with some of those newly acquired dollars they decided to diversify their holdings and buy euros. However, in the absence of a strong increase in global FX reserves going forward, it would present a significantly higher hurdle for reserve managers to diversify into the CNY. It would require active diversification out of other currency holdings (i.e. sell existing dollar assets) to acquire the CNY.

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