China’s Sovereign Wealth Funds: origins, development, and future roles

Stephen Thomas and Ji Chen
Journal of Contemporary China, Volume 20, Issue 70, Pp. 467-478

China has established two of the world’s newer large sovereign wealth funds (SWFs): the official China Investment Corporation (CIC), and the non-official and less transparent State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) Investment Company (SIC). Both provide alternative investment opportunities for China’s exploding foreign exchange reserves, at US$2.4 trillion at the end of 2009, the largest in world history. This paper will address how China has accumulated its huge and growing foreign exchange reserves, and what roles these reserves, until 2007 managed only by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), have played in the establishment and development of China’s two new SWFs. We will look specifically at why China’s foreign exchange reserves have developed, and how the new SWFs are a part of broader efforts to provide investment alternatives for China’s ballooning foreign exchange surpluses, particularly in light of the inflow of ‘hot’ foreign speculative funds. We will then point out some of the difficulties for China’s financial officials of SWFs as they try to pursue multiple and sometimes competing goals, set by boards of directors representing different bureaucratic and economic interests, all within the context of a general lack of transparency and a rapidly growing economy. Finally, we will present our conclusions about the future roles of the two SWFs as well as of the policies being developed to decentralize foreign exchange reserve holdings while at the same time not slowing the growth of China’s foreign trade surpluses, nor its foreign direct investments, nor its overall economic growth. We will also examine the effects of US-promoted Chinese currency appreciation on the future of China’s foreign exchange reserves and its sovereign wealth funds.