China's Currency Conundrum Continues

Martin Wolf in the FT sums up nicely the big problem with China’s currency practices:

At the conclusion of a European Union-China summit in Nanjing last week, Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier, complained about demands for Beijing to allow its currency to appreciate. He protested that “some countries on the one hand want the renminbi to appreciate, but on the other hand engage in brazen trade protectionism against China. This is unfair. Their measures are a restriction on China’s development.” The premier also repeated the traditional mantra: “We will maintain the stability of the renminbi at a reasonable and balanced level.”

We can make four obvious replies to Mr Wen. First, whatever the Chinese may feel, the degree of protectionism directed at their exports has been astonishingly small, given the depth of the recession. Second, the policy of keeping the exchange rate down is equivalent to an export subsidy and tariff, at a uniform rate – in other words, to protectionism. Third, having accumulated $2,273bn in foreign currency reserves by September, China has kept its exchange rate down, to a degree unmatched in world economic history. Finally, China has, as a result, distorted its own economy and that of the rest of the world. Its real exchange rate is, for example, no higher than in early 1998 and has depreciated by 12 per cent over the past seven months, even though China has the world’s fastest-growing economy and largest current account surplus.

Do these policies matter for China and the world? Yes, is the answer. Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of Canada, notes in a recent speech, that “large and unsustainable current account imbalances across major economic areas were integral to the build-up of vulnerabilities in many asset markets. In recent years, the international monetary system failed to promote timely and orderly economic adjustments.”* He is right.

What we are seeing, as Mr Carney points out, is a failure of adjustment to changes in global competitiveness that has unhappy precedents, notably during the 1920s and 1930s, with the rise of the US, and, again, during the 1960s and 1970s, with the rise of Europe and Japan. As he also notes, “China’s integration into the world economy alone represents a much bigger shock to the system than the emergence of the US at the turn of the last century. China’s share of global gross domestic product has increased faster and its economy is much more open.”

Moreover, today, China’s managed exchange rate regime is quite different from those of other big economies, which was not true of the US when it rose to prominence. Thus, China’s managed exchange rate is shifting adjustment pressure on to other countries. This was disruptive before the crisis, but is now worse than that in this post-crisis period: some advanced countries, notably Canada, Japan, and the eurozone, have already seen big appreciations of their currencies. They are not alone.

China’s currency practices are hurting the United States far less than developing nations and the eurozone, amongst others, and the US government knows it. Two things are mind-boggling to me: why other countries don’t stand up to the Chinese more (I’m glad many have avoided the all-too-easy protectionist route, because that could be a disaster, but am not sure the current dialog on rebalancing is going to move the ball enough), but, more importantly, how the Chinese could possibly think that currency manipulation is a good long term strategy. Sure, it helps exports, and the CCCP has basically made a massive political bet on dramatic GDP growth based on exports, but it doesn’t have to be this way. 

For a so-called socialist country, China is barely one at all. The domestic social safety is virtually non-existent, and as badly as the U.S. needs to expand healthcare coverage, China needs to much more. A social safety net would lessen the incredibly high savings rates that Chinese operate with (because they have no choice), in turn giving China’s people a greater ability to consume, a positive outcome for both the Chinese economy and the rest of the world.

In America these days, it’s popular to agonize over the amount of money we owe China. But China is saving because it has to, not because it wants to. As the saying goes, when you owe the bank $100,000, the bank owns you, but when you owe the bank $1.6 trillion, you own the bank. (For more on this, read Christopher Hayes’ recent article in The Nation.)