Wednesday, March 17, 2010

China, America and the yuan

Yuan to stay cool

The best thing American politicians can do to encourage a stronger Chinese currency is keep calm

ONE of the few good things about the Great Recession of 2008-09 was a merciful absence of complaints from America’s Congress about China’s currency. The yuan’s gradual appreciation stopped in July 2008, and China has since kept its currency tightly pegged to the dollar. But even as America suffered its worst downturn in the post-war period, its legislators steered clear of ranting against China.

That restraint was driven partly by fear. At the depths of the crisis even the most myopic Congressmen worried about a descent into 1930s-style protectionism. And it was driven partly by the facts. As investors’ flight to safety strengthened the dollar in late 2008, the yuan rose along with it. With America’s imports slumping it was hard to blame Chinese workers for American joblessness. And thanks to its huge domestic stimulus China added to global demand last year, as its current-account surplus shrank sharply.

Now things have, unfortunately, gone into reverse. As policymakers in both countries shift from cushioning recession to managing recovery, the rigidity of the yuan is, once again, becoming a source of tension—one that a still-fragile global recovery can ill afford.

America sounds increasingly determined to push its exports, and its attitude to China has hardened. Mr Obama has set a goal of doubling exports in five years (see article) and has promised to “get much tougher” over what it regards as unfair competition from China. Speculation is rising in Washington, DC, that the Treasury will brand China a currency “manipulator” in its next exchange-rate report. With America’s unemployment at 9.7% and the mid-term elections approaching, the appeal of China-bashing is rising in Congress, too. Several senators recently revived a mothballed demand that the Commerce Department should investigate China’s currency regime as an unfair trade subsidy.

Beijing, in turn, shows little sign of budging on the yuan, even though the latest figures show surprisingly strong export growth and higher-than-expected inflation. Zhou Xiaochuan, the head of China’s central bank, caused a brief flurry in currency markets when he argued on March 6th that keeping the yuan stable against the dollar was “part of our package of policies for dealing with the global financial crisis” from which China would exit “sooner or later”. But he made it quite clear that China would be cautious and gave no hint that sudden exit was imminent. In recent days various other Chinese officials have put even more emphasis on the stability of the currency, bristled at outside pressure to hurry up and denounced American “politicisation” of the exchange-rate issue.

A speedy end to the dollar peg makes economic sense for China as well as for the world. A stronger, more flexible currency would make it easier for China to control inflation and asset bubbles. A dearer yuan would also help rebalance China’s economy towards domestic spending by boosting Chinese consumers’ purchasing power, discouraging excessive investment in manufacturing and squeezing corporate profits. That would put the global recovery on a steadier footing, especially if a stronger yuan were mirrored by appreciation of the currencies of other Asian emerging economies. And China would gain politically by helping to diffuse protectionist pressure from abroad.

But it would not be a magic bullet, either within China or outside. Rebalancing China’s economy will require big structural reforms, from tax to corporate governance, as well as a stronger currency. A stronger yuan would not suddenly bring back millions of jobs to America. Since America no longer makes most of the products it imports from China, a stronger yuan would initially act more like a tax on consumers.

Soft-soaping, not sabre-rattling

Will the administration’s new tough talk move things in the right direction? Those who argue in favour of sabre-rattling do so on two grounds: first, that it is likely to shift China’s position, and second, that a stronger stance against China’s currency from the White House will diffuse protectionist sentiment in Congress. Both are dubious. China’s reactions so far suggest that American complaints make an imminent currency shift less, not more, likely. And a row could spur rather than diffuse anti-China action in Congress.

Rather than raising a bilateral ruckus, America would be far better off convincing other big economies in the G20 to press together for a yuan appreciation as part of the world’s exit strategy from the crisis. Cool and calm multilateral leadership will achieve more, with fewer risks, than a Sino-American currency spat. The Economist

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