Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Wolf on the China currency problem

The US and the EU continue to moan about the heavily managed exchange rate. So why is it such a problem?

Martin Wolf explains. He correctly points out that China resents the continuous Western pressure. However, the extent of the undervaluation is main clear - this cannot go on.

Is increased protectionism inevitable? I am not so sure. China still imports vast quantities and pays more for these goods as a result of a devalued currency. A managed ER is a subsidy to exporters that is true but I think outright protection is some way off.

Wolf does a good job of highlighting some of the problems that lay ahead. There is no simple solution.

Why China’s exchange rate policy concerns us [FT]

A country’s exchange rate cannot be a concern for it alone, since it must also affect its trading partners. But this is particularly true for big economies. So, whether China likes it or not, its heavily managed exchange rate regime is a legitimate concern of its trading partners. Its exports are now larger than those of any other country. The liberty of insignificance has vanished.

Naturally, the Chinese resent the pressure. 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.

Unfortunately, as we have also long known, two classes of countries are immune to external pressure to change policies that affect global “imbalances”: one is the issuer of the world’s key currency; and the other consists of the surplus countries. Thus, the present stalemate might continue for some time. But the dangers this would create are also evident: if, for example, China’s current account surplus were to rise towards 10 per cent of GDP once again, the country’s surplus could be $800bn (€543bn, £491bn), in today’s dollars, by 2018. Who might absorb such sums? US households are broken on the wheel of debt, as are those of most of the other countries that ran large current account deficits. That is why governments are now borrowers of last resort.

Chinese exchange rates

For the external deficit countries, the concern is how to lower fiscal deficits without tipping their economies back into recession. That will be impossible unless they are either able to get their private sectors spending and borrowing as before, or they enjoy rapid expansion in net exports. Of the two, the latter is the safer route to health. But that in turn, will only happen if surplus countries expand demand faster than potential output. China is the most important single player in this game.

Fortunately, these adjustment are in the long-term interests of both sides, including China. As a recent report from the European Chamber points out, China’s external surpluses have been a by-product of misguided policy.** Thus, capital was priced too cheaply in the 2000s, via cheap credit and low taxes on corporate profits, while foreign exchange was deliberately kept too expensive by currency interventions. In the process, income was transferred from households to industry. The result was an extraordinary surge in exports and capital-intensive heavy industry, with little job creation. Household disposable incomes fell to an extremely low share of GDP, while corporate investment, savings and the current account surplus soared. The short-term response to the crisis, with soaring credit and fixed investment, while successful in sustaining demand, reinforced these tendencies, rather than offset them. Another round of huge increases in excess capacity and current account surpluses seems inevitable.

China’s exchange rate regime and structural policies are, indeed, of concern to the world. So, too, are the policies of other significant powers. What would happen if the deficit countries did slash spending relative to incomes while their trading partners were determined to sustain their own excess of output over incomes and export the difference? Answer: a depression. What would happen if deficit countries sustained domestic demand with massive and open-ended fiscal deficits? Answer: a wave of fiscal crises.

Neither answer is acceptable; we need co-operative adjustment. Without it, protectionism in deficit countries is inevitable. We are watching a slow-motion train wreck. We must stop it before it is too late.


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