Thursday, April 10, 2008

whither China?

Newspapers are reporting that China's currency has appreciated against the US dollar to the highest point since 1994. This pleases US policy makers who maintain that the Yuan has been artificially low.

As the Yuan rises in value, Chinese exports become more costly to Americans. Americans who spend a lot of time in Wal-Mart and Target have benefited from the cheap Yuan. They'll regret the appreciation of the currency. American producers consider the cheap Yuan to be unfair competition. American politicians dislike the unequal trade balance that has resulted, as exports from America to China represent only a tiny offset to the enormous volume of American imports from China.*

Things are much more complicated than that.

China has been constrained from letting the Yuan rise in value because its factories provide employment to millions of its citizens. The nation set a fixed ratio of the Yuan to the dollar at least partly in order to stimulate exports and thus provide jobs to those who were barely surviving on subsistence agriculture. Chinese factories produced cheap clothing and other low-wage goods, Americans bought this output, and the Chinese economy grew at a rapid rate.

China sees that there are limits to this policy and has more recently begun to diversify its manufacturing. It has been purchasing high-tech production equipment and improving educational opportunities so that it can develop a better-trained workforce and produce more sophisticated goods and services.

It has been induced to make this change partly because its currency manipulation has stimulated inflation and partly because middle class Chinese people need better investment opportunities: it does not make sense for them to continue to invest in low-end manufacturing.

Chinese policy makers also realize that as Chinese people gain wealth (or at least reasonable incomes) from exports, their desire to consume high-end goods and services increases. The Chinese government would prefer to meet this need from within China rather than by way of imports.

Inflation is a world-wide concern. The price of oil continues to rise and now rises in the price of food are causing great concern. China has to worry about the rising price of rice as much as do its Asian neighbors. There's great risk that people who can't afford food will rebel against their governments.

Echoing many financial experts, a blogger says China should be more aggressive in revaluing its currency:
China's PMI Numbers Are Too Strong, by Michael Pettis.


China should have begun the appreciation of [its currency] much earlier than it did and it should have appreciated more aggressively. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the excess global liquidity of the past few years and especially of the past few months, China is now caught in a monetary trap in which the high trade surplus forces the central bank to buy large amounts of foreign exchange, which of course causes very rapid domestic money expansion. This money expansion feeds directly into excessively high levels of investment, which force up industrial production and so causes the trade surplus to rise or remain high. It will be extremely difficult for China to get out of this trap.

As China’s labor force, especially in the wealthy south and southeast, move out of low value-added assembly and into higher quality manufacturing and service jobs, companies that rely on cheap, unsophisticated labor will necessarily find conditions more difficult and may even go out of business.

Policies aimed at creating a higher quality manufacturing and service base in places like Guangdong are succeeding. As long as overall exports continue to grow it is hard to see how the rising RMB** has caused trouble for Chinese exporters in general.

In China, appreciation will not reduce inflationary pressures through the price impact on imported goods. It can only really reduce inflation if it reduces the amount of foreign exchange the central bank has to buy every month, and so reduce the growth of the domestic money supply. As long as China’s money supply keeps expanding at such a fast pace, it will be impossible to bring inflation down, and as long as the central bank is forced to purchase very high levels of foreign exchange every month, China’s money supply will keep growing too quickly. The recent appreciation has done nothing to slow the trade surplus but it may have increased speculative inflows, so it actually causes an even further increase in the money supply.
Chinese policy makers say this analysis overstates their ability to revalue the Yuan. There is a limit to how quickly the country can replace low-level manufacturing with manufacturing that requires a more educated workforce. Moving too fast could cause economic chaos world-wide.

The US and other western governments don't substantially disagree, but see it as in their interest to keep the pressure on China.

Coincidentally, the global concern with inflation and the rising price of food comes as China is attempting to show the best side of itself with the coming Olympic games. Its difficulty in answering critics of its civil rights policies in general and in particular of its policies toward Tibet is only one of many concerns connected with this aim to look good.

China thus has lots of reasons to allow its currency to continue to appreciate.

One final complication, however, is the expected recession in the US and (to a lesser extent) around the globe. That event will cause American imports to decline and the decline in imports from China will provide counter-pressure against appreciation of the Yuan. The logic is thus: appreciation increases the price of exports and reduces the expansion of the Chinese money supply through purchase of dollars. US recession reduces the volume of exports and this makes it less necessary to purchase dollars. The result is less need to purchase dollars and consequently less inflationary pressure on the economy.

If China succeeds in controlling the rise in prices of oil and food imports, the recession in the US and slowed growth throughout the world may give Chinese policy makers greater flexibility in transforming the country's industrial infrastructure from low-end toward high-end manufacturing. If they do get this flexibility and use it wisely, expected benefits should flow over from China to the global marketplace. That is to say, all of us stand to benefit from Chinese modernization. However, these benefits will not be evenly distributed (whenever are benefits evenly distributed?) and, in the long run, while the US may be able to increase exports to China, it will not be easy for Americans to make a transition from prosperity based on expanding consumption (driven by low interest rates and manifested substantially in an abundance of cheap imports from China) to one in which interest rates are more rational (i.e., higher) and prosperity is achieved by growth in production as much as by growth in consumption. Along the way, as I've said, there's a good chance that the US will lose its status as preeminent financial power.

One last quote. Here is the head of the IMF on the Chinese economic situation. Note that he mentions social inequality, energy efficiency, and social services as areas that the Chinese government should address in addition to more purely economic and financial ones. He doesn't say so outright, but it's implicit that carbon emissions and other forms of pollution are and should be a major concern. It's not his place to add that China needs to address the corruption of its political regime. Although China has immensely talented and well-educated bureaucrats and policy makers, Party hacks block needed economic, social, and political reforms, and -- to some extent -- permeate the government from top to bottom. And the Chinese judicial system is unable to insure due process either for the Chinese people or those who do business with them.
Statement by IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn at the Conclusion of his Visit to China.


The Chinese government is confronting several macroeconomic policy challenges, including preventing inflation—largely the result of food price increases in recent months—from becoming entrenched, and rebalancing growth away from heavy reliance on exports and investment toward consumption. Addressing social inequalities and improving energy efficiency are also priorities.

We agreed that continued tight monetary policy will be important in containing investment growth and inflationary pressures. The government's emphasis on reorienting the budget toward improving social services—including health and education programs—can also help both to reduce disparities and rebalance growth. In addition, we also see the government's focus on financial sector reforms as key for achieving these goals. On exchange rate policy, we welcome the authorities' objective of allowing greater flexibility over time. However, we encourage a faster pace of appreciation that would be helpful for addressing China's key economic challenges and would also contribute to preserving global economic stability.

* The BEA reports that the Chinese trade surplus with the US was $20 billion in January and a little less in February. $20 billion is more than a quarter of the total January deficit in US import/export of goods.
**RMB: The renminbi (literally "people's currency") is the currency of the mainland of the People's Republic of China whose principal unit is the yuan. (Wikipedia)

No comments: