China is not a currency manipulator… at least not according to the U.S. Treasury (see the Treasury’s Interim Report on Exchange Rate Policy).
According to the Treasury’s report:
China’s continued foreign reserve accumulation, the limited appreciation of China’s real effective exchange rate relative to rapid productivity growth in the traded goods sector, and the persistence of current account surpluses even during a period when China’s trading partners were in deep recession together suggest that the renminbi remains undervalued.
It was easy to overlook the recently released Treasury report in the wake of the G20 summit, where much of the debate centered on austerity versus stimulus rather than China’s mercantilist policies (see Agreeing to Disagree).
In this sense then, China’s strategy of publicly announcing a more flexible yuan policy in the days leading up to the G20 summit effectively deflected the debate away from the yuan. What’s more, China’s announcement was seemingly rewarded by a Treasury now more reticent to label it a currency manipulator. And the timing of the report’s release (after months of delay) seemed rather coincidental: It was released after the conclusion of the G20 meetings, and only after China seemed to mollify critics with its announced policy shift.
The interesting thing to me about the whole thing is that the yuan has barely budged since the announcement, rising less than 1% since late June. For a currency that some claim is undervalued by as much as 40%, that’s not likely to make much of a dent in persistent trade imbalances.
Now I’m as much a proponent of free trade as anyone (see Globalization Revisited and Globalization Discontents), but my view is that trade should be allowed to take place in an environment in which economies adjust as a consequence. Explicit policies that prevent such adjustment can be damaging to all parties.
With my bias now laid bare, it seems to me that China is simply paying lip service. It wants to appear accommodating, publicly declaring its intention to allow the yuan to strengthen against the dollar, while continuing to rely on exports to the US as its main growth engine.
Given the recent turmoil in Europe (China’s second largest trading partner), maintaining its exports to the U.S. has taken an even heightened importance (see Revaluation Postponed and Revaluation and Euro Weakness). And in a world where everyone suddenly wants to play beggar-thy-neighbor (China, Japan, and now even Europe), the U.S. is now everyone’s neighbor (for a brilliant treatment of the issues see Capital Tsunami).
This cannot continue indefinitely.
Against that backdrop, don’t be surprised if the trade deficit and cries of unfair trade practices begin to occupy a more prominent place in political discourse.