Revaluing the Yuan: Call China's Bluff, Or Proceed With Caution?

Includes: CNY, CYB
by: Alpha Author

Simon Johnson at Baseline Scenario, whose work I’ve immensely enjoyed reading over the years, posted a wonderful excerpt from his testimony before a Congressional panel about how best to put pressure on China to revalue the yuan (see Should We Fear China?).

China is the largest holder of official foreign currency reserves in the world, currently estimated to be worth around $2.4 trillion – an increase of nearly $500 billion in the course of 2009 (on the back of a current account surplus of just under $300 billion, i.e., 5.8 percent of China’s GDP, and a capital account surplus of around $100 billion). These reserves are accumulated through arguably the largest ever sustained intervention in a foreign exchange market – i.e., through The People’s Bank of China buying dollars and selling renminbi, and thus keeping the renminbi-dollar exchange rate more depreciated than it would be otherwise.

…There is a perception that China’s large dollar holdings confer upon that country some economic or political power vis-à-vis the United States and, in particular, that Chinese reserves prevent us from putting pressure on that country’s authorities to revalue (i.e., appreciate) the renminbi. This view is incorrect and completely misunderstands the situation.

Simon then provides some compelling evidence for why China’s reserves do not provide it much economic or political leverage vis-à-vis the United States. And because of that, he suggests that the U.S. ought to apply more pressure on China with respect to its mercantilist policies.

There is still an open question of how best to push China to revalue the renminbi.

1. Bilateral negotiations, as championed for example by former Treasury Secretary Paulson, have achieved essentially nothing since 2002. This is not a promising way forward.

2. The International Monetary Fund (NYSE:IMF) has proved itself incapable of calling China to account. The IMF’s much vaunted “Surveillance Decision” is a failure and the general Fund mandate of “multilateral surveillance” has (again) proved to be a paper tiger. Working with the IMF on this issue is not worth any additional effort by the US government.

He settles for what’s behind door number 3.

3. China is obviously a currency manipulator and should be so labeled by the US Treasury in its next report to Congress. China’s threat to react by selling Treasuries is – as explained above – at worst a bluff and at best a way to help the US with a depreciation of the dollar. This bluff should be called.

I largely agree with Simon’s points. China’s posturing with respect to the dollar is largely a bluff. It is obviously not in China’s best interest to sell, or diversify out of, its dollar holdings. Moreover, even if it were to spite itself and follow through on such a plan, it’s not entirely clear that would be such a bad thing for the U.S.

That said however, it’s still unclear to me why China might be willing to reconsider its policy and revalue the yuan. For example, Simon writes:

It is in the interests of both the United States and global economic prosperity that China discontinues its massive intervention in the market for renminbi.

Although I agree that it is in the best long-term interest of the U.S. and other countries throughout the globe for China to revalue its currency, it isn’t entirely clear to me that such a maneuver is in the near-term interests of China …or maybe even the global economy.

Think about the short-term shock to the Chinese economy, which depends upon exports for a good portion of its GDP. By many accounts, exports make up some 25% of Chinese GDP. A revaluation of the yuan makes Chinese exports relatively more expensive thereby decreasing foreign demand for Chinese-made goods. This negatively impacts local production and creates a feedback loop through to domestic employment and wages. In the extreme, this threatens social stability, and China is certainly not the poster-child for social stability.

Not only that, but given the foreign interests and investments in China, it is not entirely clear to me that a yuan revaluation that catapults China into recession would not result in a global contagion effect. Supply chains are so interconnected around the globe that an upward price movement for intermediate and finished goods coming out of China could have dire consequences for Western companies that rely on Chinese-sourced goods (just ask Wal*Mart).

So although I agree in principle with Simon’s points, the Chinese government (and by extension, the global economy) finds itself between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the revaluation of the yuan. A sudden revaluation to competitive levels could come with socially and economically undesirable near-term adjustments. I therefore think it’s best we proceed with caution…

Disclosure: No positions