November 18th 2010
Chinese Yuan Will Not Be Reserve Currency?
In a recent editorial reprinted in The Business Insider (Here’s Why The Yuan Will Never Be The World’s Reserve Currency), China expert Michael Pettis argued forcefully against the notion that the Chinese Yuan will be ever be a global reserve currency on par with the US Dollar. By his own admission, Pettis seeks to counter the claim that China’s rise is inevitable.
The core of Pettis’s argument is that it is arithmetically unlikely – if not impossible – that the Chinese Yuan will become a reserve currency in the next few decades. He explains that in order for this to happen, China would have to either run a large and continuous current account deficit, or foreign capital inflows into China would have to be matched by Chinese capital outflows.” Why is this the case? Simply, a reserve currency must necessarily offer (foreign) institutions ample opportunity to accumulate it.
However, as Pettis points out, the structure of China’s economy is such that foreigners don’t have such an opportunity. Basically, China has run a current account/trade surplus, which has grown continuously over the last decade. During that time, its Central Bank has accumulated more than $2.5 Trillion in foreign exchange reserves in order to prevent the RMB from appreciating. Foreign Direct Investment, on the other hand, averages 2% of GDP and is declining, not to mention that “a significant share of those inflows may actually be mainland money round-tripped to take advantage of capital and tax regulations.”
For this to change, foreigners would need to have both a reason and the opportunity to hold RMB assets. The reason would come from a reversal in China’s balance of trade, and the use of RMB to pay for the excess of imports over exports, which would naturally imply a willingness of foreign entities to accept RMB. The opportunity would come in the form of deeper capital markets, a complete liberalization of the exchange rate regime (full-convertibility of the RMB), and the elimination of laws which dictate how foreigners can invest/lend in China. This would likewise an imply a Chinese government desire for greater foreign ownership.
How likely is this to happen? According to Pettis, not very. China’s financial/economic policy are designed both to favor the export sector and to promote access to cheap capital. In practice, this means that interest rates must remain low, and that there is little impetus behind the expansion of domestic consumption. Given that this has been the case for almost 30 years now, this could prove almost impossible to change. For the sake of comparison, consider that despite two “lost decades,” Japan nonetheless continues to promote its export sector and maintains interest rates near 0%.
Even if the Chinese economy continues to expand and re-balances itself in the process (a dubious possibility), Pettis estimates that it would still need to increase the rate of foreign capital inflows to almost 10% of GDP. If economic growth slows to a more sustainable level and/or it continues to run a sizable trade surplus, this figure would rise to perhaps 20%. In this case, Pettis concedes, “we are also positing…a radical change in the nature of ownership and governance in China, as well as a radical redrawing of the role of the central and local governments in the local economy.”
So there you have it. The political/economic/financial structure of China is such that it would be arithmetically very difficult to increase foreign accumulation of RMB assets to the extent that the RMB would be a contender for THE global reserve currency. For this to change, China would have to embrace the kind of reforms that go way beyond allowing the RMB to fluctuate, and strike at the very core of the CCP’s stranglehold on power in China.
If that’s what it will take for the RMB to become a fully international currency, well, then it’s probably too early to be having this conversation. Perhaps that’s why the Asian Development Bank, in a recent paper, argued in favor of modest RMB growth: “sharing from about 3% to 12% of international reserves by 2035.” This is certainly a far cry from the “10 years” declared by Russia’s finance minister and tacitly supported by Chinese economic policymakers.
The implications for the US Dollar are clear. While it’s possible that a handful of emerging currencies (Brazilian Real, Indian Rupee, Russian Ruble, etc.) will join the ranks of the international currencies, none will have enough force to significantly disrupt the status quo. When you also take into account the economic stagnation in Japan and the UK, as well as the political/fiscal problems in the EU, it’s more clear than ever that the Dollar’s share of global reserves in one (or two or three) decades will probably be only slightly diminished from its current share.