The Chinese yuan has appreciated by more than 27.5% since 2005, when the People’s Bank of China (“PBOC”) formally acceded to international pressure and began to relax the yuan-dollar peg. For China-watchers and economists, that the Yuan will continue to appreciate is thus a given. There is no question of if, but rather of when and to what extent. But what if the prevailing wisdom is wrong? What if the yuan is now fairly valued, and economic fundamentals no longer necessitate a further rise?
Prior to the 2005 revaluation, economists had argued that the yuan (also known as the Chinese RMB) was undervalued by 15% – 40%, and American politicians had used this as a basis for proposing a 27.5% across-the-board tariff on all Chinese imports. Given that the yuan has now appreciated by this exact margin (and by even more when inflation is taken into account), shouldn’t this alone be enough to silence the critics, without even having to look at the picture on the ground? How can Senator Charles Schumer continue to press for further appreciation when the yuan’s rise exceeds his initial demands? Alas, election season is upon us, and we can’t hope to make political sense out of this issue. We can, however, attempt to analyze the economic sense of it.
China manipulates the value of the yuan in order to give a competitive advantage to Chinese exporters, goes the conventional line of thinking. Look no further than the Chinese trade surplus for evidence of this, right? As it turns out, China’s trade surplus is shrinking rapidly. In 2006, it was a whopping 11% of GDP. Last year, it had fallen to 5%, and it is projected by the World Bank to settle below 3% for each of the next two years. Thanks to a first quarter trade deficit – the first in over seven years – China’s trade surplus may account for a negligible portion (~.2%) of GDP growth in 2010.
With this in mind, why would the PBOC even think about allowing the RMB to appreciate further? According to one perspective, the narrowing trade imbalance is only temporary. When commodities prices settle and global demand fully recovers, a wider trade surplus will follow. In fact, the IMF forecasts China’s current surplus will rise to 8% by 2016. As you can see from the chart below (courtesy of The Economist), however, the IMF’s forecasts have proven to be too pessimistic for at least the last three years, and it now has very little credibility. Besides, China’s economy is gradually reorienting itself away from exports and towards domestic spending. As a resident of China, I can certainly attest to this phenomenon, and the last few years has seen an explosion in the number of cars on the road, domestic tourism, and conspicuous consumption.
A better argument for further RMB appreciation comes in the form of inflation. At 5.4%, inflation is officially nearing a 3-year high, and there is evidence that the PBOC already recognizes that allowing the RMB to keep rising represents its best tool for containing this problem. It has already raised banks’ required reserve ratio several times, but there is a limit to what this can accomplish. Meanwhile, the PBOC remains reluctant to raise interest rates because it will invite further “hot-money” inflows (estimated at more than $100 Billion per year, if not much higher) and potentially destabilize the banking sector. By raising the value of the yuan, the PBOC can blunt the impact of rising commodities prices and other inflationary forces.
In fact, some think that the PBOC will quicken the pace of appreciation, a view that as supported by last month’s .9% rise. Others think that a once-off appreciation would be more effective, and is hence more likely. This would not only remove the motivation for further hot-money inflows, but would also reduce the PBOC’s need to continue accumulating foreign exchange reserves. At $3 trillion+ ($1.15 trillion of which are held in US Treasury Securities), these reserves are already a massive headache for policymakers. Merely stating the obvious, PBOC Governor Zhou Xiaochuan has officially called the reserves “really too much.” (It’s worth pointing out that the promotion of the yuan as an international currency is backfiring in some ways, causing the reserves to balloon even faster).
For the record, I think that the Chinese yuan is pretty close to being fairly valued. That might seem like a ridiculous claim to make when Chinese wages and prices are still well below the global average. Consider, however, that the same is true for the majority of emerging market economies, including those that don’t peg their currencies to the dollar. That doesn’t mean that the yuan won’t – or that it shouldn’t – continue to rise. In fact, the PBOC needs to do more to ensure that the Yuan appreciates evenly against all currencies, since most of the yuan’s rise to-date has taken place relative to the US Dollar. It’s merely a commentary that the PBOC is close to fulfilling the promises it has made regarding the yuan, and going forward, I think that observers should expect that its forex policy will be reconfigured to promote domestic macroeconomic policy objectives.