Why hasn’t Inflation Caught Up with a Monetary-Induced Boom in China?

One might argue that China’s policy of keeping the renminbi cheap amounts to an export subsidy that has been an important factor fueling its growth. But that thesis is puzzling to economists who reason that a cheap-currency policy can only get you so far. Paul Krugman explains:

Consider the real exchange rate, defined as RX = EP*/P, where E is the exchange rate measured as the domestic currency price of foreign currency (so an appreciation of the renminbi is a fall in E), P* is the foreign price level, and P the domestic price level. Basic international macro says that there is a “natural” level of the real exchange rate, determined by trade competitiveness and international capital flows. And the economy “wants” to get to that real exchange rate.

If you have a floating exchange rate, you get there via a rise or fall in E. But if you have a pegged rate, there’s pressure on prices instead. By deliberately keeping E higher than it would be under floating, China is creating pressures for P to rise; the inflationary pressures are directly related to the exchange rate policy.

So why hasn’t domestic inflation in China undone the stimulus from the exchange rate? I’ve been forming the opinion that U.S. inflationary dynamics may be more governed by relative price changes than was historically the case, and raise the possibility that China could be ground zero for this phenomenon. Specifically, I’m wondering if the pent-up inflationary pressure takes the form of inducing consumers and businesses in China to try to acquire any hard assets they can, with the result that rather than overall inflation we see remarkable increases in the relative prices of such items. I’ve commented before on this interesting account from last September:

Private investors in China, the world’s largest metals user, have stockpiled “substantial” quantities of copper as the government ramps up stimulus spending to spur the economy, according to Sucden Financial Ltd.

Pig farmers and other speculators may have amassed more than 50,000 metric tons, Jeremy Goldwyn, who oversees business development in Asia for London-based Sucden, wrote in an e-mailed report after a visit to China. That’s about half the level of inventories tallied by the Shanghai Futures Exchange, which stood last week at a two-year high of 97,396 tons.

Sucden’s estimate underscores the difficulty analysts face in gauging metals demand in China amid increased speculation by retail investors, whose holdings remain outside the reporting framework undertaken by exchanges. Private investors in China also had as much as 20,000 tons of nickel, Goldwyn wrote.

“People who have nothing at all to do with the copper trade have been buying copper as a store of value, much like they would with gold,” said Jiang Mingjun, an analyst at Shanghai Oriental Futures Co.

We’re also hearing reports of the real estate markets in China’s big cities taking off again:

In big cities like Beijing, the red-hot real estate market has seen prices raise more than 50 percent the past year– six times the country’s total economic growth rate. According to Shanghai Uwin, which tracks housing prices in China’s richest city, average new apartment prices in the Pudong district soared by 57 percent to a record $4,061 per square meter, while overall prices in the city rose by 26 percent to $2,434.

Andy Xie, former Morgan Stanley chief economist for Asia, believes that China’s real estate and stock markets are a “bubble” that will burst when inflation accelerates in 2011. “China’s asset markets are a Ponzi scheme,” Xie told Bloomberg. “Property is heading for one huge bust that will take a year and a half to unfold.”

This account from November is also intriguing:

Wholesale garlic prices in Beijing are now 15 times as high as in March, and still rising.

Jerry Lou, a Morgan Stanley China strategist who has researched the opaque market here, said speculators– fueled by the abundant liquidity sloshing around China– have moved into the small market and strategically driven up prices.

“You need a warehouse, a lot of cash and a few trucks. That’s how it works,” Lou said, describing garlic speculators’ tools of the trade. “Basically, what you do is try to arrest as much supply as possible, then you bid up the price. Moving garlic from one warehouse to the other, you make millions of dollars.”

Maybe this is just a rational price response to the belief that garlic helps prevent H1N1. But I can’t help noticing that they look a little like tulip bulbs, don’t you think?

Inflation in China

About James D. Hamilton 244 Articles

James D. Hamilton is Professor of Economics at the University of California, San Diego.

Visit: Econbrowser

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