How will an RMB Revaluation Affect China, the US, and the World?

The Chinese new year has only just started, and already trade tensions are ratcheting up. This is perhaps appropriate — astrologers tell us that the year of the Tiger is often a year of instability and conflict — and I suspect things will almost certainly get worse. The timing of various domestic political events in the US, China and Europe will make it harder than ever for any of these countries to back down before 2012 (by which time, presumably, the world will have ended anyway).

Last Thursday President Obama made a fairly strong speech in which he urged China to adopt a “more market-oriented exchange rate”. The timing of the speech was important. On April 15 the US Treasury department will release its report stating whether or not China is a “currency manipulator”, and it is hard to believe that the Treasury department is not facing some pretty stiff pressure.

China’s response to Obama’s speech was pretty rapid and pretty angry. According to an article in the Saturday issue of the Financial Times,

Su Ning, a deputy governor of the Chinese central bank, said the US should not “politicise” China’s currency policy…“We always refuse to politicise the yuan exchange rate issue and we never think that one country should ask another for help in solving its own problems,” Mr Su said on Friday.

What it means to “politicise” the currency policy wasn’t made clear, but on Sunday Premier Wen also jumped into the fray. He denied that the RMB was undervalued and, in the words of an article in Monday’s Wall Street Journal, added the following:

“I can understand that some countries want to increase their share of exports,” Mr. Wen said, in an apparent reference to the Obama administration’s goal. “What I don’t understand is the practice of depreciating one’s own currency and attempting to press other countries to appreciate their own currencies solely for the purpose of increasing one’s own exports,” he added. “This kind of practice I think is a kind of trade protectionism.”

Wen is absolutely right. Undervaluing or depreciating a currency certainly is a form of trade protectionism, but that, I think, is exactly the point. In a world of sluggish growth and rising unemployment, everyone’s currency policies are legitimately going to be scrutinized over whether they constitute trade protection.

An article in the People’s Daily has Wen also warning that “China opposes accusations and even forceful measures that press for yuan appreciation, which will not benefit the exchange rate reform.” The claim that external pressure will never advance reforms in China is now much debated in Europe and the US, and may be less widely believed abroad than it has been in recent years. We’ll see.

These are murky political waters into which I do not want to dip, but it is hard to escape the politics of the debate. The same issue of the People’s Daily had another article pointing out that US debate on the currency was driven mainly by domestic considerations and that the only reason Obama brought up the subject of the RMB was to address domestic polls.

“The U.S. government wishes to eliminate trade deficit and ease its high unemployment rate by pushing yuan appreciation. That was only its wishful thinking,” said Yi Xianrong, an expert with Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

…The saying that “undervalued yuan leads to global trade imbalance” cannot stand up to close scrutiny. Zhao Qingming, a researcher with China Construction Bank stressed that imbalance of an economy’s deposit and investment was the fundamental reason for trade surplus or deficit. Exchange rate has only minor influence.
In fact, yuan appreciation brings more adverse effects to western countries than positive ones. In the past tens of years, because of the yuan devaluation and export rebate policies, western countries, to a large extent, were able to enjoy low inflation, low living cost, and current standard of living, and western governments were able to reduce financial deficit and allow their people to consume excessively.

There is, as always, a certain amount of nonsense in these articles. For example the exchange rate itself affects the ratio between savings and investment, so while the first part of Zhao’s statement is more or less right — although not as a “fundamental reason” but rather as part of an accounting identity — the second part is certainly wrong and probably meaningless. More interestingly, it seems a little weird to argue that one of the benefits that China has provided the world with its undervalued exchange rate is low consumer prices that allow countries like the US “to consume excessively”. Aside from the fact that this pretty explicitly acknowledges that the currency is undervalued, since excess consumption is exactly the problem in the US, and since Chinese per capita consumption is much less than 10% of that of the US, it seems that China should be more approving of US attempts to return the favor and allow Chinese consumers the benefit of subsidized US prices.

Everything is politicized

Still, I do think the People Daily’s article is right to say that the RMB is becoming an important domestic issue for Obama, and that it is domestic US politics that is driving much of the recent noise and the rancor. Obama’s popularity has dropped considerably, and ahead of the upcoming elections he needs to show that he is addressing fundamental economic problems. And of course it is also always easy to get votes by bashing foreigners — this is one of the many attitudes that the US and China share.

But even though the People Daily’s criticism is correct, perhaps that doesn’t change anything meaningful. The concern over the effect of the RMB on US employment may still be a perfectly valid one, and the fact that Obama is under domestic pressure to address the currency is not an especially good reason to dismiss his concerns. On the contrary. Obama has little wiggle room, and as Paul Krugman pointed out in a fiery, and probably influential, speech last Sunday, the US may hold the stronger cards in any showdown. According to the relevant article in Business Week,

Krugman said China’s currency policy has a “depressing effect” on economic growth in the U.S., Europe and Japan, as measured by gross domestic product. If China’s currency, the yuan, were not undervalued, it would have a “significant” impact on the global recovery, he said. “If we could get some change in China’s currency policy, it would help the world,” Krugman said today at an Economic Policy Institute event in Washington.

…Krugman said the world economy wouldn’t be hurt, and could benefit, if China were to sell off a large portion of its dollar-denominated assets. He said that if China were to sell all of its U.S. investments, it would help the economy by acting as a form of quantitative easing and fighting a “liquidity trap” that has recently been affecting the U.S. economy.

“We should not be afraid of what the Chinese might do if we pressure them to stop this currency manipulation,” Krugman said. At the end of 2009, China was the top foreign investor U.S. government debt, with holdings of $898.4 billion in Treasury securities. Krugman said the U.S. may need to get more aggressive in its negotiations with China, perhaps by treating the exchange- rate issue as a countervailing duty or other export subsidy. “Without a credible threat, we’re not going to get anywhere,” he said. “The chance that we would trigger a trade war is very small and it’s hard to see any alternative.”

Krugman elaborated further Monday in the New York Times in an article, and then in a follow up article Wednesday, both of which are likely to be much quoted and widely read. Although Premier Wen noted again in his speech Sunday that China is “worried” about the value of its US dollar reserves, perhaps as a warning that China would counteract any US trade move by selling off USG bonds, Krugman doesn’t seem especially worried about this threat.

He may be right. Aside from the fact that it is not clear how China can dump Treasury bonds, he claims that it would only help the Fed in its quantitative easing, and would probably do far more damage to Europe (since China would presumably have to buy euros) than to the US.

The latter point is almost certainly correct. China’s Selling dollars and buying something else would allow the US to get even more bang for its protectionist buck, probably at poor Europe’s expense. I would also add that the main long-term impact of dumping USG bonds might be no more than to cause a liquidation of Chinese assets at very low prices, and an equivalent transfer of wealth from China to the US (or to others likely at some point to buy cheap dollar assets).

Remember that at the beginning of WW1 something similar happened. In an urgent attempt to raise gold reserves to pay for the war, in the late summer of 1914 European belligerents dumped onto US markets what amounted to a far greater share of US assets than China currently holds. This caused about six months of havoc, and many sleepless nights in New York and Washington. But the US responded by putting into place temporary capital and stock market controls, and when the dust settled, the net effect was one of the most massive short-term transfers of wealth ever recorded from one group of countries, the European belligerents, to another, the US. European dumping caused a collapse in prices, and US investors ultimately scooped up the assets up very cheaply.

That doesn’t mean that there will be no cost for the US if China dumps, but rather that the cost might be absorbed fairly comfortably over a reasonable time period. I suppose I will be very unpopular for pointing this out — especially with people in the US Treasury department and among Chinese cold warriors — but please don’t blame the messenger. I am just trying to use the limited historical precedents to figure out what is likely to happen. We have seen asset dumping before, and on an even larger scale, and the US capital market is deep enough that it might easily absorb it.

Where I disagree with Krugman is with his claim that the chance of triggering a trade war is small. In fact, the day Krugman published his article, 130 US Congressmen sent an open letter to secretaries Timothy Geithner (Treasury) and Gary Locke (Commerce) demanding that China be designated a currency manipulator. They called for duties to be imposed on Chinese imports to counter the effect of the undervalued RMB. This raises pressure significantly, and I am sure in the next week or two there will be a lot more. There are also strong rumors of some high-powered and relevant Congressional session next week. Stay tuned.

Of course regular readers of my blog won’t be surprised by any of this. The logic behind a prediction of trade war is almost unchallengeable, and the two countries are simply the two most visible in a world in which trade tensions must inexorably rise. Just ask the Germans and their European partners. Trade relationships will continue to get much worse, largely because the cost of trade war for high-deficit countries is so much lower than for high-surplus countries, and there seems to be no real attempt on either side to tone down aggressive actions or rhetoric. We seem to be caught in a downward spiral, and the longer it goes on the harder it is for anyone not to participate.

But while I think the economic effect of a tariff war on the US is likely to be smaller than many expect (and much smaller than that indicated by some of the outraged yelping I saw on a CNBC show dedicated to the subject today), and maybe even employment-positive in the short term, I do not think it is in the longer term interest of the US. I think trade war would be very painful for China, and forcing them into such a difficult position will poison the relationship for many years. This is likely to be the most important global relationship of the next few decades, and we really need a better way to resolve these very thorny issues, but that almost certainly isn’t going to happen.

To return to the People’s Daily article, I think many in China have argued that a revaluation of the RMB may have a significant effect on China’s trade surplus without having an equivalent effect on the US trade deficit. The same would be true of tariffs on Chinese goods. In either case, say many in Beijing, China loses, but the US doesn’t gain, so why is the US so determined to force this outcome?

I think this claim is probably correct. An RMB revaluation in itself might not have as big an impact on the US deficit as many think. To see why, I thought I would try to outline what the impact of an RMB revaluation would be for China and the world by asking a few basic questions and coming up with my best possible answers. Here goes:

What will the balance sheet effect of an RMB revaluation be on China?

There are broadly speaking two different classes of revaluation effects, the economic effect and the balance sheet effect. By the former I just mean the impact a revaluation will have on the future development of China’s economy, and by the latter I mean the immediate balance sheet losses and gains for China. Obviously these two are related.

Let me begin with balance sheet impacts. Two weeks ago I posted a rather long entry on that very subject. For those who can’t bear reading or re-reading such a long post, the quick answer is that, contrary to common perception, a revaluation of the RMB is likely to have a very small, and probably positive, overall balance sheet impact on total Chinese wealth.

That is, however, not the end of the story. There is a significant transfer within China of wealth, which will create clear winners and losers. Basically any economic entity that is explicitly or implicitly long dollars (by which I mean any foreign currency not pegged to the RMB) and short RMB, will lose in a revaluation. Conversely, any entity that is explicitly or implicitly long RMB, and short dollars, will win. In my earlier entry I pointed out that the PBoC is the single biggest loser. It is long, if correctly counted, roughly $3 trillion in dollars, against which it is short an equivalent amount of RMB.

Exporters and manufacturers in the tradable goods sector will also lose. Their expected revenues (which can be conceptually capitalized as an asset) are mainly in dollars whereas their expected costs are partly or mainly in RMB. This means that the value of future revenues will drop relative to the value of future expenses, and so they will take a loss.

Finally in that entry I pointed out that any wealthy Chinese individual with a substantial amount of honest or ill-gotten gains stuffed in bank accounts abroad will also lose. But I forgot to mention another big group of losers — anyone in China who has stockpiled inventories of goods or commodities whose prices are set in international markets. Those prices will immediately drop in RMB terms upon a revaluation, and if the asset purchases were financed by RMB borrowing or assets, there will be a loss. So to the extent that companies or individuals are stockpiling iron, copper, chemicals, or anything similar, they will also take an immediate loss.

So who wins in a revaluation? Nearly everyone in China who has at least part of his consumption basket consisting of imported goods, which basically means every one in China except pure subsistence farmers. Because the rise in the value of the RMB causes the price of all imports automatically to fall, a revaluation increases the wealth of Chinese households by increasing the real value of their current and future assets and income.

This is the key point. A revaluation shifts wealth from the Chinese government and the manufacturing sectors (and some wealthy Chinese) to Chinese households — which, by the way, is pretty much what is meant by “rebalancing” in the Chinese context. There are many other ways besides revaluation to shift income this way. The PBoC can raise deposit rates, wages can rise faster than productivity, companies can be privatized by giving away shares to the pubic, and so on. They all have the same effect. They shift resources to households and away from producers, infrastructure investment, and real estate developers. This allows household income to grow relative to national income, which ultimately increases the consumption share of GDP.

What will the economic effect of an RMB revaluation be on China?

So as things stand currently, the reason an undervalued RMB distorts international trade is because it transfers income from Chinese households (they have to pay more for imports) and subsidizes Chinese manufacturers in the tradable goods sector. This is one of the many mechanisms by which households are forced to subsidize production and investment.

A revaluation, then, is part of the rebalancing mechanism. It helps to reduce subsidies to manufacturers and returns the income to Chinese households, who can then increase their relative consumption. But there is a cost to this rebalancing. China’s current industrial policies sacrificed household income in order to spur manufacturing growth, and this had the obvious secondary effect of speeding up employment and, with it, household income. So in a way by repressing household income growth China was paradoxically able to achieve rapid growth in household income. Neat trick, eh?

But of course this growth wasn’t unencumbered. Much Chinese growth was based on concealing the true costs behind hidden subsidies, so that real economic growth was likely to be lower than recorded economic growth. More importantly, because everything in the world must balance, the imbalances within China required the opposite imbalances outside of China — which mostly meant in the US. Just as this global system implicitly taxed Chinese household consumption to subsidize Chinese manufacturing and employment growth, it also implicitly taxed US manufacturers in order to subsidize US consumers. American consumers got cheaper (foreign) goods, American manufacturers had to compete against lower (foreign) prices.

So Americans over-consumed and Chinese over-saved. The system worked well for quite a while, until, as with Japan in the late 1980s, US debt levels and employment rose to economically and politically unacceptable levels.

For China and the US to adjust means both of them unwinding this trade-off. Beijing will have to enact policies that reduce the subsidies to manufacturers and return the income to Chinese households. But this automatically means depressing economic growth and, more importantly, depressing employment growth.

This shouldn’t be a serious problem if it happens slowly. As Chinese manufactures gradually lose their subsidies, they will rely more than ever on the consequent rising Chinese consumption, and so domestic consumption will replace subsidized foreign demand as the source of growth. Not only will China have a safer and more balanced economy, but it will be more innovative (consumption tends to drive innovation, not production) and much more efficient.

But China cannot adjust too quickly. If Beijing removes the implicit subsidies, including those caused by the undervalued exchange rate, too rapidly, that could force large-scale bankruptcies as Chinese manufacturers found themselves unable to compete globally or at home. If these bankruptcies forced up unemployment, then paradoxically even as the transfers from households to businesses are being reversed, household income would nonetheless decline as unemployment soared. In that case Chinese manufacturers would find themselves becoming uncompetitive in international markets just as domestic markets are collapsing.

The conclusion? A rebalancing is necessary for China, as nearly everyone in the leadership knows. This will involve, among other things, a significant revaluing of the currency. But rebalancing cannot happen too quickly without risking throwing the economy into a tailspin. That cannot and should not be a part of the US or Chinese policy objective. By the way if China is forced to revalue the currency too quickly, it will have to enact countervailing policies — lower interest rates, suppress wages, increase credit and subsidies — to protect the economy from falling apart, and these will exacerbate other imbalances that may be even worse than the currency misalignment. Currency revaluation, then, should be part of a broader adjustment process.

So how can the global system adjust?

If we abstract for a moment, and call all trade-deficit countries the United States, and all trade-surplus countries China, there are broadly speaking two ways the system can adjust. Remember that each domestic imbalance requires the other, so that if China adjusts, the US must adjust too, and if the US adjusts, China must adjust too. (For those more technically inclined, by the way, this is one of the points that Krugman makes in his second article, although using different terms: China’s exporting of capital must create capital imports somewhere else, and these capital imports are the obverse of the trade deficit.)

One way in which the system can adjust is for China to take the lead and reverse the policies that cause households to transfer resources to its manufacturers. As a consequence consumption will no longer be taxed to subsidize production. This will cause household consumption to rise as share of GDP — the good way by a surge in consumption, the bad way by a collapse in economic growth.

Either way, the rebalancing in China will force an equivalent rebalancing in the US. As the price of Chinese goods rise, the net impact will be to transfer resources from US consumers, who have to pay more for their imports, to US producers (US producers become more globally competitive). The rise in Chinese consumption relative to Chinese production would be necessarily matched by a rise in US production relative to US consumption. (Some readers will notice that I am ignoring the role of investment in economic growth, and of course changes in investment matter, but over the medium to long term the basic argument is unchanged.)

The second way in which the system adjusts is if the US drives it. The US can put into place policies that favor manufacturers at the expense of consumers. These include consumption taxes, manufacturing subsidies, penalties for consumer borrowing, subsidies for investment, or, more ominously, import tariffs. These can all have the same aggregate effect on the US trade account by shifting the relationship between how much Americans produce domestically and how much they consume. And of course as the US adjusts, China must also automatically adjust. Tariffs just on Chinese goods, by the way, will have a minimal impact on the US adjustment since trade may very well just shift to other countries.

Note that in either case both countries will rebalance, but rebalancing says nothing about how rapid economic growth must be. I addressed this in a blog entry last week when I discussed Japan’s dismal post-1990 rebalancing. In this context rebalancing just means that in China economic growth will be less than consumption growth, and in the US consumption growth will be less than economic growth. The problem is that China will try to adjust by pushing the cost of the adjustment onto the US, and the US will try to adjust by pushing the cost onto China. Each country can strive towards the good outcome (rapid economic growth) or find itself facing the bad outcome (declining consumption). This is why policy coordination and gradualism is so important.

Will a revaluation cause China’s trade surplus to decline?

Yes, all other things being equal, but of course all other things are not equal. Within China there are several things that will affect the trade surplus. Remember that the trade surplus exists because of the imbalance between Chinese domestic production and Chinese domestic consumption (technically the surplus is the difference between savings and investment), and so anything that affects the subsidies to manufacturers, or that affects household income, will also affect the trade surplus.

I have already argued that interest rates and wage growth that is lower than productivity growth can affect the trade surplus as much as the undervalued currency. In that case, if the RMB revalues, and at the same time real interest rates are forced down by a sufficient amount, or wage growth is restrained, the net result can easily be a rise, not a decline, in the trade surplus. It depends on the relative magnitude of the different factors.

The external environment also matters. If US interest rates decline for example, unlike in China where declining deposit rates is likely to spur savings, US consumption may rise even as the cost of Chinese imports rises because of a surge in the RMB.

Quite a lot of defenders of RMB stability have made the point that the rise of the yen after 1985 and the rise of the RMB after 2005 were most emphatically not associated with declining trade surpluses. According to their arguments, this clearly proves that the currency doesn’t matter.

This is nonsense, and even if it were true it seems more an argument in favor of revaluing than an argument in favor of not revaluing. But it isn’t true because in both cases there were countervailing changes. Perhaps most importantly, local interest rates in Japan and China declined in real terms, thus reducing local consumption, and US interest rates also declined, spurring US consumption (I know, I know, this sounds strange, but the wealth effect of interest-rate changes in the US is the opposite of that in Japan and China because of the differing structures of household balance sheets). All that happened in both cases was that the rebalancing effect of the currency revaluation was swamped by the exacerbating effect of other factors. The only thing that Japan after 1985 and China after 2005 prove is that the currency is not the only thing that matters.

Will a decline in China’s trade surplus cause the US trade deficit to decline?

Not necessarily. Beijing has pointed out many times that a contraction in the Chinese trade surplus does not necessarily mean an equivalent contraction in the US trade deficit. All it requires is an equivalent contraction in the rest of the world’s net trade deficit. This could easily happen with an improvement in the trade balances of Vietnam, Mexico, Korea or anyone else, enough fully to absorb the reduction in China’s trade surplus. In that case, the US trade balance does not improve, and the US gets none of the employment benefit of the RMB revaluation. China will simply import fewer jobs from abroad and some other countries will import more, or export fewer, jobs.

Remember that if the RMB revalues, this is the same as if all the currencies of the rest of the world depreciate. This will cause a shift in the rest of the world so that households will see a small reduction in their real income, and non-Chinese producers in the tradable goods sector will see a small increase in their competitiveness vis a vis the rest of the world (largely because Chinese producers becomes less competitive). This will reduce non-Chinese consumption and increase non-Chinese production, and the distribution of these changes among different countries, including the US, will depend on a vast array of factors.

So Beijing is absolutely correct in arguing that an RMB revaluation might not have a major impact on the US trade balance, although there is one important caveat. A number of other developing countries, especially in Asia, are concerned about excessively loose domestic monetary policy and inflation, and would like to raise the values of their own currencies. They cannot do so, however, until China does. During the crisis China has expanded its share of global net demand at their expense. If an RMB revaluation causes revaluation in other countries with large trade surpluses, the net impact on the much smaller “rest of the world” will be much bigger, and so simply as a function of arithmetic the US is bound to benefit.

This fact again argues in favor of globally coordinated action rather than an excessive focus on RMB bashing. If China is forced to revalue the RMB, in order to gain the optimal global rebalancing it should be done as part of a general realignment of currencies (although of course cynics will point out that surest way to ensure that something doesn’t get done is to coordinate it globally).

Is it only China that must act?

China will rebalance, but it cannot do so quickly. If it does, as I discussed above, it may easily fall into a spiral of declining competitiveness leading to rising unemployment leading to declining domestic consumption leading to more unemployment. Clearly this is not in China’s interest.

There is another problem. There are several countries with structurally low consumption and high production — Germany, Japan and China being the most important (and I leave out the OPEC countries for obvious reasons). Simply forcing China to adjust, in that case, might cause damage to Chinese growth prospects without helping the US rebalancing effort.

For example, a sharp rise in the RMB, especially if accompanied by a rise in other Asian currencies, will take depreciation pressure off the dollar. Since currently most of that depreciation pressure is borne by the euro, a revaluation of the RMB could easily also result in a decline in the euro, whose economies will then see a sharp improvement in their net trade balance. This means that a significant part of the benefits of Chinese revaluation may accrue to Germany, a country that has yet to resolve its own internal imbalances.

So limiting the whole rebalancing discussion just to China and the RMB may end up not helping much. It is true that the US could force through a rapid domestic rebalancing of its own, including by raising import tariffs generally (and not just on Chinese goods), if it really wanted to, and the benefits to the US would be a surge in employment and manufacturing at probably little real long-term economic cost. But unilateral action on the part of the US risks creating at least some problems for the rest of the world, especially China, Japan, and parts of Europe.

So what must be done? Clearly there is a problem with the undervaluation of the RMB and with Chinese domestic imbalances. But just as clearly there are also problems with a number of other major over-consuming and over-producing countries. In addition Chinese producers have become so addicted to a wide variety of implicit subsidies, besides the currency, that they cannot possibly adjust very quickly. It will take years of continuous adjustment to wean them away from an undervalued currency, too-low interest rates, excessive credit aimed at SOEs, and sluggish wage growth.

That suggests that if we want to resolve the global imbalances in an optimal way that maximizes global growth and equity, we would need all the major problem countries to work out a program, perhaps over 8 to 10 years, in which China, Japan and Germany take concrete measures to shift subsidies away from manufacturers and return the income to households, and the US, the UK and other deficit countries shift income from households to investment.

Of course the cynic in me says getting a global solution will prove impossible. Each country that benefits in the short term from stonewalling on any aspect of the complex adjustment process will do so. So I guess that just leaves trade war. This is the year of the Tiger, after all.

About Michael Pettis 166 Articles

Affiliation: Peking University

Michael Pettis is a professor at Peking University's Guanghua School of Management, where he specializes in Chinese financial markets. He has also taught, from 2002 to 2004, at Tsinghua University’s School of Economics and Management and, from 1992 to 2001, at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business.

Pettis has worked on Wall Street in trading, capital markets, and corporate finance since 1987, when he joined the Sovereign Debt trading team at Manufacturers Hanover (now JP Morgan). Most recently, from 1996 to 2001, Pettis worked at Bear Stearns, where he was Managing Director-Principal heading the Latin American Capital Markets and the Liability Management groups.

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