China Moves. Or Not.

Futures markets are abuzz with excitement over the Chinese currency proclamation issued this weekend. The announcement was quickly hailed by observers worldwide as a major policy shift, yet I am inclined to side with the analysis provided by Yves Smith – the statement leaves plenty of wiggle room, and never really promises to do much of anything. At the moment, the Chinese announcement feels like more smoke than fire.

The Wall Street Journal’s initial reporting was just want the Bejing and Washington wanted you to believe:

China’s decision to abandon its currency peg is a victory of pragmatism over divisive politics, the result of careful diplomacy by leaders in Beijing and in Washington, each side vulnerable to powerful domestic lobbies.

In the end, both sides agreed that a more flexible exchange rate was good for China, good for the U.S. and good for the global economy. Yet timing was everything.

The implication is that hard-working policymakers on both sides of the Pacific have risked all to foster the greater good. But what exactly has changed? From the Chinese statement:

It is desirable to proceed further with reform of the RMB exchange rate regime and increase the RMB exchange rate flexibility.

In further proceeding with reform of the RMB exchange rate regime, continued emphasis would be placed to reflecting market supply and demand with reference to a basket of currencies. The exchange rate floating bands will remain the same as previously announced in the inter-bank foreign exchange market

What exactly will be the basket of currencies? On what timetable? Is this really a change? And why not widen the floating bands? I see no commitments here, vague or otherwise. Of course, there are not meant to be. From the Wall Street Journal:

Yet, by returning the yuan to a managed float against a basket of currencies, Beijing won’t have to cede too much in the near term when it comes to the bilateral dollar/yuan rate. The euro’s weakness-the yuan is up 14% against the euro this year-should mitigate the speed of any yuan appreciation against the dollar.

Looks like China is picking a policy direction that requires little deviation from current policy. Nor do they even admit there is a need for significant change. The Chinese announcement appears to preclude the possibility of meaningful adjustments.

China´s external trade is steadily becoming more balanced. The ratio of current account surplus to GDP, after a notable reduction in 2009, has been declining since the beginning of 2010. With the BOP account moving closer to equilibrium, the basis for large-scale appreciation of the RMB exchange rate does not exist.

Is “large-scale” 5%? 10%? 20%? The tone of subsequent reporting changed as journalists not sourced directly by Washington and Bejing began to realize the thinness of the Chinese announcement. From the Wall Street Journal:

China’s announcement that it will let its currency appreciate puts it in a strong position going into a summit of the Group of 20 on Saturday, but does little to ease pressure from the U.S. Congress.

…But China’s announcement was short on details about how much it would let the yuan appreciate. In Brazil, the central bank governor, Henrique Meirelles, said he welcomed the Chinese announcement, but wanted to see results. “It is necessary to await further developments,” he said in a statement.

Is the Chinese announcement anything more than an effort to buy time ahead of next weekend’s G-20 meeting? The yuan was likely to be a primary topic, but the announcement now provides cover for Chinese officials, pushing the attention on fiscal policy in Germany and Japan. A clever diplomatic trick, but will China follow through with anything more than a token rate change? They need to, as Congress will not be held at bay much longer:

In the U.S., New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer, who has spent a decade ramping up pressure on China over currency issues, remains skeptical that Beijing’s announcement will make an appreciable difference. On Sunday, reacting to Chinese suggestions that change would be gradual, Mr. Schumer said he would move forward on legislation to penalize China for undervaluing its currency.

“Just a day after there was much hoopla about the Chinese finally changing their policy, they are already backing off,” he said in a statement.

Schumer’s skepticism is justified. Where is the yuan going, and how quickly will it get there? Estimates are all over the map. From Bloomberg:

The yuan’s appreciation may be limited to 1.9 percent against the dollar this year, a survey of economists showed. The currency will climb to 6.7 per dollar by Dec. 31, according to the median estimate of 14 analysts.

Later in the same article:

“We can’t exclude the possibility of yuan depreciation,” said Shen Jianguang, Mizuho Securities Asia Ltd.’s chief economist for Greater China, who said a 2.5 percent drop is possible this year if the dollar-euro rate is unchanged.

From the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. government officials expect a slow, steady increase, similar to the way China boosted the value of the yuan between 2005 and 2008.

Another opinion from the same article:

Eswar Prasad, a Cornell University economist who was formerly the IMF’s top China expert, said the size of the increase during the coming month will give a hint at the “trajectory” Beijing is anticipating.

He says that in periods of economic calm, China “is comfortable with” an increase in the value of the yuan of about 10% to 15% a year.

Congress will be closely watching for any signs of foot dragging on the part of China. I am not confident they will tolerate anything less than a 15% move this year. Note too that China is not the only one buying time with this announcement. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner can now release the delayed report on currency practices, which will surely not label China a manipulator. That hot potato can go back into the oven for another six months. Geithner is clearly betting the Chinese will have shown enough results between now and then to placate Congress. If not, Congress will start sharpening the knives; the tolerance for Chinese resistance will be almost negligible of this announcement is revealed to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

Bottom Line: On the surface, the Chinese announcement looks like just what the doctor ordered – a step toward a meaningful effort at rebalancing global activity. But the details are thin, very, very thin. Thin enough that one can reasonably look straight through the statement and conclude it is little more than an effort to keep China off the hot seat at the next G20 meeting. Time will tell if China actually intends a substantial change in currency policy. I hope this is in fact their intention, as the probability of a disastrous trade war will skyrocket if Congress believes they have been the victim of a classic bait and switch.

Update: Reality sets in quickly. From the Wall Street Journal:

China kept the yuan’s exchange rate unchanged against the dollar Monday, surprising markets after announcing over the weekend it was unhitching its de facto peg.

Underscoring its vow to move gradually in liberalizing its rigid foreign-exchange regime, the central bank set the yuan’s central parity rate, an official reference level for daily trading, at 6.8275 yuan to the dollar, exactly the same as Friday’s central parity rate. The fixing put the yuan slightly weaker than Friday’s close in over-the-counter trading of 6.8262 yuan to the dollar.

About Tim Duy 348 Articles

Tim Duy is the Director of Undergraduate Studies of the Department of Economics at the University of Oregon and the Director of the Oregon Economic Forum.

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