Thursday, November 13, 2008


Sometimes a development signifies more than meets the eye and sometimes, less. China took an important step in July 2005 to free up its currency, variously called the yuan or the renminbi (RMB), from its longtime peg to the US dollar. Since then, the RMB has strengthened by a nominal 17 percent. That is, Chinese buyers need to pay fewer RMB for each dollar of imports, and Chinese exporters receive fewer RMB for each dollar of exports.

One would think that such a change would produce substantial effects in the real world. In theory, at least, currency appreciation is expected to reduce trade and current account surpluses and to slow growth in the domestic economy. That’s why overheated economies often seek to strengthen their currencies.

In the case of China, these results have been extraordinarily slow in materializing. In fact, as summarized in the table below, China’s appreciating currency has actually led over the past 39 months to substantially larger imbalances in its bilateral trade with the United States, its overall trade with all trading partners, its current account surplus, and – most shockingly – in the build up of official reserves, which have grown by 168 percent as the RMB was strengthening.

Now by far the largest in the world, China’s reserve position is a matter of concern for the rest of the world. China’s hard currency glut is a destabilizing factor in the shaky world economy. As we discussed in the previous post (“The Mercantilist Menace vs. The Protectionist Peril,” November 11), China’s recently announced stimulus package will not reduce these imbalances unless and until there is a much greater appreciation of the RMB.

Unfortunately, appreciation of the RMB stalled out around the end of July, freezing its value at around 6.85 to the dollar. Since then, foreign money has continued to pour into China by means of its trade surplus (more than $35 billion in October), foreign investment and speculative “hot money.” While the growth in official reserves has tapered off, China is stashing dollars in places not captured by that statistic: the China Investment Corporation (China’s sovereign wealth fund), the Social Security Investment Fund, and commercial banks that are still largely under government control.

When China tries to take credit for its ”stable” currency policy at this weekend’s G-20 meeting, it would be on point if someone would remind China of its obligations under the IMF Articles of Agreement. Article 4 binds China and every other IMF member to “avoid manipulating exchange rates or the international monetary system in order to prevent effective balance of payments adjustment or to gain an unfair competitive advantage over other members.” To maintain an exchange rate that does not reflect market values is to be part of the problem, not the solution.

China may object, but the reality behind these numbers seems to be precisely what meets the eye: Its “stable” currency policy has destabilizing effects for the rest of the world and needs to be abandoned if we are to work our way out of the global financial mess.

Charles Blum

Effects of Appreciation of Chinese RMB:
Selected Indicators

Tuesday, November 11, 2008


This week China finally got around to offering its beleaguered citizens some of the largesse stored up in the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE). It cobbled together a mammoth economic stimulus package valued at $586 billion. In typical Chinese fashion, details are scarce.

A few things seem clear:

• It’s no coincidence that the package was announced a week before the G-20 meeting next weekend. China now has a ringing answer to those who might argue that it is “not doing its part” to deal with the global contraction of demand.
• A substantial portion of the package consists of infrastructure spending on rail, roads and bridges. Much of this is aimed at the countryside. As such, it is not really new, as the latest five year plan had promised this sort of assistance of the forgotten half of China’s population.
• Some portion of the funds will be used for earthquake relief in Sichuan. Initially, the government lamely claimed that budgetary constraints limited the size of the relief effort. However belatedly, it will make some amends for that now.
• Another substantial chunk will go to rebuilding the social safety net. That’s long overdue in a country that has allowed ordinary citizens to lose access to health care and dribbles out pensions in de minimis sums.
• The package includes an unspecified amount of commercial lending, reducing the drain on SAFE’s strong box.
• In the current quarter, only $19 billion will be expended. The rest of the package will be spent over the following 24 months (an average of less than $24 billion per month).

We all should rejoice that China is finally attending to some of those left behind by the coastal boom. We should also be grateful that China sees the need to stimulate its own economic growth at a time when many economies around the world are contracting. No doubt that this bundle of measures is a helpful step for Chinese and non-Chinese alike.

But let’s question two contentions. First, how can the managing director of the IMF claim as he did that the stimulus package will produce a significant reduction in the global imbalances that imperil the global financial system? Even if every last dollar in the package were to come from China’s official reserves (and it seems clear that they won’t), the $586 billion would be more than offset by the continued current account surplus. Since the ersatz appreciation of the RMB began in July 2005, China’s reserves have increased – just the opposite of what would be expected – at an average monthly rate in excess of $30 billion. So, if everything else remains the same, the hole in official reserves caused by such a stimulus package would be fully replenished in about 19 months, faster than it is to be expended. At the end of 2010, China’s reserves would be about $200 billion higher than the $1.9 trillion that China acknowledges today.

Without a substantial and immediate revaluation of the RMB, the stimulus package can hardly be termed a major contribution to a more balanced international monetary system.

This leads to a second observation relating to this weekend’s G-20 meeting. On November 10, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown praised the “global power of nations working together” and urged the rejection of “beggar-thy-neighbor protectionism that has been a feature in transforming past crises into deep recession.” I’m not sure why Brown shied away from calling the Great Depression by its common name, but I do wonder what protectionist pressures he is afraid of. Who in the world is seeking at this time to raise tariffs, impose import quotas, or erect new non-tariff barriers? Even if some would like to do so, international rules prohibit them. What was bad policy in 1929 would be illegal in today’s trading system. We have legal protections against protectionism.

Invoking the protectionist bogeyman – there’s one under every bed, it seems – serves as a smokescreen for the real menace in today’s world – the modern form of mercantilism practiced by China and other countries. It’s the mercantilists who generate massive trade and current account imbalances. To make excuses for them, to hold them to a lower standard, to suspend the rules of simple arithmetic for them is the real threat to the global system.

Charles Blum

Monday, November 10, 2008


Here we go again. After throwing checks at consumers in the vain hope of averting a recession and hundreds upon hundreds of billions at Wall Street in the hope of stemming the financial meltdown, there is constant talk about doing more of the same in the hope of promoting a “recovery.” This makes our economic malady sound like a bad cold. In fact, it’s more like learning to walk again after a crippling accident. We need rehabilitation, not recovery. We need a fundamental restructuring of our economy to address the inescapable central fact of our national economic life: we have lived beyond our means for decades, owe the rest of the world a staggering amount of money (every dollar is an IOU), and lack the means to repay our debt with goods and services.

If we do not solve this problem and make ourselves fit for international competition again, the dollar will lose its value and we’ll have to balance our lopsided accounts through a massive inflation. Americans will “enjoy” a lower standard of living. However richly deserved, this sort of economic purgatory won’t be pleasant.

Yet that is the default setting for a debtor society. If we want to avoid it, we need to get back to basics:

• The central problem in our economy is a chronic lack of investment. Not in stocks, bonds, derivatives or any other paper asset. Not in existing assets. In new productive assets.
• With more such investment, we can expand our domestic production of services and especially goods.
• With expanded production, we can increase our exports. This should always be considered in net terms: that is, it is just as valuable to replace imports with domestically produced goods (think energy) as it is to ship surplus goods abroad. The cheerleaders for the mindless process of “competitive liberalization” -- one faulty “free trade” deal after another – value increased exports but seem to regard any effort to reduce imports as an unattainable or even undesirable goal. They are wrong.
• With increased net exports, we would require less borrowing from abroad. Eventually, increased savings in this country can help reverse the flow of capital and make the United States a creditor nation again.

It’s that simple: more investment leads to more production; more production to an improved trade position; and an improved trade position to reduced dependence on trading partners for financing. Let us hope the incoming administration will adopt a coherent, comprehensive national trade strategy – one that melds trade and domestic policy into a powerful force to transform our economy -- that gets back to basics and frees us, our children, and our grandchildren from the crippling burden of debt.

Charles Blum