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Thoughts on China’s Currency

Photograph Source: Elekes Andor – CC BY-SA 4.0

There is a conventional wisdom on China’s currency that gets repeated almost everywhere and never seems to be challenged in the media. The basic story is that in the bad old days China ‘manipulated” its currency, but that stopped years ago. At present, its currency controls are actually keeping the value of its currency up, not down. As much as I hate to differ with the conventional wisdom, there are a few issues here that deserve closer examination.

First, it’s great see that everyone now agrees that China managed its currency in the last decade. (I prefer the term “manage” to “manipulate,” since the latter implies something sneaky and hidden. There was nothing sneaky about China’s undervalued currency. It had an official exchange rate that it bought trillions of dollars of foreign reserves to maintain.) Unfortunately, almost none of these people acknowledged China’s actions at the time, when the under-valuation of China’s currency was costing the United States millions of manufacturing jobs. Oh well, it wasn’t like the Wall Street bankers were losing their jobs.

The second point is that there is a common assertion that only the buying, not the holding, of reserves affects currency prices. It is easy to show that China is not currently buying large amounts of reserves. In fact, it has been selling some in recent years to keep its currency from falling.

Okay, let’s take a step back. The Federal Reserve Board bought more than $3 trillion in assets to try to boost the economy following the Great Recession. This was done to directly reduce long-term interest rates by increasing the demand for bonds. While it stopped buying assets several years ago, it still holds more than $3 trillion in assets.

Virtually all economists agree that by holding these assets, the Fed is keeping down long-term interest rates. If this additional $3 trillion in assets were on the market, then long-term interest rates would be higher. (The size of the impact is debated, but not the direction.)

If the holding (not buying) of assets has an impact on interest rates, why does China’s holding of more than $3 trillion in foreign reserves not have an impact on the price of the dollar and other reserve currencies relative to the RMB? (It would actually be well over $4 trillion if we add in the trillion plus dollars held in China’s sovereign wealth fund.)

In the magical world of make it up as you go along conventional wisdom economics there can be peaceful coexistence of this logical conflict, but those of us who are not part of the club need not accept it.

It’s also worth adding that the Fed has raised interest rates several times in the last three years, just as China has occasionally sold reserves. Would anyone say that this means that the net effect of the Fed’s actions at the moment is to raise interest rates above the level they would be at if the Fed were not holding assets?

Finally, we get the story that if China were to remove all capital controls then the value of the RMB would fall, as Chinese sought to diversify their holdings. While this is true, it is at best half of the story as every fan of I.M.F. policies knows. The I.M.F. always tells countries to eliminate capital controls because it will increase the amount of capital that flows into the country. Investors are more likely to put their money into a country where they can freely withdraw it than one where they can’t.

While the capital inflow story needs some qualifications, there is a basic logic to it. Obviously, foreign investors will feel more comfortable putting money into a country where they can get back their investment quickly than in one where they can’t. In spite of the fact that this logic is imposed on developing countries all the time, it is virtually invisible in discussions of China’s currency.

As a practical matter we continually see stories about how European retirees are unhappy with the negative interest rates they get on the bonds of countries like Germany and France. Getting an interest rate of more than 3.0 percent on long-term bonds issued by the Chinese government would look pretty good in comparison. Furthermore, with China’s purchasing power parity GDP almost twice its GDP measured by exchange rates, most people would probably expect the general direction of its currency over the long-term to be upward, as it has been in the past. This would further increase the potential gains from holding Chinese government debt relative to the debt of European countries or the United States.

It seems as though the conventionally wise people never thought about this issue, or at least if they have, they don’t mention it in public discussions. Anyhow, it is not surprising that the conventional wisdom is missing much of the story here. After all, the conventional wisdom in economics could not see the $8 trillion housing bubble ($12 trillion in today’s economy), the collapse of which sank the U.S. economy and gave us the Great Recession. The conventional wisdom doesn’t seem any wiser today.

This article first appeared on Dean Baker’s Beat the Press blog.

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Dean Baker is the senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. 

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