FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
August 23, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Notes on Inauthenticity in a Creeping Fascist Nuthouse
Andrew Levine
Recession Now, Please
Rob Urie
Mr. Trump Goes to Kensington
Jeffrey St. Clair
Deep Time and the Green River, Floating
Robert Hunziker
Earth 4C Hotter
Kenneth Good
Congo’s Patrice Lumumba: The Winds of Reaction in Africa
Pete Dolack
The Realism and Unrealism of the Green New Deals
David Rosen
The White-Nationalist Great Fear
Kenn Orphan
The War on Indigenous People is a War on the Biosphere Itself
L. Michael Hager
What Netanyahu’s Travel Ban Has Revealed
Ramzy Baroud
Jewish Settlers Rule the Roost in Israel, But at What Price?
Evaggelos Vallianatos
Is Environmental Protection Possible?
Josue De Luna Navarro
What It’s Like to Grow Up Hunted
Ralph Nader
They Don’t Make Republicans Like the Great Paul Findley Anymore!
Gary Olson
Whither the Resistance to our Capitalist Overlords?
Dean Baker
On Those Downward Jobs Revisions
Rev. William Alberts
Beware of the Gun-Lover-in-Chief
Helder F. do Vale
Brazil: From Global Leader to U.S. Lapdog
Laura Finley
Educators Actually Do “Work” in the Summer
Jim Goodman
Farmers Need a Bill of Rights
Tom Clifford
What China’s Leadership is Really Worried About: Rising Debt
Daphne Wysham
Saving the Planet Means Fighting Bipartisan Corruption
Tierra Curry
Amazon Fires Put the Planet at Risk
Nyla Ali Khan
Kashmir: Decentralize Power and Revive Regional Political Institutions
John W. Whitehead
American Apocalypse
George Wuerthner
How Agriculture and Ranching Subvert the Re-Wilding of America
Daniel Murphy
Capital in the 21st Century
Jessicah Pierre
400 Years After Slavery’s Start, No More Band-Aids
Kim C. Domenico
Finding the Comrades: Maintaining Precarious Sanity In Insane Times
Gary Leupp
“Based on the Fact She Won’t Sell Me Greenland, I’m Staying Home”
John Kendall Hawkins
The Chicago 8 Trial, Revisited
Rivera Sun
Tapping into People Power
Ted Rall
As Long as Enemies of the State Keep Dying Before Trial, No One Should Trust the State
Jesse Jackson
The Significance of the “1619 Project”
Thomas Knapp
“Nuance” in Politics and Public Policy? No Thanks
Christopher Brauchli
Trump and Endangered Species, Wildlife and Human
Mel Gurtov
China’s Hong Kong Nightmare, and the US Response
Ron Forthofer
Sick of Being a Guinea Pig
Nicky Reid
Why I Stopped Being White (and You Should Too)
Jill Richardson
As the School Year Starts, I’m Grateful for the ADA
Seth Sandronsky
Rethinking the GDR
Adolf Alzuphar
Tears / Ayizan Velekete
Stephen Cooper
General Jah Mikey: “I Just Love That Microphone, Man”
Louis Proyect
Slaves to the Clock
David Yearsley
Moral Cantatas
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail