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Pressure Increasing on China to Revalue Yuan; What Can Go Wrong?

Pressure Increasing on China to Revalue Yuan; What Can Go Wrong?

Courtesy of Mish 

Digital composite of Tiananmen Gate of Heavenly Peace and one hundred Yuan banknotes

Pressure on China to do something about its allegedly undervalued currency is mounting by the day. Please consider the following articles.

World Bank Calls For Stronger Yuan

The World Bank Says China Must Pare Stimulus to Counter Bubbles

The World Bank indicated that China, the world’s third biggest economy, should raise interest rates to help contain the risk of a property bubble and allow a stronger yuan to help damp inflation expectations.

The nation’s “massive monetary stimulus” risks triggering large asset-price increases, a housing bubble, and bad debts from the financing of local-government projects, the Washington- based World Bank said in a quarterly report on China released in Beijing today. The group raised its economic growth forecast for this year to 9.5 percent from 9 percent in January.

The World Bank’s call echoes the assessment of private economists — analysts at Morgan Stanley this week said higher reserve requirements for banks may be “imminent” and interest rates could start to climb as early as next month. China’s economic rebound has also sparked increasing calls for an end to its exchange-rate peg to the dollar, adopted in mid-2008 to help shelter exporters amid the global recession.

Senate Considers Currency Manipulator Regulation

Bloomberg is reporting Senate May Force Obama to Take Tougher Yuan Stance

Five senators including Charles Schumer of New York and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced legislation yesterday to make it easier for the U.S. to declare currency misalignments and take corrective action. Even if the bill stalls, it may have “ripple effects” that lead the Treasury Department to declare China a currency manipulator, William Reinsch, president of the National Foreign Trade Council, said.

Obama’s goal of doubling U.S. exports in five years depends on his ability to get China to raise the value of its currency, said Sherrod Brown, an Ohio Democrat and co-author of the legislation. China’s intervention in currency markets to keep the value of the yuan, or renminbi, at a set value acts as a subsidy to exports and tax on imports, Brown said at a news conference yesterday.

Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, and Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, are also supporting the legislation. Graham is a Republican and Schumer is a Democrat.

The senators said the U.S. recession could boost the political prospects for the legislation, which Schumer has proposed in various forms since 2003. Schumer said the Senate proposal will be attached “very soon” as an amendment to “must-pass legislation.”

“The only way we will change them is by forcing them to change,” Schumer said.

The yuan is undervalued by as much as 40 percent, which is “blatant protectionism,” Bergsten said. Brown and Schumer quoted the analysis of Bergsten and Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman in support of their efforts.

Business Sours On China

Please consider Business Sours on China.

China’s relationship with foreign companies is starting to sour, as tougher government policies and intensifying domestic competition combine to make one of the world’s most important markets less friendly to multinationals.

Patent rules imposed Feb. 1 threaten to increase costs in China for foreign innovators in industries such as pharmaceuticals, and let authorities force foreign drug companies to license production to local companies at state-set prices.

A year ago, in a move foreign critics called protectionist, Chinese regulators rejected a bid by Coca-Cola Co. for China Huiyuan Juice Group Ltd., saying it could crowd out smaller companies and raise consumer prices. The two combined held just a fifth of China’s juice market.

In July, four executives of Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto were detained, initially accused of stealing "state secrets," amid tense negotiations between global miners and China’s steel industry over iron ore prices. Rio Tinto denies wrongdoing by the men, who await trial on reduced charges of bribery and theft of commercial secrets.

Google Inc.’s woes highlight the angst. The search company, long troubled by Chinese censorship rules, threatened Jan. 12 to depart China after it said a Chinese hacking attack penetrated its computer network. Related attacks hit dozens of other multinationals. Google is expected soon to close its Chinese site, Google.cn., leaving local companies dominating an Internet market of 400 million users.

"The Google issue has had a crystallizing effect," says Lester Ross, managing partner in Beijing for U.S. law firm Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr. "It raised the consciousness of government and of the boardrooms and other stakeholders" about the difficulties of doing business in China, he says.

Krugman Wants To Take On China

Inquiring minds are reading Taking On China by Paul Krugman.

Tensions are rising over Chinese economic policy, and rightly so: China’s policy of keeping its currency, the renminbi, undervalued has become a significant drag on global economic recovery. Something must be done.

Today, China is adding more than $30 billion a month to its $2.4 trillion hoard of reserves. The International Monetary Fund expects China to have a 2010 current surplus of more than $450 billion — 10 times the 2003 figure. This is the most distortionary exchange rate policy any major nation has ever followed.

So how should we respond? First of all, the U.S. Treasury Department must stop fudging and obfuscating.

If Treasury does find Chinese currency manipulation, then what? Here, we have to get past a common misunderstanding: the view that the Chinese have us over a barrel, because we don’t dare provoke China into dumping its dollar assets.

It’s true that if China dumped its U.S. assets the value of the dollar would fall against other major currencies, such as the euro. But that would be a good thing for the United States, since it would make our goods more competitive and reduce our trade deficit. On the other hand, it would be a bad thing for China, which would suffer large losses on its dollar holdings. In short, right now America has China over a barrel, not the other way around.

Looking At Half The Equation

For starters, Krugman conveniently ignores one side of the equation.

A sinking dollar is good for exports, however, given China’s regulatory policies as noted in Business Sours on China, it’s not at all clear exports to China would rise by much. Indeed, I suspect that China’s regulatory restrictions are a far bigger impediment to trade than currency fluctuations.

Furthermore, one cannot (or at least should not) ignore what would happen to the price of imports. A falling currency is not a free lunch.

While I agree with Krugman that China would not dump US Treasuries, the idea that the U.S. has China over a Barrel is preposterous. Mutual deadly embrace with unbalanced winners and losers is more like it.

What China Can and Cannot Do With Reserves

Please consider What the PBoC cannot do with its reserves by Michael Pettis.

It is a real toss-up as to which generates more bizarre comment in the international press: Beijing’s long-feared dumping of US Treasuries, or the use and value of the PBoC’s central bank reserves. The revelation last week that Chinese holdings of US Treasury obligations fell in December by $34.2 billion, to $755.4 billion, generated a frisson of fear and excitement, leading one prominent newspaper to worry that “If there is one thing that gets investors twitchy, it is the fear that China is losing its appetite for US government bonds.”

Remember that China has a large current account surplus which necessarily must be recycled abroad, and the US has a large current account deficit which necessarily must be funded abroad. It would be astonishing if, under these circumstances, total Chinese holdings of USD assets declined, and of course it is impossible that they declined faster than the willingness of other foreigners to replace them.

If China runs a current account surplus, it must accumulate net foreign claims by exactly that amount, and the entity against which it accumulates those claims (adjusting for actions by other players within the balance of payments) ultimately must run the corresponding current account deficit. And as long as China ran the largest current account surplus ever recorded as a share of global GDP, and the US the largest current account deficit ever recorded, and especially since China also ran an additional capital account surplus (i.e. other non-PBoC agents ran a net capital inflow), it was almost impossible for the PBoC to do anything but buy US dollar assets. Given the sheer amounts, a substantial portion of these assets had inevitably to be USG bonds.

This was not a discretionary lending decision. It is the automatic consequence of China’s currency regime, in which it pegs the RMB to a foreign currency, in this case the dollar. Why? Because when the PBoC decides on the level of the RMB against the dollar, it does not do so by passing a law, and making it a capital crime for anyone to trade at a different price. What it does is far simpler. It offers to buy or sell unlimited amounts of RMB against the dollar at the desired price.

If it stops buying dollars, it must let the market decide by itself on the new equilibrium price of the dollar. In that case the value of the dollar has to plunge in RMB terms (or the RMB soar, which is the same thing) in order for buyers and sellers to match up and for the market to clear. The moment the PBoC stops buying, in other words, the RMB will rise in value – and so it cannot stop buying in anticipation of the RMB rising in value, as the FT article suggested.

Here is where things get interesting. China’s reserves are often thought of as if they were a treasure trove available for spending. They are not. They are simply the asset side of the mismatched balance sheet. If the PBoC wanted to “spend” $100, say for example to recapitalize a bank, it could do so, but this would automatically create a $100 dollar hole in its balance sheet. – it would still owe the RMB that it borrowed originally to purchase the $100. To put it another way, the reserves are not a savings account, free for the PBoC to spend as it likes. Reserves are effectively borrowed money.

So what are reserves good for? As long as China maintains its own currency and denominates all domestic transactions in RMB, the PBoC reserves cannot be used in China. They cannot go to pay doctors’ salaries, to build bridges, to lower taxes or to subsidize consumption. They can only be used to purchase or pay for things from outside China. This means that reserves ensure that China can import foreign commodities and other goods as long as it can pay for them domestically. It also means that the PBoC can ensure the availability of dollars to repay foreign debt and foreign investment. …..

… if the RMB is revalued by 10%, the value of the PBoC’s assets will immediately decline by $250 billion in RMB terms. Since the Chinese measure their wealth in RMB, isn’t this a real additional loss for China?

No, because remember that the only thing you can do with reserves is pay for foreign imports or repay foreign obligations. And just as the value of the reserves drops 10% in RMB terms, so does the value of all those foreign payments – by definition they must go down by exactly the same amount in RMB terms.

This means that China takes no loss. It can buy and pay for just as much “stuff” after the revaluation, and with less implied PBoC borrowing, as it could before the revaluation – and the real value of money is what you can buy with it. So the real value of the reserves hasn’t changed at all – just the accounting value in RMB, but this simply recognizes losses that were already taken long ago when the trade was first made, and should be a largely irrelevant number (except perhaps for conspiracy theorists).

Yuan is Undervalued by as Much as 40 percent?!

For the sake of argument, let’s assume The RMB is undervalued by 40%. Who is the winner?

To answer the question let’s return to a snip from Pettis:

"generally speaking China is likely to gain from a revaluation because after the revaluation it will be exchanging the stuff it makes for stuff it buys from abroad at a better ratio. The value of what it sells abroad will rise relative to the value of what it buys from abroad, and if we could correctly capitalize those values on the balance sheet, it would probably show that the Chinese balance sheet would improve with a revaluation of the RMB."

If that is true generally speaking, then the US is a beneficiary now, generally speaking. This implies we should be careful of what we ask. However, the situation is more complex because as Pettis explains there are individual winners and losers:

"..it is not whether or not China as a whole loses or gains from a revaluation that can be measured by looking at the reserves, and I would argue that it gains, but how the losses are distributed and what further balance sheet impacts that might have."

Shock Effect

Let’s consider the global shock effect of a sudden large revaluation of the Renmimbi. The key is the RMB does not float. To get a 40% rise in valuation, China must buy or sell unlimited amounts of RMB against the dollar to maintain the desired price. That might mean a huge hike in Chinese interest rates to make holding the RMB attractive.

In turn, sharp interest rate hikes would likely cause a huge slowdown in China, decreasing China’s demand for imports. This is yet another factor that Krugman and those crying "currency manipulator" miss.

And should the US impose a revaluation via tariffs, I would like to point out a little thing called Smoot-Hawley.

By the way, I am all in favor of a huge slowdown in China. I think China is on an unsustainable course, and the sooner and harder China slows the better for everyone in the long run.

However, the consequences of such a slowdown would be huge on the commodity exporters like Canada and Australia. Moreover, a slowdown in trade would slow global consumption.

I happen to think those are necessary adjustments along with more debt writeoffs, but believers in free lunches and Keynesian claptrap sure won’t see it that way.

Hopefully this gives you a bit more of an idea as to just what might go wrong with all these simplistic "the Yuan is 40% undervalued – so label China a currency manipulator" ideas floating around.

Mike "Mish" Shedlock


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