After 20 years, the Chinese government must be used to it—being bashed by US politicians and Congress as a “currency manipulator.” Indeed, the exchange value of the yuan (or renminbi [RMB]) is fixed each morning by its central bank, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), with a narrow band of only + 2 percent allowed, up or down, within which market forces can have their say. In effect, it is an exchange rate set and controlled by the PBoC.
But why pick on just China?
Most countries “manipulate” their exchange rates…
According to the IMF (International Monetary Fund), well over half its member countries’ governments meddle, in a mild or total fashion, to influence or fix their exchange rates. As shown in Figure 1, “Fixed Peg” and “Currency Board” are countries with currency values fixed for a considerable period of months or years. In “Managed Float” cases, market forces are allowed to play, but with the government intervening (buying or selling) to bias the exchange rate upward or downward. “Adjustable Pegs” are situations where the government fixes the rate temporarily—for months at a time or daily, as in the case of China. It is only with a few major currencies, such as the dollar or euro, that the government allows a “Free Float” with minimal or no intervention.
Figure 1: Percentages of IMF Member Nations Intervening in Foreign Exchange Rates (Source: IMF)
What exactly is behind the accusation of “currency manipulation”?
Generally, the accusation alleges that the government is keeping its currency too weak, overly devalued, or undervalued in order to give an artificial boost to exports while keeping out imports. This has the effect of boosting jobs in that country.
Take China as an example. A Chinese exporter earning a dollar turns it into the bank and gets 6.4 RMB yuan. By comparing costs in China and elsewhere, IMF and other economists calculate a hypothetical purchasing power parity (PPP) rate of 5.7 RMB/$, which would supposedly prevail under market equilibrium and without government meddling. At 6.4, some economists argue the RMB is still undervalued. But if the theoretical rate of 5.7 RMB/$ were to happen, the Chinese exporter would get only 5.7 RMB per dollar at the bank counter. The 6.4 RMB/$ rate provides a 12 percent higher revenue to the Chinese exporter, compared with the hypothetical 5.7 RMB/$ rate that some economists say should prevail. The still-undervalued 6.4 RMB/$ rate, they allege, gives the Chinese exporter an advantage.
By the same token, imports into China cost 12 percent more at the allegedly undervalued 6.4 RMB/$ rate than at the PPP 5.7 RMB/$. This, they allege, makes imports into China 12 percent more expensive than they should be, thereby keeping some foreign products out of China and benefiting (or protecting) Chinese firms that produce substitute products that compete with imports. On both the import and export side, an undervalued exchange rate boosts or preserves jobs in China (at the expense of jobs in the rest of the world).
But the Chinese have already massively appreciated their currency since 2005…
It must be particularly galling to the Chinese to hear accusations of currency manipulation since, succumbing to pressure from Western countries, they have already massively appreciated their currency in the 10 years since 2005. In June 2005, following more than a decade of a fixed exchange rate at 8.27 RMB/$ (when it was indeed undervalued), the Chinese gradually appreciated their currency all the way to 6.2 RMB/$ by July 2015. In the minds of many Chinese economists, their currency is no longer undervalued at around 6.2 for three reasons:
1. Between June 2005 and July 2015, the RMB appreciated/strengthened by 36 percent (see Figure 2)
This means that Chinese exporters in 2015 earned as much as 33 percent less that they would have at the 2005 exchange rate. Several Chinese exporters found themselves uncompetitive with the stronger currency and had to shut down their operations in China and relocate production to Vietnam, Bangladesh, or Africa.
Figure 2: China’s RMB Exchange Rate History (Source: Oanda.com)
By the same token, imports into China costing 33 percent less in 2015 than in 2005 means that some Chinese domestic production was displaced by imports.
In both cases, the appreciation of the yuan (RMB) has meant reduction of jobs in China, although this is consistent with the peaking of the Chinese labor force (partially as a consequence of the one-child policy). Indeed, several areas in China have labor shortages.
2. The yuan (RMB) has appreciated even more against other currencies
The PBoC fixes the RMB only against the US dollar. But in the last two years, this has meant that as the dollar has risen against most other currencies (such as the euro or emerging-country currencies such as the Brazilian real), the RMB has appreciated or strengthened even more, piggybacking on the dollar (see Figure 3).
If one combines the RMB appreciation in Figure 2 (36 percent) with the dollar’s appreciation against most other currencies since 2013 (15 percent), the local currency cost of importing Chinese products may have risen by more than 50 percent since 2005 for many prospective buyers in a large swathe of nations from Europe to Brazil.
3. Chinese wages and costs have risen
On the east coast of China, where most of its manufacturing and economic activity takes place, wages have recently been rising at least 15 percent each year. Some jobs go unfilled. The one-child policy (reversed in 2015) has led to a plateauing of the labor force. Other costs, such as real estate, have also risen sharply. Chinese exporters are beginning to feel a squeeze between (i) rising costs and (ii) the falling RMB conversion value for the dollars or foreign currencies they earn.
So, why pick on China?
By massively appreciating their currency, the Chinese have succumbed to Western government pressure. While most economists aver that the yuan (RMB) is still undervalued, they agree that in 2015 it is not undervalued by much.
Indeed, if one were to search for a more egregious recent example, it would be the Japanese yen, which has been consciously devalued by the Shinzo Abe government by around a third since November 2012.
Figure 4: Yen per Dollar Exchange Rate November 2012–November 2015 (Source: Oanda.com)
One of the Abe government’s top priorities on taking office was to drive the yen downward (devalue it) from a historically high overvaluation of 80 yen/$ (at which rate few Japanese exporters could make any money) to a more devalued rate of 124 yen/$ (by 2015 when Japanese exporters could make profits). The math is simple. At 124 yen/$, each dollar earned by the Japanese exporter converted into 55 percent more yen, compared with the 80 yen/$ rate. In retrospect, it seems astonishing that so many Japanese governments prior to Abe’s allowed the yen to remain at an overvalued rate of 80–100 per dollar, which not only grossly dampened Japanese exports, but also put the economy into the doldrums for so many years. Most economists would agree that at around 115 yen/$, the yen would be appropriately valued—that 80 was too high and that perhaps the 124 yen/$ at end 2015 is a tad too low. At any rate, the Abe government’s actions have jump-started the Japanese export engine and restored a plethora of Japanese exporters to profitability.
But is this not also a case of currency manipulation by the Japanese? And, as noted above, the IMF reports that more than half of the world’s governments have a hand in influencing or adjusting their exchange rates.
So why then pick on only the Chinese, especially if, at 6.2 RMB/$ and with rising costs inside China, they are not too far from a realistic PPP rate in 2015?
American companies state that their secrets are being stolen by Chinese hackers. US counter-intelligence says it has traced several of these attacks back to outfits sponsored by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and that designs stolen from American companies’ computers have shown up—sometimes barely disguised—in Chinese companies’ products and services. The Obama administration has threatened sanctions against hackers and Chinese firms that benefit from such intellectual property theft.
But wait a minute! Isn’t the “pot calling the kettle black”? The US has by far the best cyber-capability in the world and has used it to spy on millions of international communications, including Angela Merkel’s mobile phone—as well as to gather data from both European and Chinese companies’ computers. It can access any Internet-connected device, anywhere, to read its contents. So well-developed is the US government’s data-mining and cyber-capability that it has harvested detailed information, even family photos, on the very PLA hackers that penetrate American companies’ computers.
This is a “game” played by most major governments. So why single out China?
The “pot-and-kettle” analogy has a flaw: it is not symmetrical. The legal and political systems of the two nations tilt the game in China’s favor because:
The Chinese government can, and does, share its information with its companies—especially State Owned Enterprises (SOEs)—whereas the US government cannot, for a myriad of legal and ethical reasons.
SOEs, or government-controlled firms, still make up a major fraction of the Chinese economy, accounting for 34 percent of fixed total investment.Some observers indicate that state ownership in China has continued to grow, not shrink, especially in key sectors (although the growth rate of private enterprise is even higher). The government-owned sector in the US, by comparison, is minuscule.
As US firm CEOs made it clear to President Xi Jinping during his Seattle visit in September 2015, US companies in China are increasingly being squeezed and pressured to share technology and proprietary designs with Chinese partners as a precondition for doing business in China or getting access to markets. In brief, the Chinese government makes no bones about its drive to help its companies learn from US and European firms. Neither the US nor Europe makes any such demands on foreign investors.
The “pot calling the kettle black” notion does not, therefore, really hold up, even though the hacker abilities of US government or private experts are most likely superior to their counterparts in China. In the US, the role of government and its interests are separate from those of private business. The Chinese government sees its role as allied and interpenetrated with business, both SOEs and privately held companies. The Chinese have a very different notion of nationalism, and solidarity, that idealizes a utopian vision of all noses pointing in the same direction—one that promotes China. By contrast, the American War of Independence from Great Britain was fought largely on the very principle that government should keep its nose out of private business, and not tax or overly regulate commerce.
The farthest the US government goes in scrutinizing some incoming foreign direct investment (FDI) is through CFIUS (the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States), chaired by the Treasury Secretary, that each year examines a handful of investment proposals that are sensitive in terms of defense or some vital strategic interest of the US.In 2010, Tangshan Caofedian of China wished to acquire Emcore, a US fiberoptics and solar panel producer, but scrapped the deal because of objections from CFIUS. In 2006, Dubai Ports World withdrew its agreement to take over the management of three US ports. Because of ideological embarrassment, the US government openly admits only to examining a handful of such sensitive cases each year, although CFIUS staffers, the Commerce Department, and the CIA probably cursorily and quietly screen thousands of FDI proposals behind the scenes. After all, the US is the world’s leading exponent of free markets and international business.
But the PLA-sponsored hacking poses a policy dilemma. What policy options does the US government have? Should the American government share commercial secrets it has gleaned from Chinese or European firms with US companies? Clearly, it cannot. Should the American government expand its scrutiny of incoming FDI, or even “encourage” foreign companies to share their technologies locally? That would be going against the principles and ideology of free markets, open entry, and separation between commerce and government. Should the American government sanction Chinese firms that have clandestinely appropriated American designs? That, too, is highly problematic since—in an interdependent world where US-China trade alone is worth half a trillion $US each year—sanctions would invite retaliation and a further squeeze on US companies invested in China. Retaliatory sanctions would further undermine the already fragile state of international business.
With the US and China alone making up approximately one-third of world’s gross domestic product (GDP), a commercial war between the two could be ruinous to the entire planet—leaving no more pots and no more kettles to judge each other.
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