Thursday, October 14, 2010

On That "Predatory" Chinese Currency Manipulation

Tomorrow, the Treasury Department is supposed to release its Semi-Annual Report to Congress on International Economic and Exchange Rate Policies, in which it can deem countries to be "currency manipulators" under Sections 3004 and 3005 of the Omnibus Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988.   I'm guessing that the Department will once again delay the report's release in order to maintain pressure on China in advance of next month's G-20 summit in Seoul, but a lot of folks want Treasury to name China a "manipulator" in the report and to do so immediately.  In order to do that, the law mandates that Treasury must determine that the Chinese are "manipulat[ing] the rate of exchange between their currency and the United States dollar for purposes of preventing effective balance of payments adjustments or gaining unfair competitive advantage in international trade."

Critics of Chinese policy certainly think such "unfair" behavior is going on, and they routinely accuse China of harboring "predatory" intentions when it pegs its currency to the US Dollar (or, more precisely, allows the RMB to float in a very narrow band).  For example, here's future-former-Senator Arlen Specter* (RD-PA) on the subject back in April:
Free trade MUST mean compliance with international trade law, or America has the right to say no and confront a system that is destroying the jobs and livelihood of thousands of workers.

The chief threat is from China, whose predatory trading practices and currency manipulation are flooding the market with low-priced imports in violation of international trade laws.
Clearly, Sen. Specter and many of his cohorts believe (or at least say they believe) that China refuses to let its currency float because of some pernicious desire to destroy the American manufacturing sector and, as they hilariously say in South Park, to take 'r jobs.  But is that really the case?  Is China's currency policy really some dastardly weapon that the Communist Party of China is deploying to annihilate the capitalist menace that is the dear ol' U.S. of A?

A new, must-read article in Foreign Policy by Ethan Devine makes it pretty darn clear that (i) Specter and other China-mongers have no idea what they're talking about when they throw around such accusations, and (ii) any decision by the Treasury Department to label China a "currency manipulator" as defined by US law is far more a product of politics than of reality.  And more broadly, Devine ably demonstrates that China's frightening and inevitable ascension to the top of the global economy is, well, far less frightening and inevitable than America's sinophobes and sinophiles (yes, I'm looking at you, Tom Friedman) would have us believe.

In short, Devine shows that China's rise as an economic power closely tracks that of another Asian nation with an "inevitable" economic ascent and a "clear intent" to crush the United States through its currency policies, export-driven economic growth and rampant industrial planning: Japan (stop me if you've heard this one before).  He also shows how all that great central planning and currency pegging ended up causing Japan's economy to come crashing down, and how the same thing could happen in China unless it figures out a way to transition its economy from one dependent on manufacturing and exports to one more reliant on domestic consumption and services.  That transition, however, is a lot easier than it sounds because China's state-run economy is not well-equipped to handle such a move.  And if China can't pull off the rebalancing move, it's in deep, deep trouble.

Devine's article is quite long and definitely worth a full read, but here are a few of my favorite excerpts:
The funny thing is that China borrowed much of its economic model from Japan: producing low-cost exports to fund investment at home while aggravating trading partners. At times, it seems like only the names have changed. Where Detroit automakers once denounced Honda and Toyota for dumping cheap, fuel-efficient sedans on American housewives, Treasury secretaries now wring their hands about the undervalued renminbi while China's trade surpluses yawn.

As pleasurable as it must be for China's leaders to have beaten Japan at its own game, the joke might soon be on them. In fact, they would do well to veer off of Japan's development path promptly. Sure, Japan's export boom funded stellar growth for four decades. But its undervalued currency eventually helped blow one of the largest bubbles in history, the bursting of which still hobbles Japan today. Japan's famously dismal demographics didn't help, but China's aren't much better. Beijing's one-child policy, introduced in 1979, has worked its way up the population pyramid such that China's supply of rural workers ages 20 to 29 will halve by 2030. Worse yet, China is much larger than Japan -- which means that the global consequences of a crash would be far greater.


One argument is that the United States forced Japan to act against its own interests in accepting a stronger yen. Although it is true that the United States and other trading partners browbeat Japan, they had been doing so for years. Japan finally assented to their demands in 1985 as part of a plan to rebalance its economy. Post-World War II Japan pioneered Asia's export-driven growth model, sextupling GDP from 1950 to 1970 and pulling more people out of poverty more quickly than any country except modern China. Japan achieved this remarkable growth with a weak yen -- which supported exports and discouraged imports -- and high savings rates, which funded massive investments in infrastructure and manufacturing capacity.

An unfortunate side effect of export- and investment-driven growth is that it strangles the consumer. But that's kind of the point: The entire exercise depends on suppressing consumers as their cheap labor fuels exports. In Japan's case, the same undervalued yen that supported exports sapped consumers' purchasing power while yields on their savings were kept artificially low to fund cheap loans to corporations and government. And the shrunken share of economic spoils that did end up in the hands of consumers had no outlet but the heavily protected domestic market with its hopelessly inefficient and shockingly overpriced goods and services. When American humorist Dave Barry traveled to Japan in 1991, he was stunned to find department stores selling $75 melons.

The result was a horribly lopsided economy. Consumption generally accounts for around 65 percent of GDP in most modern market economies, while investment in fixed assets such as infrastructure and manufacturing capacity makes up 15 percent. In 1970, Japan's figures were 48 percent and 40 percent, respectively. In plain English, the Japanese were consuming relatively little while investing heavily in steel plants and skyscrapers, which didn't leave much for fish or tourism. Belatedly, Tokyo realized that a balanced economy must also have consumption and that coating the country with factories and infrastructure wouldn't do the trick. Japan tried to rebalance slowly through the 1970s and early 1980s: The yen was allowed to strengthen a bit each year, and consumption ticked up to 54 percent of GDP, while investment shrank to 28 percent by 1985.

Having accomplished this much, Japan's leaders thought in 1985 that it was finally safe to strengthen the yen. As one high-ranking Japanese central banker explained privately several years later, "We intended first to boost both the stock and property markets. Supported by this safety net -- rising markets -- export-oriented industries were supposed to reshape themselves so they could adapt to a domestically led economy. This wealth effect would in turn touch off personal consumption." With the benefit of hindsight, we know this was a bad idea. The strong yen touched of a wicked asset bubble that quite literally blew Japan's economy to pieces, and many in China think this was the United States' aim. Xu Qiyuan, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, summarizes the popular Chinese view. "It is a conspiracy theory.… A lot of Chinese people think that the United States forced Japan to appreciate in order to make the economy collapse and that it is trying to do the same thing to China," he told Reuters.

In fact, Japan's stronger currency would not have led to economic collapse if the domestic economy had been able to take the baton from exports. In the event, export-oriented industries did not adapt to a domestically led economy because the domestic economy was not fit to lead. Conceived as a tranquil oasis for the Japanese to enjoy their exporters' hard-fought gains in peace, domestic Japan frowned on competition. Former Japanese Vice Finance Minister Eisuke Sakakibara termed this the "dual economy," in which world-class exporters existed alongside domestic companies that were "very tightly regulated with a lot of subsidies from the government, which makes them extremely uncompetitive." As a result, productivity in Japan's service sector lagged manufacturing badly. Having nowhere better to go, the Bank of Japan's loose money found its way into stocks and real estate instead of funding innovation.


China is far more dependent on exports and investment than Japan ever was, and the numbers are still moving in the wrong direction. Investment accounts for half of China's economy while consumption is only 36 percent of GDP -- the lowest in the world, drastically lower than even other emerging economies such as India and Brazil. But as the Japan example illustrates, low consumption leads to high savings, and China's thrifty citizens, coupled with booming net exports, have bestowed upon the country the world's largest current account surplus, triple that of Japan's in 1985.

Much has been made of China's trade surpluses, and it is easy to get lost in the numbers. At times like these it is important to remember just how large China is -- and that in terms of global economic impact, it is only getting started. With GDP per capita only one-tenth that of the United States, China is already the second-largest economy in the world. Chinese infrastructure spending moves global commodity markets, and many basic materials set record prices over the last few years thanks to China's nation-building efforts. With steel capacity per capita only half of Japan's 1974 peak, China can already produce more steel than the United States, Europe, Japan, and Russia combined. In addition to its investment boom, persistent Chinese net exports and current account surpluses also generate significant global financial imbalances. In 1988, Japan's foreign exchange reserves stood at 5 percent of Japanese GDP and 0.7 percent of global GDP, whereas China's are now half of Chinese GDP and a full 5 percent of global GDP. Reserves of this magnitude have the potential to destabilize the Chinese and global economies.

Bulging foreign exchange reserves don't only irritate trading partners; they also stoke inflation pressures at home. Inflation is dangerous in a still-poor country where much of the population cannot tolerate higher prices for basic essentials, but it is a natural consequence of an undervalued currency. When Chinese exporters give their dollars to the Chinese central bank (PBOC), the renminbi they receive in exchange increase the domestic money supply and cause inflation. Official inflation statistics are rising, but they only tell part of the story. Massive liquidity in the system has caused a number of mini-bubbles such as garlic's hundredfold price increase over the last two years.

Giving exporters four renminbi per dollar instead of six would be the quickest fix, but China prefers "sterilization" instead of currency appreciation. In sterilization, the central bank issues bonds to soak up the extra renminbi. The catch is that China's dollar reserves earn dollar interest rates, so if the PBOC pays a higher rate on its own bonds, it pays out more interest than it earns. To keep from hemorrhaging money, the PBOC must keep China's interest rates close to U.S. rates. But U.S. rates are far too low for China, particularly with food prices rising and assets looking bubbly. The government has tried targeted policies such as price controls on certain foodstuffs and restricted lending to asset speculators, but the inflationary pressures are so great that this piecemeal policy resembles a game of whack-a-mole.


Although there is no doubt that this new growth strategy created tens of millions of jobs and a glistening national infrastructure, the attendant imbalances have created problems. Huang notes that by suppressing personal consumption and small-scale entrepreneurial activity in favor of state-owned enterprises and select multinationals, China's 1990s growth did not sufficiently benefit its citizens. "The story of the 1990s is one of substantial urban biases, huge investments in state-allied businesses, courting FDI [foreign direct investment] by restricting indigenous capitalists, and subsidizing the cosmetically impressive urban boom by taxing the poorest segments of the population."

China's current leadership, under President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, has indicated an intention to change course. In fact, many interpret Hu's guiding principle of a "harmonious society," first introduced at the 2005 National People's Congress, as speaking directly to a rebalancing away from export and investment and toward consumption. In a recent report, David Cui, co-head of Hong Kong/China research at Merrill Lynch, contends that Hu aims "to achieve more balanced and sustainable growth that relies more on internally generated drivers." Beijing had started to try to cool the real estate and stock markets as part of this shift from investment to consumption, but the global financial crisis forced it to bin that effort. Instead, the Chinese government spent lavishly on shovel-ready infrastructure projects to support the Chinese and global economies. But this spending funded a number of white elephants: boondoggle infrastructure projects, empty malls, empty cities, and hopelessly uncompetitive industrial capacity hiding under the skirts of local governments.

With the global economy now out of free fall, China's leaders have issued a comprehensive slate of reforms to foster consumption and curb excessive capital investment. Using the full suite of policy tools available to a command economy, the government has removed tax incentives for some exports and added new ones for research and development while directing banks to curb lending and utilities to raise power prices for certain heavy industries. At the same time, new pension schemes, health-care coverage, and even a budding tolerance for collective bargaining with underpaid workers are intended to boost consumption. Although the Chinese authorities have long frowned on labor unrest, they have looked the other way at a recent spate of strikes and demands for higher wages. In fact, in some cases, local authorities have done the collective bargaining for their citizens by mandating higher minimum wages. Higher wages are easy political sells, but several initiatives even centrally plan creative destruction.

One of the more ambitious initiatives appeared on the website of China's Ministry of Industry and Information Technology one Sunday afternoon this August. The ministry lists 2,087 steel, cement, and other factories that must be closed by Sept. 30 of this year.


But plant closures are easier announced than done, particularly in the face of increasingly vocal and sometimes violent workers. In summer 2009, the sale of a steel mill owned by the provincial government in Henan province was halted after workers protested. The government preferred to return the $26 million deposit paid by the erstwhile acquirer than risk repeating an incident three weeks earlier where rioting workers beat to death an executive who announced the restructuring of a steel mill in Jilin province. Here, Beijing would be wise to swallow this pill in one gulp, rather than allowing the bitter medicine to slowly trickle down, paralyzing the entire economy as it did in Japan.

If China can tough through these reforms and consolidate inefficient capacity, it will have accomplished much, but to really transition to a domestically led economy, Beijing will need to nurture a competitive service sector. And that's a much bigger ask. There is not yet consensus for such a move as many within China are still wedded to the 1990s growth model. Mei Xinyu, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of International Trade under the Ministry of Commerce, recently wrote that "the manufacturing industry can provide enough jobs to Chinese people and also widely distribute the benefits of economic growth." In fact, the service sector is better at both. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently found that the benefits of growth are not distributed equitably to workers in manufacturing-oriented economies; wages tend not to keep pace with productivity gains in countries like China and Japan where productivity in services lags manufacturing badly.

Not that an IMF report makes a lick of difference -- but when wages start lagging and the masses start realizing that their efforts are not being rewarded, then Beijing will have to take action. Yet it will likely have a hard time making such a shift. Dynamic service sectors are not generally compatible with central planning because service economies are naturally discombobulated. Technocrats can calculate where a new bridge or airport will have the greatest positive impact and then build that bridge or airport -- but it is much harder to dictate from on high the creation of the next Facebook or to manifest a thriving small business sector.

In both China and Japan, finance, media, and other key service sectors are seen as too sensitive for free competition, so players with government ties are protected by onerous regulatory barriers to entry. It is not a coincidence that Japan has the lowest service-sector productivity in the G-7 and one of the lowest in the OECD. For their part, China's heavily protected and state-owned banks not only seek to limit their own competitors, but, through their lending practices, also hamper competition in other sectors by giving lower rates to favored, often state-owned, companies. A recent study by Li Cui of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority found that small businesses in China have less access to credit and pay much higher rates than larger companies. A recent article in the IMF's Finance and Development magazine concludes that opening up China's banking market to foreign competition could have sweeping positive effects throughout the economy.

While none of these reforms is easy, China's ticking demographic clock makes them urgent. China's one-child policy produced a large demographic dividend in the 1980s and 1990s as those of working age had fewer dependants to support. Starting in 2015, however, China will suffer the inverse -- a growing number of aged relying on a shrinking pool of young workers. "China has always been a demographic early achiever," quips a recent U.N. population report.

When China's working-age population peaks in 2015, it will be 20 years after Japan's crested the wave, but it will do so at a much lower level of prosperity than was Japan's at that time. The harsh reality is this: Japan got rich before it grew old, and China will grow old before it gets rich.


By reminding China's leadership that relying on exports means depending on unreliable foreigners, the [economic] crisis put the pain of rebalancing in perspective. It is not out of altruism that we have seen renminbi appreciation accompanying Chinese wage hikes and other rebalancing measures. A slight loosening of controls over media and finance could be in the offing. Deregulating the service sector might be a frightening political proposition, but perhaps less so than not having one when the exports dry up.
Like I said, go read the whole thing.  And when you finish the article, I'm quite sure that a few things will have become abundantly clear to you, as they did to me:
  • First, the Chinese government's currency policies have nothing to do with "preying" on American jobs or crippling the US economy through pernicious trade practices.  Instead, they're the result of an old and increasingly-problematic domestic policy and a ruling class that is trying (so far, unsuccessfully) to get its economy to export less and consume more, but is deathly afraid of screwing up that transition.
  • Second, forcing China to significantly strengthen its currency right now would have disastrous effects for the Chinese (and American and European and Japanese and...) economy - something China's leaders, having witnessed Japan's collapse, know all too well.
  • Third, China's not nearly the scary economic monster that most people think it is (although it certainly behaves naughtily at times), and could very well collapse in the next decade if its leaders can't figure out a way out of the very big mess they've made.
Some big "manipulator," huh?

*Am I the only one who's noticed that Senator Specter's grave concerns about Chinese trade practices have kinda disappeared since he lost his primary back in May?  Just a crazy coincidence, I guess.

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