AMERICAN manufacturers complain that China undervalues its exchange rate. But which one? The nominal exchange rate is now 6.67 yuan to the dollar, having strengthened by almost 2% since September 5th (when Larry Summers, an adviser to President Barack Obama, flew to Beijing to complain about the currency in person) and by 24% since 2005.
But China’s real exchange rate with America has strengthened by almost 50% since 2005, according to calculations by The Economist (see chart). A real exchange rate takes account of price movements in each country. If prices rise faster in China than in America, China’s real exchange rate goes up, even if its nominal exchange rate stays the same. That’s because higher prices at home make China’s firms less competitive abroad, just as if their currency had gone up.
To calculate the real exchange rate, you need a gauge of prices in each country. Many economists use the consumer-price index (CPI). But the CPI contains lots of goods and services (such as housing rents) that cannot be traded across borders. Our measure of the real exchange rate, which we will regularly update, offers a more direct measure of competitiveness by looking instead at unit labour costs: the price of labour per widget. These costs go up when wages rise or productivity (widgets per worker) falls. In American manufacturing, unit labour costs have risen by less than 4% since the first quarter of 2005, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. In Chinese industry they have risen by 25% over that period, according to our sums....
The combination of a 24% rise in the yuan against the dollar and a 21% increase in Chinese unit labour costs, relative to America’s, explains the steep appreciation shown in the chart. The yuan may well still be undervalued but our index suggests American manufacturing should have less to fear from Chinese competition than it did five years ago. Until June 2009 appreciation was largely because of the stronger yuan. Since then it is largely because China’s unit labour costs have grown much faster than America’s. Employers in China’s coastal factories have suffered labour shortages and strikes. America’s factories have reported strong productivity gains as they have wrung more out of the workers that survived the recession (although those gains will be hard to repeat).This is entirely consistent with that the Congressional Research Service recently said about the RMB: ""Even without adjustment to the nominal exchange rate, over time the real rate would adjust as inflation rates in the two countries diverged." Such inflation, as evidenced in the Economist's calculations of diverging US-China unit labor costs, is exactly what's happening now - thus, the resulting rise in the "real" CNY-USD exchange rate.
Behold, basic economics!
This is more proof that those upcoming high-level G-20 negotiations about China's currency practices may be somewhat misguided, and that US efforts to force China to appreciate the nominal exchange rate are totally unnecessary (yet still very antagonistic).
I have no doubt that Chuck Schumer and every other US politician who demagogued China all year will be issuing a correction any second now.