Trade issues’ ability to completely muddle the thinking of supposed experts has never been more prominently displayed than in this recent column, from a leading European economist, on China’s manipulated currency.
Writing for the Project Syndicate website (which bills itself as “the world’s opinion page”), Paola Subacchi insists that China is not likely to turn the recent slide in the value of its renminbi (also called the yuan) into an “’engineered’ competitive devaluation” because “a weak renminbi has more costs than benefits” for the People’s Republic.
Of course, the case for worrying about a Chinese drive to weaken its currency stems from fears that a cheaper renminbi/yuan would give Chinese goods wholly artificial price advantages over U.S. and other foreign counterparts in markets the world over. The result would be a big trade lift for the Chinese economy at the expense of its competitors — and for reasons that have nothing to do with either free trade or free markets.
Anyone pretending to know what Chinese leaders are really thinking about such vital economic (or other) matters is blowing smoke. But it’s nothing less than absurd to suppose that the considerations Subacchi cite for her China currency optimism are taken the slightest bit seriously in Beijing.
For example, the author argues that “by increasing import prices and bolstering export sectors, a weaker renminbi would undermine the Chinese government’s goal of shifting away from export-led growth and toward a model based on higher domestic consumption.” But although it’s true that Beijing has long talked about this goal, it’s highly doubtful that China’s are prioritizing these days – if they ever have.
After all, as made clear in this new column from the Financial Times‘ Martin Wolf, China in recent years has been relying on domestic purchases (especially investment spending) supercharged by official stimulus policies to keep growth at satisfactory levels. This shift, however, has scarcely been voluntary. The choice was essentially forced on China by the sharp downturn in global trade triggered by the last global financial crisis and recession, which pummeled foreign markets for Chinese products. The results, Wolf shows, have not been a healthily rebalanced Chinese economy, but one that’s growing more slowly, and whose growth is dangerously reliant on an explosion in the country’s indebtedness. Is it really plausible that China is seeking more of the same?
According to Subacchi, “a weaker renminbi could [also] invite renewed US complaints about currency manipulation.” President Trump has just revived this charge. But the Chinese so far seem to be counting on blunting the new U.S. trade offensive by imposing their own retaliatory tariffs on American products (especially from politically important states and Congressional districts), and thus prompting a decisive counterattack by vulnerable political and economic interests. A continuingly weakening renminbi/yuan would plainly help, too.
Moreover, Subacchi herself clearly regards Trump-ian U.S. trade policies as a major mistake, describing them (as well as China’s currency policies) as “not good for anyone.” Yet for those renewed U.S. complaints about currency manipulation to matter to Beijing, they’d need to be followed up with a credible threat of tariff responses – and, if needed, actual levies. Is she therefore suggesting that playing trade hardball makes no sense unless the target is China? Maybe she’ll explain in her next article.
“Finally, and more crucially,” the author writes, “a weak renminbi at the same time that dollar-denominated assets become more attractive could cause China to suffer capital flight.” She’s correct – but oddly overlooks Beijing’s option of tightening capital controls – a policy that’s not exactly unprecedented for Chinese leaders.
Subacchi does deserve praise for spotlighting major actual and potential weaknesses in China’s economic and financial position. Unfortunately, the response she says she favors to the prospect of a full-fledged Chinese-launched currency war – “the world should call its bluff” – is wishful thinking. For the world as a whole – which remains heavily dependent on growing by selling to America’s gargantuan, wide open market – has displayed much more interest in protecting this convenient, though dangerously unsustainable, arrangement from vigorous U.S. responses than in imposing any significant disciplines on China.
In other words, the odds remain high that unless the prospect of a China-launched currency war is met with unilateral – i.e., Trump-ian – American counter moves, it won’t be met at all.