The conflicting saga of China’s exchange rate: The Hindu BusinessLine Editorial

The conflicting saga of China’s exchange rate: The Hindu BusinessLine Editorial

The conflicting saga of China’s exchange rate: The Hindu BusinessLine Editorial

Contrary to western perceptions, the Chinese government has been shoring up the RMB’s value in recent years instead of depreciating it to gain competitive advantage
A favourite trope (a word or expression used in a figurative sense) of Northern economic policy makers — especially those in the US — is that China systematically manipulates the exchange rate of the RenMinBi to ensure greater external competitiveness, and that this amounts to an unfair trade practice.
While this has been a complaint of the US government for some years now, President Donald Trump of the US has become a particularly strong advocate of this theory.
Most recently, the (slight) depreciation of the Chinese RenMinBi (RMB or Yuan) relative to the US dollar has been met with howls of protest (very strong words of disagreement) from Trump and his trade advisors, who have complained that this is a deliberate policy of the Chinese authorities to counter the effects of the tariff increases announced by the US administration as part of the ongoing trade war it has initiated.
It is certainly true that in the past three decades the Chinese strategy has been largely oriented to keeping the currency “competitive” for the country’s exports, and there have been episodes when specific moves have destabilised trade patterns for other countries.
For example, the RMB devaluation of 1994 is recognised to have led to declining export competitiveness of major Asian exporters, eventually becoming one of the significant factors leading up to the Asian crisis of 1998.
Post crisis scenario
But in the 2000s and thereafter, and especially after the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), the efforts of the Chinese authorities seem to have been directed much more towards allowing or encouraging the RMB to appreciate rather than sustain a lower value.
It is evident that until the first quarter of 2015, there was a general tendency for appreciation in both variables. This hardly suggests a strategy of continuing undervaluation of the currency in order to enable cheaper exports, notwithstanding the more adverse global environment.
Capital flight
However, there was RMB depreciation until early 2017, more marked relative to the US dollar than in real exchange rate terms. There has been a recovery recently. The period of RMB depreciation is widely associated with “capital flight” from China.
This could certainly be indicative of capital flight, and was interpreted as such by many observers in the mainstream international financial media. But it is hard to understand why there would be so much capital flight from an economy that still continued to generate substantial current account surpluses, and that held around $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves around that time.
Some have argued that there was significant flight of personal wealth in response to the anti-corruption crackdown by the Xi Jinping regime — but much of that would have been more likely to be recorded under “Errors and Omissions” than in the official capital account. So what was driving this net movement of capital flows?
Drawing down of reserves
The perception of capital flight was heightened by the net drawing down of foreign exchange reserves.
Analysts have pointed to this as clear indication that the Chinese monetary authorities were acting to shore up the currency through open market operations in the face of such capital flight.
But the actual explanation could be much more complex, and indicate more strategic thinking on the part of Chinese policy makers.
Recent research by some Brazilian economists (“China: Capital flight or renminbi internationalization?” by Paulo Van Noije and Bruno De Conti, paper presented to the 21st Conference of the Forum for Macroeconomics and Macroeconomic Policies, Berlin Germany, November 9-11, 2017) points to the possibility of a different and more nuanced (characterized by subtle shades of meaning or expression) official strategy.
Van Noije and Conti note that reserve holding generates very low returns, and especially when held in US dollar securities like Treasury Bills, generates excessive dependence on the US economy, which has long been a concern for the Chinese government.
Therefore, there has been a push to diversify (make or become more varied) foreign asset holding, not only in the form of more variety in the composition of reserves, but through increased foreign investment in different forms.
RMB settlements
They further note that many of these investments, as well as more import payments, were settled in RMB rather than in US dollars. This would serve the further purpose of enabling the gradual (taking place or progressing slowly or by degrees) internationalisation of the RMB by providing other countries access to this currency.
It suggests that this has indeed been the case up to early 2018, with direct investment (mostly by Chinese state-owned enterprises) as well as other investment showing very large increases over this period.
Strategic shift
So there may have been some capital flight out of China, but this has clearly been combined with a more strategic shift in the pattern of foreign asset holding that must have involved state direction. Instead of wastefully holding reserves stored in low-return US securities, the Chinese may be diversifying at the margin to other asset holding in different countries.
Currency market speculators would do well to consider the medium-term implications of this strategy before betting against the RMB.


1. Trope (Noun) – A word or expression used in a figurative sense (रूपक अलंकार)
Synonyms – Adumbration, Allegory, Alliteration, Allusion, Bathos, Expression, Rhetoric, Sarcasm, Satire, Understatement

2. Howls of protest (Phrase) – Very strong words of disagreement

3. Nuanced (Adjective) – Characterized by subtle shades of meaning or expression ( सूक्ष्म भेद युक्त)
Synonyms – Distinction, Gradation, Implication, Nicety, Refinement, Subtlety, Dash, Degree, Shade, Suspicion, Tinge, Trace
Antonyms – Information

4. Diversify (Verb) – To make or become more varied (विविध करना)
Synonyms – Expand, Transform, Alter, Assort, Change, Mix, Modify, Variegate, Vary
Antonyms – Continue, Keep, Remain, Stay, Conform, Stay same, Unvary

5. Gradual (Adjective) – Taking place or progressing slowly or by degrees (क्रमिक)
Synonyms – Moderate, Measured, Unhurried, Cautious, Circumspect, Piecemeal, Successive, Continuous, Systematic, Regular, Steady, Even, Consistent, Uniform
Antonyms – Discontinuous, Intermittent, Irregular, Abrupt, Infrequent, Sudden, Uneven

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