China's Renminbi – Our Currency, Your Problem

Introduction of Case Study:

This case introduces the basics of monetary economics and demonstrating practical applications of monetary policies and exchange rates that pertain to business decisions. Supporting this case study will be a discussion on the exchange rate policy that China has adopted preceding and following 1978, a year in which significant economic liberation took place. Events within the past couple of years that took place in China concerning their exchange rate regime were deemed highly controversial by members of China's trade partners. The first objective of this essay is to trace the history of this discord surrounding China's currency, the Renminbi (RMB), which translates literally into English as "the people's currency". Next, questions from the case will be discussed. Lastly, the case will be made up-to-date with a brief excerpt concerning the current state of affairs surrounding this issue.

Background on Case:

In 2006, many countries that conducted trade with China made strong allegations against China's exchange rate policy. The major complaint was that China's currency was undervalued due to China's manipulation of exchange rates to suppress the prices of its exports. Among other damages, these countries have claimed that this action has cost them thousands of jobs. The US, which had a $ 233 billion trade deficit with China in that year, threatened to impose tariffs on Chinese imports if China did not revalue its currency. Japan and newly industrialized economies, such as Taiwan and Singapore, were less vocal, as they have been trying to strengthen their economic ties with China. Developing Asian countries, however, supported a revaluation in order for them to be better equipped to compete with China. One collective group that stayed relatively mute on the lively debates that ensued in the media between 2005 and 2007 were multinational companies. These companies benefited from low operating costs in China, which, for them, meant cheaper land and more competitively priced China-made exports.

China's exchange rate was deemed to be out of synch with market forces, with several reasons to support this conclusion. First, China's economy experienced 9% annual growth over the past decade. According to the Balassa-Samuelson hypothesis, rapid economic growth is accompanied by real exchange rate appreciation because of differential productivity growth between tradable and non-tradable sectors. Secondly, China has become the world's third-largest exporter with at least $ 970 billion in 2006. China's exports have experienced approximately 30% growth in recent years. Lastly, there has been a compilation of $ 1.2 trillion in foreign currency reserves. These build-ups are claimed to be the result of manipulation of the RMB against natural forces of the market.

Chinese officials strongly oppose the idea of ​​a revaluation of their currency on several grounds, the strongest of which is probably that they are a country that is highly reliant on trade and growth of their exports is vital. Secondly, over two hundred million rural dwellers have left their farms to find work in urban centers. Higher economic growth is necessary to absorbing these workers into a functional economy. Apart from the economic reasons against changing the exchange rate policy, officials in China turn to several counterarguments. First, the RMB, according to them, is not really undervalued and China's economic growth has nothing to do with manipulation of the currency. Secondly, the US is running a large trade and budget deficit, which is partially attributable to capital inflows from China, and should look to the weakness in their economy before pointing fingers elsewhere. Also, China is a sovereign country with a right to choose its own exchange rate policy. Lastly, Chinese officials brought up the little known fact that despite its large trade surplus with the US and Europe, it also has large deficits with others, especially Asian countries.

As mentioned in the introduction, China began liberalizing its country in 1978. Prior to then, it followed central planning and was reliant on economic self-sufficiency. China's foreign trade was negligible and there were hardly any foreign companies doing business in China. The RMB, at that time, was pegged to a basket of currencies and an exchange rate was set at an unrealistically high level. The currency was virtually non-convertible. After 1978, China followed an "open door policy" and special economic zones were opened to foreign investments. A tiny private sector emerged. The RMB was devalued in 1981, 1985 and 1993 to the US dollar in order to promote Chinese exports. The RMB was revalued by 5% in 1995, which held until July 2005.

The squabbles started in July 2005 when China reformed its exchange rate regime. The RMB was revalued by 2.1% to the dollar. The peg to the dollar was replaced by a peg to a basket of currencies with an allowed fluctuation of a 0.3% band against the dollar each day. This basket was dominated by the US dollar, euro and yen. The currencies of baskets and weights were selected on the basis of trade volume conducted with China's partners, the sources of foreign direct investment ( "FDI") and the composition of China's debt. In May 2007, the Chinese central bank announced a widening of the RMB's daily fluctuation against the dollar to 0.5%. This followed an appreciation of their currency by 7.2% against the dollar.

Chinese officials site several alternatives that could be taken in place of a revaluation of their currency. The first suggestion is to reform the banking sector, where up to 40% of loans are underperforming and nine out of ten banks are state-owned. Secondly, they have proposed a "go abroad" policy, encouraging Chinese companies to invest abroad and thus stimulating outward FDI. Lastly, Chinese officials have suggested imposing a voluntary export tax. Unlike with a revaluation, a tax would not affect the value of foreign currencies. Furthermore, the Chinese government would receive much needed tax revenues.

Analysis and Discussion of Case Issues:

Now this essay will discuss responses to questions from the case itself. The first two questions from the case are concerned with how much further China should let its currency appreciate and to determine whether or it is not undervalued as of the time of writing this piece. First, China should never have let the currency fall this far. It has an abundant source of cheap and skilled labor, with a generally high educational attainment level, and does not need to manipulate their currency in order to benefit from strong exports. Yet, this is precisely the action Chinese officials took. This should be immediately corrected before more trading partners are forced to suffer. Regarding the second question, it is clear from the evidence that the currency was undervalued. Given the high level of FDI entering China and its significant trade surplus, the RMB should have appreciated relative to this basket of goods, especially given that the US dollar and Euro have both weakened lately.

The next questions are concerned with the consequence of a revaluation on China and its trade partners and whether any profound reform should be gradual or not. Also, the case study asks about how a floating RMB would impact the exchange rate. In simple terms, a revaluation would benefit most trade partners and come at a significant cost to China. Trading partners, including the US and the Euro Zone will benefit by not losing thousands of workers to the Chinese markets, as had been the case when domestic companies relocated to China under favorable economic considerations. Developing Asian countries will be better able to compete with Chinese exports if a revaluation takes place. Multinational corporations will not favor such a move, as maintaining the status quo allows them to continue benefiting from the low operating costs in China. China would lose in the sense that its economy would likely slow. One could argue, however, that this will happen anyways, given the current state of affairs in the global economy. Current business and political journals and magazines have pointed to the fact that Europe is now in a recession and that the US is not far behind. The credit crunch has not left China unaffected-its economic growth is expected to reduce to only approximately 8% in 2009 according to analysts at the Economists and the Financial Times.

As mentioned before, China is heavily reliant on trade and growth of its exports is vital. A revaluation will eat into its competitive position. This will also likely have a negative impact on their labor market, as fewer jobs may be available in the cities for those leaving the rural communities and entering the urban areas.

To answer the second question, the revaluation should be gradual in order to give the market forces a chance to react intelligently to the change properly and for affected constituents to adjust their business practices accordingly. In response to the final question, a floating of the RMB would cause it to strengthen relative to the other basket of exchange rates because it is currently undervalued due to market manipulation on behalf of Chinese officials.

The last two questions refer to different exchange rates and ask which one is most appropriate for China. There are six major exchange rate regimes. The first is an exchange arrangement with no separate legal tender regime. In this regime, the currency of another country circulates as the sole legal tender, or the member belongs to a monetary or currency union in which the same legal tender is shared by the members of the union. Adopting this regime implies the complete surrender of the monetary authorities' independent control over domestic monetary policy. The second regime is called the currency board arrangements. This is a monetary regime based on an explicit, legislative commitment to exchange domestic currency for a specified foreign currency at a fixed exchange rate, combined with restrictions on the issuing authority to ensure the fulfillment of its legal obligation. Some flexibility may be allowed, depending on how strict the banking rules of the currency board arrangements are. The third regime is the other conventional fixed peg arrangement.

Countries that adopt this regime peg its currency at a fixed rate to another currency or a basket of currencies. The basket is formed from the currencies of major trading or financial partners, and weights reflect the geographical distribution of trade, services or capital flows. There is a limited degree of monetary policy discretion, depending on the bandwidth.

China has adopted the fourth exchange rate regime into its monetary policy, which is known as the crawling peg. The currency is maintained within a bandwidth around a central rate, which is adjusted periodically at a fixed pace or in response to changes in selective quantitative indicators. Maintaining the exchange rate within the band imposes constraints on monetary policy with the degree of policy independence being a function of the bandwidth.

The fifth regime is the managed floating with no predetermined path for the exchange rate. The monetary authority attempts to influence the exchange rate without having a specific exchange rate path or target. Lastly, there is the independently floating regime, which has been adopted by the US The exchange rate is market-determined, with any official foreign exchange market intervention aimed at moderating the rate of change and preventing under fluctuations in the exchange rate, rather than at establishing a level for it. This is the regime that the Chinese government should follow because it is market-determined and not open to manipulation, while maintaining flexibility regarding monetary policy.

Third Party Opinions on Case Issues:

This last section will discuss the current situation regarding this debate. According to the latest news articles from such sources as Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, the Chinese economy has experienced weakening exports because of the US housing slump and the international credit squeeze. China's GDP growth is expected to slump, too. The Chinese government has options to stimulate the economy and protect exporters. Reports claim that officials at China's central bank plan on slowing the appreciation of the RMB. Indeed, this is a decision that should have been made a long time ago and would be a major breakthrough in the ongoing debate, which may actually reach a conclusion given the state of affairs in the global economy.

According to Professor Pan Yingli of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the RMB was undervalued since the 1997 Asian crisis and such a foreign exchange policy has been used to finance exports and imports sectors at the cost of non-trading industries. Basically, the crawling peg regime adopted by China allows it to manipulate exchange rates in its own favor in order for it to sell more products abroad, as exports are the lifeblood of China's economy.

The Asian financial crisis involves four basic problems or issues: (1) a shortage of foreign exchange that has caused the value of currencies and equities in Thailand, Indonesia, South Korea and other Asian countries to fall dramatically, (2) inadequately developed financial sectors and mechanisms for allocating capital in the troubled Asian economies, (3) effects of the crisis on both the United States and the world, and (4) the role, operations, and replenishment of funds of the International Monetary Fund.

Concluding Remarks:

In conclusion, this case showed how trading partners could be both positively and negatively influenced by the economic decisions by one or more of the players. It is important for countries to realize that we live in an interconnected, increasingly global environment in which important decisions are not made in isolation. In fact, China's decision to pursue exchange rate reform has, for better or worse, greatly impacted billions of people throughout both the developed and developing world.