China’s $3.2 Trillion Headache

BEIJING – While the downgrade of United States government debt by Standard & Poor’s shocked global financial markets, China has more reason to worry than most: the bulk of its $3.2 trillion in official foreign reserves – more than 60% – is denominated in dollars, including $1.1 trillion in US Treasury bonds.

So long as the US government does not default, whatever losses China may experience from the downgrade will be small. To be sure, the dollar’s value will fall, imposing a balance-sheet loss on the Peoples’ Bank of China (PBC, the central bank). But a falling dollar would make it cheaper for Chinese consumers and companies to buy American goods. If prices are stable in the US, as is the case now, the gains from buying American goods should exactly offset the PBC’s balance-sheet losses.

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The downgrade could, moreover, force the US Treasury to raise the interest rate on new bonds, in which case China would stand to gain. But S&P’s downgrade was a poor decision, taken at the wrong time. If America’s debts had truly become less trustworthy, they would have been even more dubious before the agreement reached on August 2 by Congress and President Barack Obama to raise the government’s debt ceiling.

That agreement allowed the world to hope that the US economy would embark on a more predictable path to recovery. The downgrade has undermined that hope. Some people even predict a double-dip recession. If that happens, the chance of an actual US default would be much higher than it is today.

These new worries are raising alarm bells in China. Diversification away from dollar assets is the advice of the day. But this is no easy task, particularly in the short term. If the PBC started to buy non-dollar assets in large quantities, it would invariably need to convert some current dollar assets into another currency, which would inevitably drive up that currency’s value, thus increasing the PBC’s costs.

Another idea being discussed in Chinese policy circles is to allow the renminbi to appreciate against the dollar. Much of China’s official foreign reserves have accumulated because the PBC seeks to control the renminbi’s exchange rate, keeping its upward movement within a reasonable range and at a measured pace. If it allowed the renminbi to appreciate faster, the PBC would not need to buy large quantities of foreign currencies.

But whether renminbi appreciation will work depends on reducing China’s net capital inflows and current-account surplus. International experience suggests that, in the short run, more capital flows into a country when its currency appreciates, and most empirical studies have shown that gradual appreciation has only a limited effect on countries’ current-account positions.

If appreciation does not reduce the current-account surplus and capital inflows, then the renminbi’s exchange rate is bound to face further upward pressure. That is why some people are advocating that China undertake a one-shot, big-bang appreciation – large enough to defuse expectations of further strengthening and deter inflows of speculative “hot” money. Such a revaluation would also discourage exports and encourage imports, thereby reducing China’s chronic trade surplus.

But such a move would be almost suicidal for China’s economy. Between 2001 and 2008, export growth accounted for more than 40% of China’s overall economic growth. That is, China’s annual GDP growth rate would drop by four percentage points if its exports did not grow at all. In addition, a study by the China Center for Economic Research has found that a 20% appreciation against the dollar would entail a 3% drop in employment – more than 20 million jobs.

There is no short-term cure for China’s $3.2 trillion problem. The government must rely on longer-term measures to mitigate the problem, including internationalization of the renminbi. Using the renminbi to settle China’s international trade accounts would help China escape America’s beggar-thy-neighbor policy of allowing the dollar’s value to fall dramatically against trade rivals.

But China’s $3.2 trillion problem will become a 20-trillion-renminbi problem if China cannot reduce its current-account surplus and fence off capital inflows. There is no escape from the need for domestic structural adjustment.

To achieve this, China must increase domestic consumption’s share of GDP. This has already been written into the government’s 12th Five-Year Plan. Unfortunately, given high inflation, structural adjustment has been postponed, with efforts to control credit expansion becoming the government’s first priority. This enforced investment slowdown is itself increasing China’s net savings, i.e., the current-account surplus, while constraining the expansion of domestic consumption.

Real appreciation of the renminbi is inevitable so long as Chinese living standards are catching up with US levels. Indeed, the Chinese government cannot hold down inflation while maintaining a stable value for the renminbi. The PBC should target the renminbi’s rate of real appreciation, rather than the inflation rate under a stable renminbi. And then the government needs to focus more attention on structural adjustment – the only effective cure for China’s $3.2 trillion headache.