China’s Trilemma

BEIJING – The Nobel laureate economist Robert Mundell showed that an economy can maintain two – but only two – of three key features: monetary-policy independence, a fixed exchange rate, and free cross-border capital flows. But China is currently juggling all three – an act that is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain.

At first glance, this may not seem to be the case. Given that the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has largely maintained its monetary-policy independence over the last three decades, and actively manages the renminbi’s exchange rate, it is natural to conclude that China imposes strict controls on capital flows. In fact, China liberalized inward foreign direct investment more than 20 years ago, and eased controls for much of the capital account thereafter.