Beijing's Pivot

The world is waiting to see whether China has successfully achieved a soft landing, slowing down the economy from its overheated state of a year ago to a more sustainable rate of growth. Some China-watchers fear it could hit the ground in a crash landing as have other Asian dragons before it. But others, particularly American politicians in this presidential election year, talk only about one thing: the trade balance.

Here the important message is that long-term forces of adjustment are at work in the Chinese economy. Foreign perceptions need to be adjusted as well. It is true that not long ago the yuan was substantially undervalued and China’s trade surpluses were very large. But the situation is changing.

China’s trade surplus peaked at $300 billion in 2008, and has been declining ever since. In fact it even reported a trade deficit in the month of February ($31 billion, its largest deficit since 1998). It is not hard to see what is going on. Ever since the Middle Kingdom rejoined the world economy three decades ago, its trading partners have been snapping up exports of manufacturing goods, because low Chinese wages made them super-competitive on world markets. It was known as the unbeatable “China price.” But in recent years, following the laws of economics, relative prices have adjusted to the demand.

The change can be captured by real exchange rate appreciation. This comprises in part nominal appreciation of the yuan against the dollar, and in part Chinese inflation. Government officials would have been better advised to let more of the real appreciation take the form of nominal appreciation (dollars per RMB). But since they didn’t, it has shown up as inflation instead. (See charts below, which show both nominal and real appreciation, against the dollar or against an index.)