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Can America and China Avoid a Currency War?

Although the current poor state of Sino-American relations may make even a very limited currency détente unattainable, such a pact is not outside the realm of possibility. Ultimately, both America and China might see some advantage in taking currency conflict off the table, in the hope of preventing wider damage to themselves and others.

SANTA BARBARA – China’s currency, the renminbi, weakened slightly against the dollar at the start of this week. Around the world, the immediate response was panic. Financial markets tumbled, US President Donald Trump’s administration formally labeled China a currency manipulator, and fears of a new currency war spread like wildfire. To describe all this as an overreaction would be a gross understatement. A currency war has not erupted – at least, not yet.

But the danger is real. Although markets now appear to be recovering somewhat, America and China remain locked in a perilous trade war with no end in sight. The United States is still poised to impose a 10% tariff on some $300 billion worth of Chinese imports. It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that China might then retaliate by engineering a substantial devaluation of its currency. After all, a cheaper renminbi would go a long way toward offsetting the impact of Trump’s tariffs on the prices of Chinese goods in the US.

But, because devaluation would also carry significant risks for China, the country’s leaders will be hesitant to take this step. Many of China’s biggest enterprises have borrowed heavily in dollars, and a weaker renminbi would greatly increase the cost of servicing this external debt. Worse, the prospect of devaluation could spark massive capital flight from China as anxious companies and individuals seek to protect the value of their assets. That is what happened four years ago when the renminbi was allowed to weaken significantly, and the Chinese authorities subsequently had to spend $1 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves to prevent the currency from crashing.

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