China’s Forex Follies

BERKELEY – On August 11, China devalued its currency by 2% and modestly reformed its exchange-rate system. This was no earth-shattering event, but financial markets responded as if a meteorite had struck them. The negative reaction is no mystery: China’s devaluation was a textbook example of how not to conduct exchange-rate policy.

One of the government’s motivations was presumably to give a boost to China’s slowing economy. Although the service sector, which accounts for the majority of employment, is holding up relatively well, the country’s output of tradable goods, many of which are produced for export, is weakening sharply. Chinese exporters are caught between the pincers of weak foreign demand and rapidly rising domestic wages.

Devaluation is the tried and true remedy for such ills. But a 2% change in currency values is too little to make much of a difference, given that wages in Chinese manufacturing are rising at an annual rate of 10%.

It could be that Chinese policymakers regard the 2% devaluation as a down payment – the first in a succession of downward adjustments. But, in that case, they violated the first rule of exchange-rate management: Don’t cut off a cat’s tail in slices.