China’s Currency Conundrum
In late February, the gradual appreciation of the renminbi was interrupted by a 1% depreciation. The resulting international outcry obscured a troubling feature of China’s exchange-rate policy: the tendency for sporadic renminbi appreciation (even small movements) to trigger speculative inflows of “hot” money.
PALO ALTO – The People’s Bank of China (PBOC), it seems, cannot win. In late February, the gradual appreciation of the renminbi was interrupted by a 1% depreciation (to $1:¥6.12). Though insignificant in overall trade terms, especially when compared with the volatility of floating exchange-rate regimes, the renminbi’s unexpected weakening sparked a global furor.
The uproar was not surprising. After all, China has been under constant pressure from foreign governments to revalue, in the mistaken belief that a stronger currency would reduce China’s large trade surplus. And, since July 2008, when the exchange rate was $1:¥8.28 (and had been held constant for ten years), the PBOC has more or less complied, with appreciations approximating 3% per year through 2012.
However, the international outcry obscured an unintended but perhaps more troubling feature of China’s exchange-rate policy: the tendency for sporadic renminbi appreciation (even small movements) to trigger speculative inflows of “hot” money. With short-term interest rates in the United States near zero, and the “natural” interbank interest rate in faster-growing China at near 4%, an expected 3% appreciation, for example, translates into an “effective” interest-rate differential of 7%. This is an enticing spread for currency speculators who borrow in dollars and circumvent China’s capital controls to buy renminbi assets.
We hope you're enjoying Project Syndicate.
To continue reading, subscribe now.
Get unlimited access to PS premium content, including in-depth commentaries, book reviews, exclusive interviews, On Point, the Big Picture, the PS Archive, and our annual year-ahead magazine.
Already have an account or want to create one? Log in