The Exchange-Rate Delusion

MILAN – If one looks at the trade patterns of the global economy’s two biggest players, two facts leap out. One is that, while the United States runs a trade deficit with almost everyone, including Canada, Mexico, China, Germany, France, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, not to mention the oil-exporting countries, the largest deficit is with China. If trade data were re-calculated to reflect the country of origin of various components of value-added, the general picture would not change, but the relative magnitudes would: higher US deficits with Germany, South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan, and a dramatically lower deficit with China.

The second fact is that Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan – all relatively high-income economies – have a large trade surplus with China. Germany has relatively balanced trade with China, even recording a modest bilateral surplus in the post-crisis period.

The US has a persistent overall trade deficit that fluctuates in the range of 3-6% of GDP. But, while the total reflects bilateral deficits with just about everyone, the US Congress is obsessed with China, and appears convinced that the primary cause of the problem lies in Chinese manipulation of the renminbi’s exchange rate.

One problem with this view is that it cannot account for the stark differences between the US and Japan, Germany, and South Korea. Moreover, the real (inflation-adjusted) value of the renminbi is now rising quickly, owing to inflation differentials and Chinese wage growth, particularly in the country’s export sectors. That will shift the Chinese economy’s structure and trade patterns quite dramatically over time. The final-assembly links of global-value added chains will leave China for countries at earlier stages of economic development, such as Bangladesh, where incomes are lower (though without producing much change in the balance with the US).