China’s ‘renminbi trap’: The economy needs a weaker currency, but Beijing is unable to act

Weakening the currency should be relatively straightforward. But the adverse reaction of China’s trading partners, past experience, and Xi Jinping’s ambitions for the renminbi could combine to prevent it.

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Consumer prices in China have now fallen in five out of the last seven months, and the annual inflation rate fell to minus 0.8 per cent in January.

There is a growing risk that deflation and weak economic activity might aggravate each other, creating a kind of ‘doom loop’: prices fall because demand is weak, and demand stays weak since Chinese households reckon it’s better to delay spending in the hope that goods and services get even cheaper.

All this should have some implications for Chinese exchange rate policy: a weaker renminbi (CNY) could raise the domestic price of imported goods by enough to help unroot China’s deflationary psychology before it really establishes itself.

A model here, in a sense, is Japan: as the yen (JPY) weakened from JPY 100 to the dollar to JPY 150 over the past three years, Japanese inflation rose from minus 1 per cent to something approaching 3 per cent.

Even the IMF is trying to nudge Beijing towards a weaker renminbi. In its latest report on the Chinese economy, out earlier this month, the Fund suggests that ‘greater exchange rate flexibility would help counter disinflation pressures.’

The chances of this happening, however, are very low. China appears to be stuck in a kind of ‘renminbi trap’: its currency will remain stronger than the economy needs it to be, and the risk of the doom loop will hover over China for the foreseeable future.

How to achieve a weaker renminbi

The renminbi has indeed weakened in the recent past. Two years ago, a US dollar would fetch only CNY 6.3, but now the exchange rate is closer to 7.2.

Yet this has clearly been insufficient to boost domestic prices, partly because the renminbi’s weakness against the dollar has been offset by its strength against other currencies. In trade-weighted terms, the renminbi has weakened by not much at all. More is needed.

All that’s needed is for the PBOC, China’s central bank, to cut interest rates and the currency would weaken further.

A weaker exchange rate shouldn’t be considered a substitute for more reliable ways of boosting inflation – fiscal and monetary stimulus would be much more effective. But it could easily complement other policies to help China out of its deflationary funk.

Engineering a weaker renminbi would be easy enough. The most important driver of the CNY’s exchange rate against the dollar these days is the interest rate differential between the US and China: the bigger that gap gets, the weaker the renminbi, since the market prefers holding higher-yielding US dollars than lower-yielding CNY. So, all that’s needed is for the PBOC, China’s central bank, to cut interest rates and the currency would weaken further.

Indeed, there’s an extremely good case for the PBOC to do just that, because Chinese interest rates are, in inflation-adjusted terms, ridiculously high for an economy in which confidence is so low.

The ‘real’, or inflation-adjusted, three month inter-bank interest rate in China is currently close to 3.5 per cent, higher than China has seen in most of the past ten years. And bizarrely, that rate has increased in recent months, simply because inflation has fallen a lot faster than interest rates have come down.

If China doesn’t act quick, its window of opportunity to see a weaker renminbi might close: once the US Federal Reserve  starts to cut rates in the second half of this year, the US–China interest rate differential will start to shrink, leaving the renminbi more likely to strengthen than weaken.

Why China won’t weaken the renminbi

It’s one thing to argue that China should let its currency weaken, but getting from ‘should’ to ‘will’ won’t be easy, for three reasons.

The first is that a weaker Chinese currency would almost certainly provoke a very hostile response  from China’s trading partners.

China has had some bad experiences in the past, in which currency weakness begets a loss of confidence.

China’s trade surplus is vast, around $600 billion last year, most of which is explained by a surplus with the US and the EU. Policymakers in both those jurisdictions harbour deep suspicions about Beijing’s trade policies: a weaker renminbi, making imports from China cheaper, would elicit a ferocious reaction.

Second, China has had some bad experiences in the past, in which currency weakness begets a loss of confidence and, notwithstanding China’s capital controls, money finds a way to leave the country at an accelerated pace.

Under these sorts of circumstances, China’s foreign exchange reserves fell from $4 trillion to $3 trillion in 2015-2016, the last time China’s economy suffered anything like today’s confidence collapse.

And these days, money is already leaving China at a worrying rate. Data published this week show that the net outflow of foreign direct investment from China last year reached $150 billion.

Plenty of portfolio capital also left, helping to leave the Chinese equity market in the doldrums.

Against this background, Chinese authorities might not be too willing to take risks with monetary and exchange rate policy.

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A final reason not to hold one’s breath waiting for a weaker Chinese currency is that Xi Jinping seems set against it. In a speech last month, Xi argued that a ‘strong currency’ is an essential ingredient for China to become a financial power.

China’s trading partners would be less willing to accept renminbi payments if all they can think is that the currency will keep losing value. 

Indeed, it probably is the case that currency depreciation would hamper Beijing’s ambitions to encourage more international use of the renminbi. China’s trading partners would be less willing to accept renminbi payments if all they can think is that the currency will keep losing value.

That said, policymakers in any country who think that national power can be enhanced by keeping a currency strong are guilty of getting causation the wrong way round.

So, China is stuck in its renminbi trap. Chinese deflation might be good news for other countries’ efforts to bring their own inflation rates down. But if the domestic consequences of that deflation remain as grim as they seem, the Chinese economy, and the rest of us, will be worse off.