The yuan and the markets

16 January 2016, 16:51

“WHAT if we could just be China for a day?” mused Thomas Friedman, an American columnist, in 2010. “…We could actually, you know, authorise the right solutions.” Five years on, few are so ready to sing the praises of China’s technocrats. Global markets have fallen by 7.1% since January 1st, their worst start to the year since at least 1970. A large part of the problem is China’s management of its economy.

For well over a decade, China has been the engine of global growth. But the blistering pace of economic expansion has slowed. The stockmarket has been in turmoil, again. Although share prices in China matter little to the real economy, seesawing stocks feed fears among investors that the Communist Party does not have the wisdom to manage the move from Mao to market. The rest of the world looks at the debts and growing labour unrest inside China (see article), and it shudders. Nowhere are those worries more apparent—or more consequential—than in the handling of its currency, the yuan.

Faulty forex

China’s economy is not on the verge of collapse. Next week the government will announce last year’s rate of economic growth. It is likely to be close to 7%. That figure may be an overestimate, but it is not entirely divorced from reality. Nevertheless, demand is slowing, inflation is uncomfortably low and debts are rising. The bullish case for China depends partly upon the belief that the government can always lean against the slowdown by stimulating consumption and investment with looser monetary policy—just as in any normal economy.

Yet China is not normal. It is caught in a dangerous no-man’s-land between the market and state control. And the yuan is the prime example of what a perilous place this is. After a series of mini-steps towards liberalisation, China has a semi-fixed currency and semi-porous capital controls. Partly because a stronger dollar has been dragging up the yuan, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) has tried to abandon its loose peg against the greenback since August; but it is still targeting a basket of currencies. A gradual loosening of capital controls means savers have plenty of ways to get their money out.

A weakening economy, a quasi-fixed exchange rate and more porous capital controls are a volatile combination. Looser monetary policy would boost demand. But it would also weaken the currency; and that prospect is already prompting savers to shovel their money offshore.

In the last six months of 2015 capital left China at an annualised rate of about $1 trillion. The persistent gap between the official value of the yuan and its price in offshore markets suggests investors expect the government to allow the currency to fall even further in future. And, despite a record trade surplus of $595 billion in 2015, there are good reasons for it to do so, at least against the dollar, which is still being propelled upwards by tighter monetary policy in America.

The problem is that the expectation of depreciation risks becoming a self-fulfilling loss of confidence. That is a risk even for a country with foreign-exchange reserves of more than $3 trillion. A sharply weaker currency is also a threat to China’s companies, which have taken on $10 trillion of debt in the past eight years, roughly a tenth of it in dollars. Either those companies will fail, or China’s state-owned banks will allow them to limp on. Neither is good for growth.

The government has reacted by trying to rig markets. The PBOC has squeezed the fledgling offshore market in Hong Kong by buying up yuan so zealously that the overnight interest rate spiked on January 12th at 67%. Likewise, in the stockmarket it has instructed the “national team” of state funds to stick to the policy of buying and holding shares.

One step back, two forwards

Yet such measures do nothing to resolve a fundamental tension. On the one hand, the state understands that the lack of financial options for Chinese savers is unpopular, wasteful and bad for the economy. On the other, it is threatened by the ructions that liberalisation creates. For Xi Jinping, the president, now in his fourth year in charge, that dilemma seems to crop up time and again (see Briefing). He needs middle-class support, but feels threatened by the capacity of the middle class to make trouble. He wants state-owned enterprises to become more efficient, but also for them to give jobs to the soldiers he is booting out of the People’s Liberation Army (see article). He wants to “cage power” by strengthening the rule of law and by invoking the constitution, yet he is overseeing a vicious clampdown on dissent and free speech.

It is easy to say so now, but China should have cleaned up its financial system and freed its exchange rate when money was still flowing in. Now that the economy is slowing, debt has piled up and the dollar is strong, it has no painless way out.

A sharp devaluation would wrong-foot speculators. But it would also cause mayhem in China and export its deflationary pressures. The poison would spread across Asia and into rich countries. And because interest rates are low and many governments indebted, the world is ill-equipped to cope.

Better would be for China to strengthen capital controls temporarily and at the same time to stop stage-managing the yuan’s value. That would be a loss of face for China, because the IMF only recently marked the yuan’s progress towards convertibility by including it in the basket of currencies that make up its Special Drawing Rights. But it would let the country prepare its financial institutions for currency volatility, not least by starting to scrub their balance-sheets, before flinging their doors open to destabilising flows. Mr Xi could embrace more complete convertibility later, when they were less vulnerable.

One reason the PBOC is rushing towards convertibility, despite the risks, is that it feels that it must seize the chance while it has Mr Xi’s blessing. But better to retreat temporarily on one front than to trigger a global panic. That might also lead to some clearer thinking. There is a contradiction between liberalisation and party control, between giving markets their say and silencing them when their message is unwelcome. When the time is right, China’s leaders must choose the markets. 

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