I don’t know the direction of the dollar-renmibi exchange rate. But, I do know most of the American press, led by the New York Times and Washington Post, got snowed by the announcement last weekend that China would introduce new “flexibility” in its exchange rate.
The immediate media reaction – and that of the Obama administration – was one of hosannas and smug approval. The tone of most coverage was along the lines, “the Chinese have finally seen the error in their mercantilist ways and will now allow their currency to appreciate strongly against the dollar, leading to a new golden age of manufacturing employment in the US.”
A week has gone by and the renminbi has appreciated by exactly 0.5%. So, a $100 item made in China that previously cost Rmb682 will now cost an importer Rmb685, or $100.50. Factory managers in the US may be waiting for awhile yet before the flood of orders arrives from China. The President’s union buddies will also not soon see much of an uptick in their membership rolls.
For those without short-term memory impairment, this is, of course, the second time in two months that US press and the Obama administration loudly predicted the imminent upward revaluation of the renminbi. In April, a flurry of reporting, loudest and strongest from the New York Times, announced the Chinese government was at last ready to accede to US demands and let the renminbi rise.
That time, the press articles were timed to coincide with a visit by the US Secretary of Treasury, Timothy Geithner, to Beijing. He was there, if the Administration and its media allies were to be believed, to talk tough and get the Chinese to fall in line with American wishes. Discernible results? Zero.
This time around, the reporting coincides with the G-20 Summit meeting in Toronto, where we are told, President Obama will use his intelligence and oratorical brilliance to persuade Chinese leader Hu Jintao to do his part for the sagging US economy. Likely results? We’ll see, but the signs are that China will continue to make policy decisions with its own interests to the fore.
There is much both wrong and economically illiterate about all this US pressure to revalue the renminbi. Start with the fact the Chinese currency is not significantly undervalued. Yes, it is tied to the dollar. So are many other currencies with which the US trades, including Mexico, Taiwan, Russia, Singapore, Thailand, Saudi Arabia. The renminbi’s formal peg with the dollar ended in July 2005. It is true that the renminbi, if it were fully convertible and freely floating, would likely appreciate against the dollar. But, by enough to really make an impact on US manufacturing employment? Hardly.
The biggest benefit to China of letting the renminbi rise against the dollar would be to lower the renminbi cost of China’s huge imports of oil, iron ore and other core dollar-denominated raw materials. Weighing against this would be falling margins at many of China’s exporters, which would ultimately have an impact on manufacturing employment.
Creating and maintaining jobs is a paramount concern for a country whose labor force grows by millions every year, and where there is no “social safety net” as in the US. Fact: every year, six million more Chinese join the migrant labor force, according to recent report by China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission.
It’s a mistake shared by many Americans that at the current exchange rate, China is some kind of low-cost paradise for people with dollars. I live here. Prices here are not low. In fact, most things in China, with exception of fresh vegetables and public transportation, are either on par with US prices or higher.
Most fruit is generally more expensive here, even at the proletarian outdoor market where I do a lot of my shopping. Same goes for beef, chicken and most everything else you fill up a supermarket cart with. Gas, automobiles, computers, TVs, brand-name products are all higher in China than in the US.
I’m writing this in my local Starbucks in Shenzhen. And while this is hardly a perfect bellwether, the cheapest cup of regular brewed coffee here costs Rmb 15, or $2.20. A cappuccino? Rmb 25, or $3.65. The place is jammed, as it always is, from noon to midnight. Not a seat in the house. Starbucks has over 350 stores in China and growing fast.
Not that long ago, the renminbi was pegged at 8.2 to the dollar. Has this 17% appreciation done anything to impact the decline of manufacturing employment in the US, a decline that began over 30 years ago? No. Will another 17% appreciation of the dollar reverse this trend? I very much doubt it. Instead, what will likely happen is prices for many products in the US will rise sharply, since so much of what America likes buying is made here. This will lead to higher unemployment, lower growth and hit hardest the poorer Americans President Obama claims to champion.
Make no mistake: if Chinese prices rise, this will not create huge new opportunities either for US manufacturers to reconquer the domestic market or allow lower wage countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria, India, the Dominican Republic or Peru to increase dramatically their exports to the US. Those countries can’t now, nor will they ever in my view, manufacture products to match the quality at the same price of those made in China, even if the cost of Chinese made products rises 15%-20% or more.
True, an economics professor’s models would argue otherwise, and President Obama is surrounded by economics professors. The models are plain wrong. Some textile imports from places other than China will rise. Not much else.
So, the real world result of the “strong renminbi” policy: greater economic hardship in the US. But, won’t ordinary Chinese benefit from lower import prices? Perhaps a little, but not in any way that will create the desired outcome of much higher manufacturing employment and exports in the US. Maybe the Washington state apples and cherries in my supermarket will become a little cheaper, and become only twice as expensive as they are in the US. Again, not overly likely.
China’s current currency policy has its benefits and drawbacks. The benefit is mainly greater predictability for exporters, which has been somewhat helpful during the economic crisis of the last two years in China’s largest export markets of the US and Europe. Even with the stable exchange rate, a lot of exporters in China went bankrupt over this period, because of a collapse in orders from the US and Europe.
The biggest drawback of current exchange rate policy: $3 trillion in foreign exchange reserves accumulated to soak up all the dollars still pouring into the country. This money is not being put to any direct productive use to improve China’s economy. A higher renminbi will not alter that calculus much, if at all.
I’m troubled in many ways by the direction of American international financial policy. The Obama Administration finds it far easier to scapegoat China’s exchange rate than put their focus on the deepest source of American economic malaise: runaway spending and budget deficits in Washington, with the inevitability of large tax increases to follow.
It’s not likely to happen, but here’s what I’d most like to see is the next time the US media starts braying for a higher renminbi. Chinese newspapers respond with articles, quoting unnamed Chinese government officials, pleading with the Obama Administration to cut spending, deficits and taxes, and so put more money in the pockets of American consumers. They will certainly choose to spend some of this cash on Chinese-made products and so help boost employment, wages and living standards across China.
As panaceas go, this one would be a lot more effective and all-around helpful than anything the American government and its media allies are peddling.
From his perch at the Washington Post, John Pomfret is one of the better-known American journalists writing about China. He is also, coincidentally, one of my oldest and closest friends. I quibble with him often about his take on China, particularly now that I’m living here and he isn’t. He moved back to the US five years ago, and wrote a well received book about China called “Chinese Lessons”. Quite a lot of it was written in my dining room in LA.
For a change, I actually agree with the main thrust of one of John’s articles on China. It’s an opinion piece, co-written with his colleague Steve Mufson, published recently in the Post. It’s title: “There’s a new Red Scare. But is China really so scary?” Read it here.
The key insight is that America, in the midst of a deep and long recession, is undergoing one of its periodic bouts of self-laceration. The widespread anxiety that America is in decline is exacerbated by a sense that China is now better, smarter, faster in many important ways. A lot of this is plain silliness, as John’s article points out.
America’s problems are home-grown. China’s rise over the last 30 years is overwhelmingly positive, for its own citizens first and foremost, but also for the rest of the world, US included.
There’s a lot for an American to admire, even envy, about China. Two examples: even while remaking most aspects of its society, the family has retained its primacy in Chinese life, as a source of stability, happiness, and purpose. China also remains the most “kid friendly” country I know, measured by the care and affection lavished on the young Chinese, particularly infants and preschoolers.
Americans, in the main, have always had a special fondness for China, regardless of the state of the political relationship between the leaders of the two countries. But, that fondness doesn’t stop many of them from perpetuating simplistic notions about the place. Once, China was seem as hopelessly backward and poverty-stricken. Now, it’s seen as a novice superpower, outmuscling the US across the globe.
John’s article cites a quote from Sun Tzu, “If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.”
Is China’s reaction to last week’s announced US arms sale to Taiwan really all that more strident than in the past? Should America be worried? To read some of the recent American news reporting, citing the usual ragbag of US-based “China experts”, you might conclude so.
I don’t buy it. China is not set, contrary to such reports, firmly on a course to antagonize America. It is, however, a great power with legitimate national interests to assert and protect. Sometimes those will clash with America’s national interests. But, the bilateral relationship also has a root system of common goals and shared admiration.
I also don’t buy the line by American “China experts” about rising Chinese “triumphalism” , due to continued strength of Chinese economy. China’s economy has been outgrowing the US by eight to ten percentage points just about every year for the last 30 years. Same was true in 2009. The only difference: China grew by 8% while the US economy shrunk by over 5%. A similar net result as in the past, but one that highlighted a dramatic lessening of China’s economic dependence on the US.
Do Chinese officials realize they now can maintain high economic growth without single-minded focus on exports to US, but look to domestic market instead? Yes. But, as you’ve also read, from Premier Wen Jiabao on down, there’s frequent public declarations on all the many problems and inefficiencies in China’s economy.
Yes, China is getting stronger every year in every respect. But, is the tone now on arms sales to Taiwan really all that different? I don’t see it, and wonder how much others here see it, or whether it’s just the usual conventional US wisdom on China, a cousin of the “China expert” analysis that Chinese economic growth is a fraud, only resulting from cooked gdp numbers.
China is mainly busy being China, just as America, most of the time is also mainly busy being America. Both are continental powers with huge populations and vast domestic markets. Both also have a long history of being more inward- than outward-looking, quite patriotic, even occasionally xenophobic.
They often view the world with a similar sense of aloof distrust. There will always be points of friction between the US and China. But, time is gradually wearing down those points of friction, not sharpening them, as much of the US press would have us believe.