For all the intensive and wide-ranging media coverage of China’s yuan devaluation just over a week ago, three crucial aspects with big implications for Sino-American trade relations and for President Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have been neglected.
First, compelling new evidence has emerged that China’s currency move does indeed represent manipulation to achieve advantages in trade – a conclusion that the U.S. Treasury Department has long balked at reaching in its Congressionally mandated reports on foreign exchange rate policies. Of course, Treasury has for years called the yuan undervalued. But it’s excused Beijing of the currency manipulation charge by (most recently) citing the yuan’s “real progress” in appreciating in real terms versus the dollar and China’s reduced intervention in foreign exchange markets.
Treasury, however, will be hard pressed to explain away The New York Times‘ disclosure earlier this week that:
“In a little-noted [July] advisory to government agencies, [China’s] cabinet said it was essential to fix the export problem, and the currency had to be part of the solution….Soon after, the Communist Party leaders issued a statement also urging action on exports. It all set the stage for the currency devaluation last week that resulted in the biggest drop in the renminbi since 1994. The cabinet’s call to action: The country needed to give the currency more flexibility and to reinvigorate exports. If officials did not act, China risked deeper turmoil at home, threatening the stability of the government.”
In other words, the entire top Chinese leadership – not just the Ministry of Commerce, which has explicitly championed a cheap yuan as an export booster frequently in the past – is now on record as having supported a deliberately weakened yuan in order to improve China’s global price competitiveness. What else do American authorities need to make the manipulation accusation officially?
More important, because a Treasury manipulation finding does not, contrary to the conventional wisdom, require any policy follow up, how can supporters of the TPP now justify the agreement’s failure to incorporate effective curbs on such exchange-rate protectionism? During Congress’ recent debate, lawmakers who opposed such measures, along with the administration, insisted that TPP currency sanctions could backfire against the United States because they could be legitimately used to counter any currency effects of the easy money policies of America’s Federal Reserve. So did Fed Chair Janet Yellen herself, along withTreasury Secretary Jack Lew.
Now, however, it couldn’t be clearer that trade-related currency devaluations having nothing to do with monetary policy are a clear and present danger to the U.S. economy. It’s true, as I’ve noted, that even strong currency language in the Pacific Rim trade deal would not automatically amount to solving the problem, since many other first round and follow-on TPP countries have powerful incentives to retain a currency manipulation arrow in their policy quiver. But at the very least, it’s no longer possible to argue that TPP currency provisions inevitably create a dangerous downside for the United States. And however unlikely, an upside can’t be completely ruled out. The case for unilateral American responses, which the president also adamantly opposes, just got a lot stronger, too.
Second, new data challenges the claims of administration and other opponents of any currency curbs that the yuan undervaluation problem is steadily solving itself thanks to China’s voluntary actions. Yes, the International Monetary Fund in April declared that the yuan is now appropriately valued. But exactly the opposite conclusion looks more accurate upon bringing into the picture one widely accepted tool for dealing with analytical complications arising from the often dramatically differing price levels among economies – especially those at different stages of economic development.
Thus according to Purchasing Power Parity methodology, the yuan is still more than 40% undervalued versus the dollar. Not far behind is Japan’s yen. And the currencies of three other first-round TPP countries – Australia, Canada, and New Zealand – also supposedly belong in this category.
Finally, even more new data debunks another major argument against strong currency manipulation actions – the contention that China is shifting dramatically from an export-led growth model to a demand-led blueprint. Optimists on this score typically cite figures showing much faster growth in investment in China than in exports. But yesterday, an important Wall Street Journal piece featured an insight regarding the makeup of China’s economy and growth that decision-makers and analysts urgently need to understand: Properly measuring the importance of exports to China requires counting much more than the country’s total overseas sales or even its trade and current account surpluses. It requires counting all the infrastructure spending on all of the roads, bridges, ports, airports, and other projects that are needed to support exports, and that have been one of China’s major competitive strengths.
Figures reported by Journal correspondent Greg Ip show that, when the export sector is properly defined, its contribution to China’s growth is down since 2010, but “ still remarkable amid slower growth in its trading partners and a higher yuan.” In the process, he supported a point that I’ve been making for several years. On top of this finding, data I’ve previously spotlighted shows that, given its overall growth slowdown and expanding trade surpluses, China has been getting even more export-oriented lately.
A China that’s unmistakably manipulating its currency and increasingly export-heavy, and a yuan whose value remains massively distorted by Beijing don’t of course guarantee that Congress will start expressing big second thoughts about endorsing President Obama’s TPP and China trade status quos. But they do mean that lawmakers will be even shorter than usual of reasons not to.
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