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Another look at China
Defoxing the chicken coop
What's in a name?


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The yuan drifts in a fine mist

Philip Bowring

HONG KONG Patience may be a necessary virtue in assessing where and how China intends to take its now supposedly floating currency. But the signs to date are contradictory. That may be a deliberate ploy to keep the speculators off balance. Or it may be that a struggle is still going in Beijing between forces for and against a significant appreciation of the yuan.
Take the announcement on Wednesday that the yuan would be floating against a trade-weighted currency basket headed by the dollar, euro, yen and the South Korean won, with small contributions from the likes of the Australian and Singapore dollars, Russian ruble and Malaysian ringgit. That has been described as a display of transparency, even if we are left to guess the currency weights and how far they reflect the direction of China's trade or the currency denomination of it. The list is no surprise except that, presumably for political reasons, the Taiwan dollar is omitted, despite Taiwan being in the same league as Japan and Korea as a source of components for export industries.
With or without Taiwan's currency, this basket should worry those, not least the U.S. government, who are looking for significant further appreciation of the yuan - that is, 10 percent or more - in the foreseeable future. To start with, the U.S. dollar probably has a weighting of 40 percent or more. Of the others, the euro is 10 percent higher against the yuan than it was two year ago, the yen 8 percent higher and the won 13 percent higher. Among the minor basket components, some, like the ringgit, have stuck close to the dollar while others, like the Australian dollar (up 13 percent), Russian ruble (up 5 percent ) and Singapore dollar (up 4 percent), have all risen against the Chinese currency.
There is certainly scope for these other currencies to appreciate further, given the strength of their trade and competitiveness. Commodity currencies such as ruble and Australian dollar could also rise further if prices remain high. Nonetheless, given the extent to which the non-dollar currencies in the Chinese basket have already appreciated, and given the U.S. dollar weighting, China seems set for a glacial appreciation that lags behind those of its neighbors and of the euro. Those currencies, in turn, will seek to keep their appreciations to a minimum. That is no recipe for the bold adjustments necessary to reduce trade imbalances and ward off protectionist counter-measures.
On the other hand, China's announced basket may simply be a deliberate diversion of the markets, or a signal of its intentions after the yuan has risen to a rate that Beijing views as economically and politically sustainable. Evidence for that interpretation comes from the actual performance of the yuan since the July 21 revaluation and float. If it really were following the basket, it would have appreciated by about another 0.5 percent at least since the original 2 percent.
That is because the yen and won have risen by nearly 2 percent since that time and the euro by a smaller amount. The Taiwan, Singapore and Thai currencies have also appreciated. But the yuan, meanwhile, has been oscillating within a much smaller range. Thus China may be playing a waiting game and may in due course allow another jump by the yuan against its newly proclaimed basket rather than staying in line with it.
In short, three weeks after China made it historic move to stop pegging the yuan to the U.S. dollar, the world is little the wiser about how China intends to manage its currency. What should be clear to the leadership in Beijing, however, is that token moves will not be enough to address either the economic nor political consequences of seriously inappropriate Asian exchange rates. These are prolonging U.S. consumption excesses in a way that brings short-term benefits to all but threatens a crisis not far down the road.
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