Monday, April 5, 2010

Why China Insists on Controlling its Currency

U.S.-Chinese relations have become tenser in recent months, with the United States threatening to impose tariffs unless China agrees to revalue its currency and, ideally, allow it to become convertible like the yen or euro. China now follows Japan and Germany as one of the three major economies after the United States. Unlike the other two, it controls its currency’s value, allowing it to decrease the price of its exports and giving it an advantage not only over other exporters to the United States but also over domestic American manufacturers. The same is true in other regions that receive Chinese exports, such as Europe.

What Washington considered tolerable in a small developing economy is intolerable in one of the top five economies. The demand that Beijing raise the value of the yuan, however, poses dramatic challenges for the Chinese, as the ability to control their currency helps drive their exports. The issue is why China insists on controlling its currency, something embedded in the nature of the Chinese economy. A collision with the United States now seems inevitable. It is therefore important to understand the forces driving China, and it is time for STRATFOR to review its analysis of China.

An Inherently Unstable Economic System

China has had an extraordinary run since 1980. But like Japan and Southeast Asia before it, dramatic growth rates cannot maintain themselves in perpetuity. Japan and non-Chinese East Asia didn’t collapse and disappear, but the crises of the 1990s did change the way the region worked. The driving force behind both the 1990 Japanese Crisis and the 1997 East Asian Crisis was that the countries involved did not maintain free capital markets. Those states managed capital to keep costs artificially low, giving them tremendous advantages over countries where capital was rationally priced. Of course, one cannot maintain irrational capital prices in perpetuity (as the United States is learning after its financial crisis); doing so eventually catches up. And this is what is happening in China now.

STRATFOR thus sees the Chinese economic system as inherently unstable. The primary reason why China’s growth has been so impressive is that throughout the period of economic liberalization that has led to rising incomes, the Chinese government has maintained near-total savings capture of its households and businesses. It funnels these massive deposits via state-run banks to state-linked firms at below-market rates. It’s amazing the growth rate a country can achieve and the number of citizens it can employ with a vast supply of 0 percent, relatively consequence-free loans provided from the savings of nearly a billion workers.

It’s also amazing how unprofitable such a country can be. The Chinese system, like the Japanese system before it, works on bulk, churn, maximum employment and market share. The U.S. system of attempting to maximize return on investment through efficiency and profit stands in contrast. The American result is sufficient economic stability to be able to suffer through recessions and emerge stronger. The Chinese result is social stability that wobbles precipitously when exposed to economic hardship. The Chinese people rebel when work is not available and conditions reach extremes. It must be remembered that of China’s 1.3 billion people, more than 600 million urban citizens live on an average of about $7 a day, while 700 million rural people live on an average of $2 a day, and that is according to Beijing’s own well-scrubbed statistics.

Moreover, the Chinese system breeds a flock of other unintended side effects.