China fever will again grip Washington as the U.S Treasury nears its mid-April deadline for pronouncing whether China manipulates its currency. Dangerous myths about the RMB will again be propagated, feeding China bashers and protectionist lobbies. Meanwhile, more important and politically tougher reforms in both the United States and China will be conveniently overlooked.

Most economists would agree that the RMB is undervalued and that it is in China’s interest to allow appreciation. By pegging its exchange rate to the dollar, China abdicates a large measure of control over its monetary policy. In addition, an undervalued currency increases prices for Chinese consumers, and contributes to inflationary pressures and excessive accumulation of low-yielding reserves.

However, the benefits of RMB appreciation for the United States are mixed at best and—whether net positive or negative—are certainly exaggerated. U.S. policy makers should prioritize maintaining a collaborative relationship with China, now the world’s largest trading nation, over staging another fruitless debate on the RMB.

The Myths

China’s growth has depended primarily on exports

While integration into world markets has been vital for China’s development, domestic demand has always been the country’s primary growth driver. During the decade before the crisis, net-exports accounted for only about 1 percentage point of China’s 9.5 percent average annual growth, as imports grew almost as fast as exports.

China did not contribute enough to global demand during the crisis

Chinese demand was integral to Asia’s early emergence from the recession, and the rest of the world benefited as well. In 2008, China accounted for over 50 percent of world growth; last year, China expanded rapidly while the world economy contracted.

During the most acute phase of the crisis, China maintained the RMB's peg to the dollar. This helped other countries weather the demand collapse.

Domestic demand in China expanded 12.3 percent in 2009, while domestic demand in the United States and industrialized countries contracted 2.6 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively. China’s output was able to grow nearly 9 percent even as exports plummeted 16 percent. Imports held up much better than exports, and China’s current account surplus declined from 9.6 percent of GDP in 2008 to 5.8 percent in 2009. Data to February this year suggests that the surplus is still shrinking.

Furthermore, during the most acute phase of the crisis—the fourth quarter of 2008 to the first quarter of 2009, when the dollar appreciated against nearly all currencies—China maintained the RMB’s peg to the dollar. This helped other countries weather the demand collapse.

China’s consumption is not growing fast enough

Private consumption in China grew by an average of about 7.5 percent over the ten years prior to the crisis, faster than in any other large economy. In the United States, private consumption grew at an annual rate of 3.6 percent over the same period. Nonetheless, consumption’s share of China’s national income fell over that period as investment grew even faster. In 2009, however, consumption’s share rose, another hopeful sign that the economy may be rebalancing toward domestic demand at the expense of exports.

The United States depends on China to buy its government debt

At the end of 2009, China held only about 7 percent of U.S. federal government debt outstanding. Sold at a high price (low yield), U.S. government debt is a popular security. At the same time, the United States is benefiting China: China has few good alternatives to hold its reserves and U.S. firms are large investors and employers in China. In the investment arena, as in others, the United States and China are mutually dependent.

China has been manipulating its currency to get an unfair advantage in trade for years

About 60 countries peg their exchange rates to the dollar today, and they are not all currency manipulators. The real question is whether a country systematically pegs its currency at an artificially low rate in order to gain competitive advantage—a violation of IMF and WTO rules.

The evidence against the RMB is mixed at best. China pegged the RMB to the dollar at the end of 1997, in the midst of the Asian crisis. At that time, the United States and other countries applauded the peg as a generous act that promoted stability in the region. Serious complaints did not emerge until 2003, when China’s trade surplus and America’s trade deficit (with the world and with China) began to rise sharply.

The immediate effect of RMB appreciation would be to raise prices for U.S. consumers.

However, the RMB/dollar rate, which had not changed, was not the primary reason for the growing imbalance. Rather, in the United States, the fiscal surpluses of the final Clinton years had shifted to large deficits and the Greenspan Fed was pursuing very loose monetary policies while the financial sector generated additional liquidity as a result of inadequate oversight and regulation. In China, aggressive domestic reforms had prompted exceptional productivity growth in manufacturing, while the government promoted both exports and import substitution.

Recognizing these shifts, China adopted a policy of gradual RMB appreciation in July 2005. Three years later, the RMB had risen 21 percent against the dollar. Because of the sharp, crisis-induced drop in export orders, however, China suspended the policy. China’s central bank governor recently confirmed that the suspension is a special, crisis-related measure, implying that gradual appreciation will resume as the crisis abates.

Revaluation of the RMB will help the U.S. economy

The immediate effect of RMB appreciation would be to raise prices for U.S. consumers. A 25 percent revaluation of the RMB, which some economists have said is needed, would—if not offset by a reduction in China’s prices—add $75 billion to the U.S. import bill. Since the United States imports three times as much from China as it exports there, higher U.S. exports to China would not nearly offset the welfare loss to U.S. consumers from higher Chinese prices. It would take years for adjustment to a higher RMB to occur, but in the end, though some U.S. firms would gain and some export jobs would be created, the U.S. consumer would be the loser, and the net welfare effect on U.S. workers would probably be negative.
 
Revaluation of the RMB is critical for reducing global trade imbalances

A revaluation of the RMB by itself would do little to redress global imbalances, and could, as mentioned, initially lead to a wider U.S.–China trade deficit. Most likely, unless U.S. domestic demand falls for other reasons, the overall U.S. trade deficit would hardly budge in the end as the United States would simply import more from other countries that would resist following China’s lead in allowing currency appreciation.

The (Tougher-to-Deal-With) Realities

China’s policies artificially promote investment, exports, and import substitution at the expense of consumption

Many leaders in China acknowledge the need to address the country’s pervasive export and import-substitution policies, as well as the suppressed interest rates, which lower the cost of capital for Chinese firms. However, tough internal policy battles lie ahead as powerful vested interests resist change. International pressure on these issues would strengthen the hand of reformers.

China needs to improve its safety nets

Although budget outlays for health and education have increased significantly in recent years, much more needs to be done. Further improvements would probably prompt households to reduce savings and increase consumption. However, the impact on China’s trade balance would depend on how the safety nets were financed. If social security contributions to the de-facto pay-as-you-go system were simply raised, national savings would change little. If on the other hand, these outlays increased government deficits and borrowing, national savings and China’s trade surplus might decline.

Overwhelmingly, U.S. external deficits are determined by U.S. policies

All fair-minded economists recognize that measures to reduce the U.S. fiscal deficit and encourage household savings will do infinitely more to correct U.S. current account deficits than any conceivable policy change in China. Though the needed measures are well-known, and include raising consumption and energy taxes, increasing competition and efficiency in healthcare, and establishing a needs-tested social security system, these changes are politically complicated to say the least.

Conclusion

China’s economy has become so large and globally integrated that its exchange rate policy is a matter of international concern. But, more than an international issue, it is crucial for China. Given the realities outlined above, it makes little sense for the United States to point to China’s exchange rate as a major bilateral issue. Designating China a currency “manipulator” will only impair a crucial relationship. In addition, the debate diverts attention from the politically difficult, but much more significant, domestic reforms that are needed in both the United States and China.

Pieter Bottelier, former chief of the World Bank’s resident mission in Beijing, is a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s International Economics Program and senior adjunct professor of China studies at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University. Uri Dadush is a senior associate in and the director of Carnegie’s International Economics Program.