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June 11, 2007
One Savings Glut That Carries On
China's monthly trade surplus soared 73% in May from a year earlier, a state news agency reported Monday, amid U.S. pressure on Beijing for action on its yawning trade gap and the possibility of sanctions.
Exports exceeded imports by $22.5 billion, the Xinhua News Agency said, citing data from China's customs agency. That figure, close to the all-time record high monthly surplus of $23.8 billion reported in October, came despite repeated Chinese pledges to take steps to narrow the gap by boosting imports and rein in fevered export growth. The report gave no details of imports or exports.
The U.S. government has been pressing Beijing for action, especially steps to raise the value of the Chinese currency. Critics say the yuan is kept undervalued, giving Chinese exporters an unfair advantage and adding to the country's growing trade gap.
Apparently, the U.S. Senate is about to officially jump into the yuan-peg fray. From Bloomberg:
The U.S. Senate will introduce a bill this week to pressure China to strengthen its currency, the Financial Times said today, citing unidentified people close to the situation.
The market, on the other hand, suggests that maybe things aren't so straightforward:
The gap may increase pressure on China to let the yuan appreciate to reduce tensions with trading partners and cool the world's fastest-growing major economy. The currency today had its biggest decline in 10 months and has reversed gains made in May when Chinese and U.S. officials met for trade talks in Washington...
The yuan declined 0.2 percent to 7.6691 against the U.S. dollar at 4 p.m. in Shanghai today, the biggest one-day fall since Aug. 15.
The currency has strengthened 7.9 percent since China scrapped a 10-year peg to the dollar and revalued the currency in July 2005. The 0.74 percent monthly gain in May was the biggest since the end of the fixed exchange rate.
I'm not sure what the story is there, but Nobel Prize winner Robert Mundell warned this weekend that too much pressure on the Chinese may not imply an appreciating yuan. From the Wall Street Journal (page A9 in the weekend print edition):
... in the unlikely event that the yuan were suddenly made fully convertible, Mr. Mundell predicts that the value of the currency would fall, not rise. Many Chinese savers would want the security of keeping at least some portion of their wealth in foreign currency and would convert quickly, worried that the government might slam the door shut. This might become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the U.K. in 1947, the Bank of England saw its reserves evaporate in a matter of weeks, and reinstated capital controls. The movement to full convertibility is fraught with danger and must be approached cautiously.
Meanwhile, yet another Nobel Prize winner, Michael Spence, suggests there is something much deeper in play than mere currency policy. From China Daily:
China has been in a high growth mode since it started economic reforms in the late 70s. Its almost three decades of high growth is the longest among the 11 high-growth economies in the world and part of "a recent, post-World War II phenomenon". And the Chinese economy will sustain its fast growth for at least two more decades...
The high levels of savings and investments both in the public and private sectors, resource mobility and rapid urbanization are the important characteristics of China's high growth, says Spence, who is also the chairman of the independent Commission on Growth and Development. The commission was set up last year to focus on growth and poverty reduction in developing countries. China's saving rate of between 35 to 45 percent is among the highest despite the relatively low level of income of its people. Resource mobility has generated new productive employment to absorb surplus labor in a country where 15-20 million people move from the rural areas to the cities every year.
The most important feature of sustained high growth is that it leverages the demand and resources of the global economy, says Spence. All cases of sustained high growth in the post-War period have integrated into the global economy because exports act as a major high-growth driver.
Enumerating the reasons why the Chinese economy will sustain its high growth rate for another two decades, he says: "There are basically two reasons. One is that there is still a lot of surplus labor in agriculture. The engine for high growth is still there. The second is that the Chinese economy has diversified very rapidly. It's quite flexible and entrepreneurial."
Spence clearly believes that the Western complaints of too low a value for the Chinese currency and too high a surplus in its trade balances will self-correct, with a little help from government policy:
The only way to stop China's high growth would be to shut the economy off from the rest of the world. "It's just not going to happen." Even 20 years later, China will continue to grow because its currency will appreciate, helping raise the income level and increase the wealth of the people...
... To balance the huge trade deficit, Spence hopes China would boost domestic consumption and bring down the saving rate.
He acknowledges, though, that the relatively high-income younger generation is spending more despite the fact that East Asians traditionally are good at saving. A solution to the trade imbalance could also be found by increasing social security and the pension system, making them available to everybody, improving the medical coverage in the rural areas and making education at all levels affordable.
Meanwhile, the move to liberalize domestic financial markets in China took another step forward this weekend. From Reuters, via China Daily:
China Export-Import Bank (EximBank) is set to issue 2 billion yuan (US$261 million) in yuan-denominated bonds in Hong Kong this month, making it the first Chinese lender to do so, sources told Reuters on Monday.
Exim Bank is to sell the 3-year bonds only to institutional investors, an investment banking source said, adding that the bank would decide on the yield later.
Never boring, is it?
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