The China Bust: Tic Toc Part I
China is in the process of allowing its currency to rise. The reason for this is to address the worsening inflation rates in the country. Allowing the yuan to rise will indeed stop, or slow, inflation, but the way this fix works is not the way that is usually assumed. Neither will the effects of this policy be what most observers assume, i.e., just milder inflation. Instead, it will be an outright economic bust.
This article explains the real story behind the commonly espoused explanations regarding the taming of China’s inflation. It also breaks down many of the peripheral issues on the topic that are regularly discussed in the press, and exposes the false theories associated with these issues.
Currencies and Prices
In explaining how a rising currency will help tame inflation, most pundits relay that revaluing a currency to a higher price will cause import prices to be cheaper, thereby lowering domestic prices. For example, Credit Agricole CIB economist Dariusz Kowalczyk stated:
“Policymakers have sent a clear message that currency appreciation will be used as a tool to counter imported inflation [due to near-record global prices for oil and other commodities].”
Similarly, Bloomberg News reported…
“Chinese officials may also seek to speed up gains in the currency, also known as the renminbi, to fight inflation, lowering the cost of imported U.S. goods such as Boeing Co. aircraft and Microsoft Corp. software.”
The truth is that there is no such thing as importing or exporting inflation, because each country or currency area has its own individual currency, which is separate from another region’s currency. Prices within a particular currency area can rise only when that particular currency is inflated. (A rare exception is when other currencies also circulate within the same currency area, and an increase in the quantity of the other currencies causes prices to rise in that currency. But even in this case, the depreciating currency will likely soon stop circulating, as it will be shunned for the stronger currency.)
But currency changes can indeed affect prices by way of changes in the supply of goods. A country whose currency is artificially undervalued — such as China — will artificially export more and import less. If the currency is allowed to rise toward the market exchange rate, it will begin to export less and import more.
All else being equal, a higher-priced currency will indeed result in a lowered price of imported goods. When imported goods cost less, consumers have more money to spend on domestic goods; purchasing power increases. Or if the amount saved from spending less on imports is spent on acquiring greater amounts of the imported goods, there will be less demand for domestic goods, causing domestic prices to be lower. In either case, what has lowered prices is a stronger currency.
The previous explanation applies only to cases where “all else remains equal.” But a currency that rises with all else remaining equal is one that was previously artificially weak, for the purpose of exporting as much as possible and is, thus, being revalued by the marketplace to its true market price. Otherwise, excluding short-term fluctuations, one currency moves against another because of changes in the relative supply of currency units, and corresponding changes in relative consumer prices between the two currency regions in question. Currency movements absent these fundamental changes are due to government manipulation of the currencies.
The flip side of the rise in the price and purchasing power of a currency is that goods in that currency are then more expensive in terms of foreign currencies, resulting in fewer goods exported. Exporting less is economically beneficial, as it leaves more goods remaining inside the country, increasing the supply and lowering the price of domestic goods.
Therefore, it would seem that higher-priced currencies are better, since they result in cheaper imports and lower domestic prices. But if the currency is too expensive and artificially overvalued, fewer goods are exported, causing less foreign exchange to enter the country. An artificially high currency will, eventually, cause the country to run out of foreign exchange. This, and goods too expensive from the view of other countries, will cause trade to cease, resulting in lower standards of living.
The essence of the trade-off is that a country can have a weak currency and increase exports so as to obtain more foreign currency, or it can have a strong currency and increase imports so as to obtain more goods.
So what is the optimal level of a currency’s price? Does a country want a stronger currency or a weaker one? Does it want more cash or more goods? The fact is that a country is not an “it.” A country consists of millions or tens of millions of individuals, each having different goals and different valuations. Government bureaucrats cannot set an ideal currency price that is optimal for everyone. Thus, the only optimal currency price is that which is set by all market participants jointly, by way of their supplying and demanding both goods and currency based on their needs and desires.
And in reality, the optimal currency price they, the market, will settle on will be the price that, adjusting for transportation costs, causes domestic prices of internationally traded goods to approximate the price of those same goods in other countries. In other words, they will make relative prices equilibrate across countries, just as individuals do within a country. Otherwise, arbitrage opportunities would exist, and the result would be a leveling of relative prices and real currency valuations. That optimal currency price will also result in the country exporting about the same amount as it imports; the balance of payments will tend toward zero. Trade surpluses and deficits derive from mispriced currencies arising from government manipulation.
The Real Relation Between China’s Rising Currency and Inflation
A manipulated currency can cause domestic prices to be artificially higher or lower than they would otherwise be, but it cannot cause prices to rise on a sustained basis; it cannot cause price inflation. Aside from rising prices due to a continual reduction of goods produced and existing in a country, the only thing that can cause price inflation is that country’s expansion of the money supply, which results in increases in demand. Aggregate prices rise only with reduced supply or increased (monetary) demand. Thus, contrary to the popular perception displayed in the quotes above, China’s re-pricing of its currency — alone — will not reduce price inflation.
[Ed note: Our currency expert, Abe Kaufman, weighs in with his insight on the Chinese/U.S. currency war discussion.
“We need China to keep buying our bonds, so politically, it’s really risky to escalate the tensions. Still, the uncertainty regarding China — whether we have a trade war or not — will cause sentiment swings in the markets. Then add China’s real problem…not the trade war, but whether China’s economic slowdown will be controlled or severe. As fears ebb and flow, we could see the effects in several currencies, such as the Australian dollar, the Brazilian real and more.
“Luckily, all that volatility is the perfect environment for the sphere I operate inside — a relatively new way to play currency moves easily and inexpensively.
“Unlike the mainstream currency markets, this new market gives you a chance to turn 2% moves in currencies into potential 150% gains in less than a week. And as China worries continue, we could continue seeing those kinds of gains again and again.”
Check out Abe’s most recent report here.]
What will reduce China’s price inflation is ceasing the activity that is holding its currency artificially low: money printing. As Figure 1 shows, it is doing just that.
In general, China can keep its exchange rate even with the dollar only by creating new money at as fast of a rate as the Federal Reserve creates dollars. In addition to the rate of creation of one currency versus another, the amount of currency actually on the market available for exchange makes a difference as well. In this respect, China reinvests the dollar reserves it obtains from its trade surplus — which come about from an artificially low yuan and an artificially high dollar — into U.S. Treasuries, instead of selling them in the foreign exchange market, so as to prevent the dollar from falling (and yuan rising) from the increased supply.
But additionally, in order to keep the yuan artificially lower against the dollar than it would otherwise be — given the market supply and demand for each currency — the Chinese central bank, the Peoples Bank of China (PBOC), actively buys dollars and sells yuan in the marketplace. It pays for the dollars by creating yuan with which to buy them.
When the PBOC creates yuan, it expands the money supply. It is, therefore, this expansion in the money supply, not an artificially low currency per se, that is creating price inflation in China.
Exchange Rate vs. Money Supply as the True Cause of Inflation
When one has knowledge of the true nature of China’s currency and inflation situation, it can be very frustrating to hear mainstream economists focus on the currency as a cause and solution for inflation, instead of focusing on the originating cause of money creation. Even the World Bank misstates the problem:
“‘Strengthening the exchange rate can help reduce inflationary pressures and rebalance the economy,’ the World Bank said in its latest quarterly update on the world’s third-largest economy.”
But to its credit, it also separately said:
“Inflation expectations can be contained by a tighter monetary policy stance and a stronger exchange rate.”
While the comment is still vague in terms of giving the real link between monetary policy and the exchange rate, it at least notes the monetary-policy issue.