Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Renminbi Blame-Game

I BOW TO YOU. As United States is running massive deficit on its trade balance at the moment, Barack Obama seeks help from his new foe Hu Jintao while crossing his fingers that China would be willing to help United States by letting the renminbi to appreciate.

It’s interesting to see that for the last few years the centre of gravity of the world’s economy has shifted radically from the west to the east.

In United States, the 2008 financial crisis that was caused by irresponsible bankers in Wall Street has led many countries to stop worshipping United States’ economy as their deity. In Europe, the failure of euro and the collapse of its adopters such as Greece, Ireland, and Portugal make the Europe’s economy no longer relevant to be seen as benchmark.

Countries such as China, India, Vietnam, and Indonesia look more powerful than ever. China, particularly, managed to reach a double-digit economic growth in 2010 and overtook Japan as the second-largest economy in the world. If China’s trend continues, it is even predicted that in 20 or 30 years time United States’s position as the world’s largest economy could be in peril.

And such stellar achievement does not go unnoticed: China’s growing force in its economy has left many western leaders –who have always had histories of looking down to their Asian counterparts– to put more strict attention on the country.

United States now deemed China as an important player in global stage. Hu Jintao’s diplomatic visit to United States in January 2011, for example, was met with more coverage from the United States media than ever.

What exactly is the major factor behind China’s rise today? Of all the far-sighted tactics and strategies of Chinese leaders, economists, and policymakers that have bolstered China’s economy until present; how Chinese central bankers peg the renminbi and keep the currency low has always been considered as China’s most brilliant –and controversial– economic gambit.

Currency devaluation leads to what some economic analysts call as unfair advantage for China. They claim that China is allegedly controlling its renminbi in its own favor at the expense of other countries’ economies, as the downpour of Chinese goods today is increasing their import numbers as well as hurting their domestic industries.

Of course, China’s strategy in keeping its currency low does not matter in the past when Chinese goods only held a small fraction of the world’s economy.

But in a situation like today when Chinese goods could be found in almost every corners in the world, it prompts massive headache for many policymakers in many countries: Citizens are becoming more dependent to Chinese goods, and thus many countries see a massive surge in import in that leads to trade deficit in their balance book.

Is China really the evil here? Criticisms regarding China’s international economics policy could be heard mostly from Americans: Both US President Barack Obama and his Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner has repeatedly launched searing attacks against China’s undervalued currency, while Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman even described China as ‘bad guy in currency war who is to blame for the currency tensions as the cheap renminbi is contributing to global trade inbalances’.

This renders complicated problems for economic policymakers in many countries that import goods from China, especially United States, simply because their domestic industries could not compete with cheaper Chinese goods that are more preferable among the customers.

What deteriorates the problem is today many Chinese goods come in the same quality as American, therefore pushing some western goods in the sidelines, with almost no competitive advantage against exported goods from China.

In addition to hurting many countries’ domestic industries, the maelstrom of imported Chinese goods causes many countries to run deficits in their trade balances, as their import exceed exports number. It is reasonable if many world leaders massively denounce China’s act of depreciating the renminbi far beyond its real value, as this is simply not the right time for China to become so inconsiderate.

The world is still recuperating from the United States financial crisis in 2008; arguably one of the worst economic crises the world has ever seen. In fact, today not all countries have returned to their pre-crisis economic growth, yet China seemingly acts as the real villain whose undervalued currency and massive export numbers are causing global trade imbalances and rendering trade deficits among its trade partners.

But apparently, the argument of deeming China as the real evil here is a little bit too unfair.

The first question we ought to ask is: Why does China, after all the sweltering attacks from various countries, keep insisting in maintaining the renminbi undervalued? While many countries blast China’s acts as immoral during these tough times, it’s difficult to judge their actions as wrong or against the law however.

Keeping an eye on currency’s valuation is necessary if a country’s economy depends very much on its export industry; which is precisely the situation that China is currently in. China’s economy depends much on its export industry –so much that it was reported that in 2007 export in China accounts at a staggering level of US$ 1.22 trillion, or close to 40% of its total GDP.

China’s exports also shows a striking development, as China’s export alone have grown at 25% annual rate in the last decade, over the twice of growth of China’s GDP.

An economy that depends on export sector like China means its citizens also depend on the export industry –or mostly employed in factories or companies that focus on exporting items abroad. For China, it means that adjusting policies regarding its export industry –such as letting the renminbi afloat– is the same as playing with the fates of the Chinese citizens.

It is clear that by devaluating the renminbi, China is trying to make jobs and save its own citizens. For example, a research shows that total employment in China significantly increased by 7.5 million per year over 1997-2005, with export growth contributed at most 2.5 million jobs per year. The researchers also concluded that exports have become ‘increasingly important’ in stimulating employment in China.

Chinese policymakers, after all, are just doing what they have to do: Implement the best policy for their own citizens.

Of course, it is not to say that what China has done is morally justified in this post-crisis period; but it is also unfair to put a verdict that what Chinese policymakers have been doing is completely wrong. Today, the soaring economic growth of China has successfully dragged millions of Chinese out of poverty, and policymakers in China are merely implementing a policy to support its export sector, which provides jobs for million of Chinese and makes them better off.

Yet an economic superpower like United States is acting like a street beggar these days, pleading Chinese policymakers to pity them and help the country to overcome its massive trade deficit.

Why United States is acting so shameful like that goes beyond my comprehension. Well, China’s response regarding this US-China currency fallout is predictable, and it is represented at its best by the words from Yu Jianhua, a Director at China’s Ministry of Commerce, who said:

“Don’t make other people take the medicine for your disease.”

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