Capital Mobility as Trojan Horse

In my Jacobin piece on finance, I observed in passing that financial commitments across borders — what’s sometimes called capital mobility — enforce the logic of markets on national governments. This disciplining role has been on vivid display in the euro area over the past few years. Here, courtesy of yesterday’s Financial Times, is a great example of the obverse: If a state does want to resist liberal “reforms”, it needs to limit financial flows across the border.

The headline in the online edition spells it right out:

Renminbi stalls on road to being a global currency. New capital controls lead to doubt, especially over hopes of forcing economic reform.

The print edition is wordier but even clearer:

Renminbi reaches its high water mark. Fresh capital controls cast doubt over the push to increase the global use of its global currency. But what does that mean for the Chinese policymakers who saw it as a ‘Trojan horse’ to force through economic reform?

The whole article is fascinating. On the substance it’s really quite good — anyone who teaches international finance or open-economy macroeconomics should bookmark it to share with students. Along with the political-economy question I’m interested in here, it touches on almost all the most important points you’d want to make about what determines exchange rates. [1]

The article’s starting point is that for most of the past decade, international use of the Chinese renminbi (Rmb) has been steadily increasing. Some people even saw a future rival to the dollar. For most of the period, the renminbi was appreciating against the dollar, and the Chinese government was loosening restrictions on cross-border financial transactions. But recently those trends have reversed:

The share of China’s foreign trade settled in its own currency has shrunk from 26 per cent to 16 per cent over the past year while renminbi deposits in Hong Kong — the currency’s largest offshore centre — are down 30 per cent from a 2014 peak of Rmb1tn. Foreign ownership of Chinese domestic financial assets peaked at Rmb4.6tn in May 2015; it now stands at just Rmb3.3tn. In terms of turnover on global foreign exchange markets, the renminbi is only the world’s eighth most-traded currency — squeezed between the Swiss franc and Swedish krona — barely changed from ninth position in 2013.

What appeared to be structural drivers supporting greater international use of the Chinese currency now appear more like opportunism and speculation.

Large financial outflows — including capital flight by Chinese wealthholders and currency speculators reversing their bets — have led the renminbi to lose 10 percent of its value against the dollar over the past year or so. The Chinese central bank (the People’s Bank of China, or PBoC) has had to use a substantial part of its dollar reserves to keep the renminbi from depreciating even further.

… the PBoC remains active in the foreign exchange market as buyer and seller. Over the past 18 months, this has mostly meant selling dollars from foreign exchange reserves to counteract the depreciation pressure weighing on the renminbi.

This strategy has been expensive, contributing to a decline in reserves from $4tn in June 2014 to $3.1tn at the end of November. Defenders of the PBoC believe such aggressive action to curb depreciation has been worth the price because it prevented panic selling by global investors. Critics counter that costly forex intervention has merely delayed an inevitable exchange-rate adjustment.

For years, the IMF, US Treasury and other outside experts have urged China to embrace a floating exchange rate. In theory, such a step should eliminate the need to tighten capital controls or to spend precious foreign reserves on propping up the exchange rate. Instead, the currency would weaken until inflows and outflows balance.

In the age of Trump, it’s worth stressing this point: The Chinese central bank has been intervening to make the renminbi stronger, not weaker — to keep Chinese goods relatively expensive, not cheap. This has been true for a while, actually, although you can still find prominent liberals complaining about China boosting its exports through “currency manipulation”.  Also, as the article notes, the Washington Consensus line has been that China should end foreign-exchange interventions and abolish capital controls, allowing the renminbi to depreciate even further.

For most countries, continuing to spend down reserves would be the only alternative to uncontrolled depreciation. But China, unlike most countries, has maintained effective controls over cross-border financial flows, so it has another option: limiting the ability of households and businesses to trade renminbi claims for dollar ones.

The State Administration of Foreign Exchange, the regulator, last week said it would continue to encourage outbound investment deals that support the country’s efforts to transform its economy… But the agency said it would apply tighter scrutiny to acquisitions of real estate, hotels, Hollywood studios and sport teams.

That will probably mean fewer food-additive tycoons buying second-tier UK football clubs. It also suggests a crackdown on fake trade invoices, Hong Kong insurance purchases and gambling losses in Macau — all channels used to spirit money out of China. …

“They are trying to squeeze out all the low quality or suspicious or fraudulent outbound investment. But they have also made it clear they support genuine high-quality investment,” says Mr Qu.

These moves come on top of other limits on financial outflows. This passage highlights a couple additional points. First, effective controls on financial flows require controls on cross-border transactions in general. Second, there’s no sharp line between macro policy aimed at the exchange rate or other monetary aggregates, and micro-interventions aimed at channeling credit in particular directions.

Now to the political economy point:

China’s recent moves to tighten approvals for foreign acquisitions by Chinese companies, as well as other transactions that require selling renminbi for foreign currency, cast further doubt on China’s commitment to currency internationalisation.

“There is a fundamental conflict between preserving stability and allowing the freedom and flexibility required of a global currency,” says Brad Setser, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US Treasury official. “Now that the cost is becoming clear, Chinese policymakers may be realising they are not willing to do what it takes to maintain a global currency. Capital controls certainly set back the cause of renminbi internationalisation but they may well be the appropriate step given the outflow pressures.”

As a topic for banking conferences and think-tank seminars, renminbi internationalisation could not be beaten. It offered a way to express dissatisfaction with the US dollar-dominated monetary system, as laid bare by the 2008 financial crisis, while signalling an eagerness to do business with China’s large, fast-growing economy.

For China’s reform-minded central bank, however, renminbi internationalisation … offered something else: a Trojan horse that could be used to persuade Communist party leaders in Beijing and financial elites to accept reforms that were, in reality, more important for China’s domestic financial system than for the renminbi’s international status. Since 2010, when the internationalisation drive began, many of those reforms have been adopted…

This is the dynamic we’ve seen over and over. Real or imagined pressure from the outside — from international creditors , institutions like the IMF, “the markets” in general — is needed to push through a liberal agenda that would not be accepted on its own merits. This is true in China, with its multiple competing power centers and effective if disorganized popular protests, just as it is for countries with more formally democratic political systems. What’s unusual about China’s case is that the “reform” side may no longer be winning.

What’s  unusual about this article is that it’s spelled out so clearly. “Trojan horse”: Their words, not mine.

The article continues:

The totem of currency internationalisation also served as justification for China’s moves over the past half-decade to open up its domestic financial markets to foreign investment, a process known as capital account liberalisation, that has been crucial to the global push of the renminbi. If foreign investors are to hold large quantities of China’s currency, they must have access to a deep and diverse pool of renminbi assets — and the peace of mind of knowing that they are free to sell those assets and convert proceeds back into their home currency as needed.

Again, thinking of classroom use, this is a nice illustration of liquidity preference.

Until last week, regulators had also steadily loosened approval requirements for foreign direct investment, in to and out of the country.  But those reforms occurred at a time when capital inflows and outflows were roughly balanced, which meant that liberalisation did not create strong pressure on the exchange rate. Now, the situation is very different. Beijing faces a stark choice. Either row back on freeing up capital flows — as it has already begun to do this year — or relinquish control of the exchange rate and accept a hefty devaluation.

We used to talk about a trilemma: A country cannot simultaneously peg its currency, set interest rates at the level required by the domestic economy, and allow free financial flows across its borders. At most you can manage two of the three. But it’s becoming clear that for most countries it’s  more of a dilemma: If you allow free capital mobility, you can’t control either the exchange rate or domestic credit conditions. International financial shifts are so large, and so unpredictable, that for most central banks they’ll overwhelm anything that can be done with conventional tools.

And when you accept free capital mobility, with its dubious rewards, it’s not just control over interest rates and exchange rates you’re giving up. In the absence of  controls over international financial flows, the whole range of economic policy — of public decisions in general — is potentially subject to the veto of finance. If you need foreign wealth-owners to voluntarily hold your assets, the only way to keep them happy — so goes the approved catechism — is to adopt the full range of market-friendly reforms. The FT again:

Economists argue that the fate of renminbi internationalisation ultimately depends on far-reaching economic reforms rather than short-term responses to rising capital outflows.

The list of course starts with privatization of state-owned companies and continues with deregulating finance.

“When you reimpose capital controls after having rolled them back, it can sometimes have a perverse effect,” says Mr Prasad… “What they need to do is something much harder — actually to get started on the broader reform agenda and show that they are serious about it. Right now the sense is that there is very little happening on other reforms.”

This is what it comes down to: If China is going to reach the grail of international-currency status, it is going to have to focus on the “reform” agenda dictated by financial markets — it’s going to have to earn their trust and prove it is “serious.” What exactly are the benefits of that status for China? It’s far from clear. (Of course it’s an attractive prospect for Chinese individuals who own lots of renminbi-denominated assets.) But it doesn’t matter as long as it serves as a seemingly objective basis for continued liberalization, which otherwise might face serious resistance.

“The question is which is to be the master — that’s all.”

 


 

[1] It doesn’t, of course, mention uncovered interest parity, the idea that interest rate differences between currencies exactly offset expected exchange rate changes. This doctrine dominates textbook discussion of exchange rate movements but plays no role in any real-life discussion of them.

Red Light, Green Light, Who Cares?

Interesting piece in the FT on Chinese inflation, and the persistent divergence between inflation as measured by the CPI and the GDP deflator. (The differences between price indices is something we could pay more attention to in general.) But I was struck by an odd juxtaposition. First, we get a quote from some analyst saying that the GDP deflator is overstating inflation:

In the last three months of 2010, the deflator made inflation out to be 7.3%, compared with 4.7% using the CPI. … if the 7.3% inflation the GDP deflator calculates is an overestimation, this has to mean that real GDP growth is higher than the 9.8% Beijing officially clocked for the last quarter—which is dangerously high, strengthening the fear of overheating China bears have been raising of late.

 Then we get another analyst saying no, the deflator is understating inflation:

Our guess is that the GDP deflator which probably averaged over 10% last year is now running at around 11%. The natural implication of that, of course, is that real Chinese GDP could be much lower than officially stated. And that inflation, as a result, is indeed a much greater concern for authorities than is currently being implied.

So if inflation is lower than the official number, that’s a reason to step on the brakes. And if inflation is higher than the official number, that’s a reason to step on the brakes too.

 It’s almost like support for austerity aren’t really motivated by concerns about inflation (or interest rates). But what else could it be?

Western Capital to China: Please Keep Wages Down

In today’s issue of the Financial Times, there’s a remarkably blunt warning that “Rising wages will burst China’s bubble.” True, China has enjoyed strong growth while most of the rest of the world has endured deep depressions. But don’t be fooled by such superficial measures. On the question that really counts, China is in trouble: “The Shanghai market is at less than half its all-time high, significantly underperforming the other three members of the Bric group.” Like Japan in the immediate postwar period, the piece argues, China has so far seen “workers flooding into the cities from the countryside, depressing wages and setting off a virtuous cycle of rising profitability and rising investment. In the mid-1950s, Japanese labour had taken 60 percent of total value added. in the miracle years, this ratio fell to 50 percent.” Miraculous indeed — but alas, it couldn’t last. By 1980, the labor share “had soared to a plateau of 68 percent. These gains had to be fought for. In the 1970s, Japan’s now dormant union movement was in its heyday. Profit margins were squeezed, and in real terms the stock market went nowhere for a decade.” Oh noes! And despite seemingly abundant reserves of cheap labor, the same disaster could befall China. “Can workers grab a larger share of the economic pie before the urbanization process is complete? In Japan they did. … If China were to follow Japan, the next stage would be labour strife and inflation. The best way to avoid that outcome would be a radical tightening of the current super-easy monetary policy. But that would risk a serious slowdown and probably necessitate a large revaluation of the renminbi.” So there it is. The important question about China’s future is the value of financial assets. And the great threat to asset-owners is the likelihood of rising wages, which will come about through increasing organizing among Chinese workers. The only way to prevent that is pre-emptive tightening, even at the cost of slower growth. The case for austerity is seldom made that bluntly, certainly not for the rich countries, but I don’t think the underlying motivation is much different. It’s also noteworthy that big revaluation of the renminbi is presented here explicitly as part of a program to hold down Chinese wages. In other words, China faces a choice between higher wages and a higher currency. To China-competing firms and workers in the rest of the world, either would be just as welcome. But for masters of the universe with Chinese stocks in their portfolio, they look very different indeed.
(Incidentally, these questions — the relationship between profitability, investment, demand, inflation and the politically-determined division of output between labor and capital — are largely ignored by mainstream macro, saltwater as well as fresh, but are right at the center of structuralist, Marxist, post-Keynesian and other heterodox approaches to macroeconomics. If only there were some economics department interested in supporting those approaches.)
EDIT: There was a link on a Something Awful thread sometime around March 20 that’s sending a lot of traffic to this post. Unfortunately, not being an SA member, I can’t see the thread. Anyone want to tell me what it was, in comments?

A Bit More on China

Mike Konczal points me to this interesting piece by Walker Frost in The American Scene, on the Chinese currency peg. I asked earlier how much Chinese appreciation would boost US demand (more on that below). But there’s a prior question, which is whether an end to Chinese currency intervention would lead to appreciation at all. As Frost points out, the dollar purchases by the central bank coexist with restrictions on private investment abroad and strong incentives for FDI by foreign firms. These policies increase net capital inflows and therefore tend to raise the value of the Chinese currency; the Chinese central bank then pushes it back down with its dollar purchases. It’s far from clear which of these effects is stronger, and therefore, whether an across-the-board liberalization would lead the Chinese currency to rise against the dollar, or to fall. In short, we should see Chinese currency interventions not as part of an export-led growth strategy that requires a current-account surplus, but as part of an investment-led growth strategy that would otherwise tend to produce a current-account deficit. [1]

This is a point Anwar Shaikh has also made, when I’ve discussed this stuff with him. Don’t talk about undervaluation, he says, that implies some known free-market equilibrium exchange rate, and there isn’t one; talk about stabilization instead.

Another interesting discussion of the Chinese currency peg is in this Deutsche Bank report, which tends to confirm my skepticism about the effect of currency adjustment on US-China trade flows. They note that “RMB appreciation tends to … reduce nominal wages in the export sector,” confirming my sense that exchange rate changes don’t reliably move relative costs. And they use an estimate of -0.6 for exchange rate elasticity of Chinese exports. I don’t want to put too much weight on this number — I’m not sure how it’s derived — and they don’t give any estiamtes for US-China flows specifically; but given the well-established empirical fact that exchange-rate elasticity is unsually low for US imports, we have to conclude that the number for Chinese exports to the US is substantially lower. So if you believe the Deutsche Bank number for Chinese exports as a whole, my estimate of -0.17 for Chinese exports to the US is probably in the right ballpark. Which, again, means that even a very large Chinese appreciation would have only a trivial impact on US aggregate demand.

[1] The same goes for tariffs and other trade restrictions imposed by Latin American countries as part of import-substitution industrialization.

… and How About a Higher Yuan?

Another day, another Paul Krugman post blaming China for US unemployment. And maybe he’s right. But it would be nice to see some numbers.

On the same lines as my earlier post about the effect of dollar devaluation on aggregate demand, we can make a rough estimate of trade elasticities to calculate the effect of a Chinese revaluation.

Unfortunately, there aren’t many recent estimates of bilateral trade elasticities between the US and China. But common sense can get us quite a ways here. In recent years, US imports from China have run around 2 percent of GDP, and US exports to China a bit under 0.5 percent. So even if we assume that (1) a change in the nominal exchange rate is reflected one for one in the real exchange rate, i.e. that it doesn’t affect Chinese prices or wages at all; (2) a change in the real exchange rate is passed one for one into prices of Chinese imports in the US; (3) Chinese goods compete only with American-made goods, and not with those of other exporters; and (4) the price elasticity of US imports from China is a very high 4.0; then a 20 percent appreciation of the Chinese currency still boosts US demand by less than 1 percent of GDP.

And of course, those are all wildly optimistic assumptions. My own simple error-correction model, using 1993-2010 data on US imports from China and the relative CPI-deflated bilateral exchange rate, gives an import elasticity of just 0.17. [1] If the real figure is in that range, then a Chinese appreciation of 20 percent will reduce our imports from China by just 0.03 percent of GDP — and of course much of even that tiny demand shift will be to goods from other low-wage exporters.

I don’t claim my estimate is correct. But is it too much to ask that Krugman tell us what estimates he is using, that have convinced him that the best way to help US workers is to foment a trade war with China?

[1] This is a real exchange-rate elasticity, not a price elasticity, so it accounts for incomplete passthrough and offsetting movements in Chinese real wages. It assumes, however, that changes in the nominal exchange rate don’t affect inflation in either country; to that extent, it’s more likely an overestimate than an underestimate