October 3, 2010
By DAVID E. SANGER and MICHAEL WINES
WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration escalates its battle with Chinese leaders over the artificially low value of China’s currency, a growing number of countries are retreating from some free-market rules that have guided international trade in recent decades and have started playing by Chinese rules.
Japan and Brazil have taken measures recently to devalue their currencies, or at least prevent them from appreciating further against the Chinese currency, the renminbi. The House of Representatives last week overwhelmingly passed the first legislation to allow the United States to slap huge tariffs on Chinese goods unless China allows the renminbi to appreciate, another mechanism for making Chinese goods more expensive here and American exports more competitive in China.
In Europe, policy makers have begun to fret that, despite the debt crisis that sent investors fleeing just a few months ago, the euro has now risen sharply again against the dollar, potentially weakening exports by making European goods more expensive. Those exports have been one of Europe’s few sources of growth, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who will take over leadership of the Group of 20 biggest economies, said over the weekend that he was pushing for a new system of coordinating global currencies as wealthy nations did in the 1970s, before a free market orthodoxy took hold.
It is unclear if the result will be a “currency war,” as Brazil’s finance minister recently warned, or if these are just warning shots, fired to force Beijing’s leadership to make good on years of promises that it would allow the value of its currency to appreciate.
But that question is so in the air that Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner felt compelled last week to try to dampen the fear. “We’re not going to have a trade war,” he said at a forum sponsored by The Atlantic. “We’re not going to have currency wars.” He acknowledged that the only way to break the cycle was for a country “to decide it is in its own interest to allow its currency to appreciate in response to market forces,” and he said he believed that a “substantial fraction of the Chinese leadership” now understands the need to allow the currency to rise in value.
But it is unclear how far the Chinese are willing to go, since a more expensive currency means more expensive exports and a possible loss of jobs. “It’s a tradeoff for the Chinese leadership,” said one senior United States official who has talked at length to China’s top officials. “They are under pressure from governors and mayors who fear unemployment in China’s manufacturing territory, exactly what we are struggling with.”
But the fact remains that the rest of the world is beginning to mimic the technique China has perfected: manipulating currencies for national advantage, while resisting political pressure from trading partners.
Some economists argue that the standoff over China’s currency could herald a new era of protectionism reminiscent of the 1920s and ’30s, which they say they fear could undermine trade and make a weak recovery even weaker. But others argue that it was the free-market consensus of the 1980s and ’90s that weakened American competitiveness and was exploited by rising powers like China, calling for a more assertive policy to protect jobs, increase exports and keep industry at home.
“Everyone’s playing beggar-thy-neighbor games, willingly or unwillingly,” Michael Pettis, a Peking University professor and economist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an interview. “This is very similar to what happened in the ’30s, when the collapse in Europe’s ability to finance itself also meant a collapse in its trade deficit, and the world rushed around trying to find a new equilibrium in which every country tried to grab a larger share of the dwindling global demand.”
Of course, many countries have manipulated their currencies before — the United States reached a political accord with Japan in the Reagan administration to do exactly that, in an effort to reduce a yawning trade deficit. And for decades, despite global rules prohibiting the practice, countries have sought to help their industries by providing subsidies to companies, as Europe did for years with Airbus, its competitor to Boeing.
But many around the world fear getting trampled as the United States and the Chinese battle each other. Japan intervened in the currency markets recently for the first time in six years, after accusing China of driving the yen up to a 15-year high, in part by buying Japanese debt. But it was a short-term move, many Japanese experts fear. “Japan is in a sense losing out in this competitive devaluation war” through inaction, said Kazuo Ueda, a professor of finance at the University of Tokyo, and a former member of the policy board of Japan’s central bank.
Brazil took similar action and vowed last week to take whatever action it needs to prevent its currency from appreciating. Its finance minister, Guido Mantega, said in an interview that the actions by developed countries, including the United States, to keep interest rates at record lows, one way of devaluing a currency, was a “strategy from the past” that was threatening the economy of Brazil and other “dynamic” emerging markets.
“This is a kind of desperate action taken by countries to try to activate their economies,” Mr. Mantega said. “Since they have not been able to activate their own internal markets, the way out becomes exports. So developed countries work on devaluing their currency in order to become competitive in the few dynamic markets in the world.” Most Western governments, and many economists, place the blame for currency frictions on China, which has refused to let the renminbi trade at anywhere near its real value. Moreover, China has subsidized its exports with artificially low interest rates that shift money from consumers’ bank deposits into cheap loans to businesses.
These tactics are nothing new, especially among the emerging economies of Asia. But experts say the sheer size of the Chinese economy means that its currency policies have global effects.
Not surprisingly, the Chinese see the problem differently. The Chinese press is filled with articles arguing that Americans do not appreciate China’s efforts on their behalf. While other nations’ currencies devalued against the dollar in the 2008 financial crisis, some economists note, the renminbi did not. And while Chinese exports may be artificially cheap, the effect has been to give American shoppers bargains at the expense of Chinese consumers.
“Nobody thinks about that,” Shen Minggao, the chief China economist for Citibank, said in a telephone interview from Hong Kong. “Should China think about the welfare of Chinese consumers, not U.S. consumers?”
China could solve much of the problem by shifting to an economy driven by domestic consumption instead of profits from exports. And in principle, Chinese experts agree.
But China’s progress toward that goal has been glacial. Since June, when the government said it would move the renminbi closer to its real value, the currency has gained about 1 percent. Most experts say the real value is 15 percent to 20 percent higher.
A variety of economic and political factors limit China’s flexibility, said Li Daokui, who directs Tsinghua University’s Center for China in the World Economy. Dr. Li sits on the government’s Monetary Policy Committee, which advises China’s central bank, and stressed he was not speaking for the government. If China lets its renminbi gain value too quickly, he said, that could make exports too expensive and collapse an entire sector of the economy. That would spike unemployment and risk social unrest, which Chinese leaders are committed to avoiding.
Dr. Li said that a “mild appreciation” of the renminbi was needed, but that ordinary Chinese need to be prepared for even that small step. Otherwise, he said, “it’s counterproductive, because many people believe there’s a conspiracy to keep the Chinese economy from growing.”
David E. Sanger reported from Washington, and Michael Wines from Beijing. Alexei Barrionuevo contributed reporting from São Paulo, Brazil, Steven Erlanger from Paris, and Martin Fackler from Tokyo.