To deal with the global crisis, how should the US and Chinese governments proceed?
First, the US should stop China-bashing in several dimensions. In particular, the PBC should be encouraged to stabilize the yuan/dollar exchange rate at today’s level, both to lessen the inflationary overheating of China’s economy and to protect the renminbi value of its huge dollar exchange reserves.
Since July 2008, the dollar has strengthened against all currencies save the renminbi and the yen, and the PBC has stopped appreciating the RMB against the dollar. So now is a good time to convince the Americans of the mutual advantages of returning to a credibly fixed yuan/dollar rate.
There is a precedent for this. In April 1995, Robert Rubin, then US Treasury secretary, ended 25 years of bashing Japan to appreciate the yen and announced a new strong dollar policy that stopped the ongoing appreciation in the yen and saved the Japanese economy from further ruin.
But this policy was incomplete because the yen continued to fluctuate, thus leaving too much foreign exchange risk within Japanese banks, insurance companies, and so forth, with large holding of dollars. This risk locks the economy into a near zero interest liquidity trap.
Second, after the PBC regains monetary control as China’s exchange rate and price level stabilize, the Chinese government should then agree to take strong measures to get rid of the economy’s net saving surplus that is reflected in its large current account and trade surpluses.
This would require some combination of tax cuts, increases in government expenditures, increased dividends from enterprises so as to increase household disposable income, and reduced reserve requirements on commercial banks.
Then, as China’s trade surplus in manufactures diminishes, pressure on the American manufacturing sector would be relaxed with a corresponding reduction in America’s trade deficit. Worldwide, the increase in spending in China would offset the forced reduction in U.S. spending from the housing crash.
The new stimulus announced by China is potentially a huge step towards increasing China's domestic demand - i.e., getting rid of the net saving surplus. Meanwhile, the large slowdown in consumer spending in the US reduces the net saving deficit (though government spending should, at least temporarily, make up much of the gap). So there are indications of a non-exchange rate driven rebalancing (i.e., closing of China's current account surplus and America's deficit).
While McKinnon is correct that it is a good thing to take some of the pressure off exchange rates to do all adjusting, fixing the exchange rate would completely close off this channel and leave the Yuan undervalued. Furthermore, intervening to keep the exchange value of the Yuan low is what has been interfering with the PBC's domestic monetary control.
Because China has piled up so many Dollar-denominated assets, it is understandable that they would like to protect their value in Yuan terms (i.e., prevent a big Yuan appreciation...), and a nod in this direction may be part of an international negotiation, but fixing the Yuan-Dollar rate only seems to defer a necessary adjustment.
Update (11/10): Arvind Subramanian offers nearly opposite policy advice; he would have the WTO go after countries that keep their currencies undervalued (he proposes some carrots to get China to go along).