Monday, March 15, 2010

Hardball with China?

A useful article by Keith Bradsher in the Times points out a weakness in international economic governance - while the WTO provides a system of rules and an enforcement mechanism for trade, the IMF does not have the power to do the same for exchange rate policies. China has made use of this asymmetry, he writes:
Seeking to maintain its export dominance, China is engaged in a two-pronged effort: fighting protectionism among its trade partners and holding down the value of its currency.

China vigorously defends its economic policies. On Sunday, Premier Wen Jiabao criticized international pressure on China to let the currency appreciate, calling it “finger pointing.” He said that the renminbi, China’s currency, would be kept “basically stable.”

To maximize its advantage, Beijing is exploiting a fundamental difference between two major international bodies: the World Trade Organization, which wields strict, enforceable penalties for countries that impede trade, and the International Monetary Fund, which acts as a kind of watchdog for global economic policy but has no power over countries like China that do not borrow money from it.

Paul Krugman argues that it is time for the US to confront China over its exchange rate policies:

Some still argue that we must reason gently with China, not confront it. But we’ve been reasoning with China for years, as its surplus ballooned, and gotten nowhere: on Sunday Wen Jiabao, the Chinese prime minister, declared — absurdly — that his nation’s currency is not undervalued. (The Peterson Institute for International Economics estimates that the renminbi is undervalued by between 20 and 40 percent.) And Mr. Wen accused other nations of doing what China actually does, seeking to weaken their currencies “just for the purposes of increasing their own exports.”

But if sweet reason won’t work, what’s the alternative? In 1971 the United States dealt with a similar but much less severe problem of foreign undervaluation by imposing a temporary 10 percent surcharge on imports, which was removed a few months later after Germany, Japan and other nations raised the dollar value of their currencies. At this point, it’s hard to see China changing its policies unless faced with the threat of similar action — except that this time the surcharge would have to be much larger, say 25 percent.

I don’t propose this turn to policy hardball lightly. But Chinese currency policy is adding materially to the world’s economic problems at a time when those problems are already very severe. It’s time to take a stand.

The Economist offers a more cautious view:

Will the administration’s new tough talk move things in the right direction? Those who argue in favour of sabre-rattling do so on two grounds: first, that it is likely to shift China’s position, and second, that a stronger stance against China’s currency from the White House will diffuse protectionist sentiment in Congress. Both are dubious. China’s reactions so far suggest that American complaints make an imminent currency shift less, not more, likely. And a row could spur rather than diffuse anti-China action in Congress.

Rather than raising a bilateral ruckus, America would be far better off convincing other big economies in the G20 to press together for a yuan appreciation as part of the world’s exit strategy from the crisis. Cool and calm multilateral leadership will achieve more, with fewer risks, than a Sino-American currency spat.

Dani Rodrik, on the other hand, has suggested China's policy is a defensible development strategy.

Speaking of hardball and China, the Economist reports they're not taking to it.

Update: More on Krugman's blog. Free Exchange is harshly critical of his column, and he responds, and is answered. Scott Sumner also disagrees with Krugman. See also Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, who sees China spoiling for a fight it won't win.

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