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Although the current poor state of Sino-American relations may make even a very limited currency détente unattainable, such a pact is not outside the realm of possibility. Ultimately, both America and China might see some advantage in taking currency conflict off the table, in the hope of preventing wider damage to themselves and others.SANTA BARBARA – China’s currency, the renminbi, weakened slightly against the dollar at the start of this week. Around the world, the immediate response was panic. Financial markets tumbled, US President Donald Trump’s administration formally labeled China a currency manipulator, and fears of a new currency war spread like wildfire. To describe all this as an overreaction would be a gross understatement. A currency war has not erupted – at least, not yet.But the danger is real. Although markets now appear to be recovering somewhat, America and China remain locked in a perilous trade war with no end in sight. The United States is still poised to impose a 10% tariff on some $300 billion worth of Chinese imports. It does not seem unreasonable to suppose that China might then retaliate by engineering a substantial devaluation of its currency. After all, a cheaper renminbi would go a long way toward offsetting the impact of Trump’s tariffs on the prices of Chinese goods in the US.
But, because devaluation would also carry significant risks for China, the country’s leaders will be hesitant to take this step. Many of China’s biggest enterprises have borrowed heavily in dollars, and a weaker renminbi would greatly increase the cost of servicing this external debt. Worse, the prospect of devaluation could spark massive capital flight from China as anxious companies and individuals seek to protect the value of their assets. That is what happened four years ago when the renminbi was allowed to weaken significantly, and the Chinese authorities subsequently had to spend $1 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves to prevent the currency from crashing.
It seems unlikely, therefore, that China is about to declare all-out currency war. What happened earlier this week was much subtler – in effect, a shot across America’s bow. The renminbi was already close to the symbolic level of CN¥7 per US dollar. By setting their daily benchmark rate for the currency at a smidgen below CN¥7, the Chinese authorities created room for currency traders to push the market rate temporarily above CN¥7 – an effective devaluation. Although the actual size of the devaluation was minuscule, the psychological impact was enormous. China was reminding America that it still has many economic arrows in its quiver.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration responded in typical blunderbuss fashion, mistaking the modest Chinese signal for something more sinister. By immediately declaring China a currency manipulator, the US succeeded only in hardening positions on both sides.
To avoid losing face, Chinese leaders may now feel compelled to respond in kind. They could make good on the threat of devaluation, or pull out some of its other arrows. For example, China could
- embargo exports of the rare earth minerals that are so vital to America’s tech industry, or prolong its
- boycott of US agricultural products. Or it could go beyond the realm of commerce and
- stir up trouble in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. In short, relations between the world’s two largest economies could go from bad to much worse.
Can further escalation be avoided? One way to avoid that outcome might be to look to a neutral arbiter to adjudicate the currency issue. The most obvious candidate is the International Monetary Fund, one of whose main functions is to oversee the “rules of the game” in international monetary affairs. All Fund members have pledged to avoid exchange-rate manipulation, and all are formally subject to “firm” Fund surveillance of their currency policies. In principle, if America and China truly want to avoid a monetary conflict, they could ask the IMF to step in to settle matters.
In practice, however, the Fund’s authority is sadly limited. The IMF has no powers to enforce rulings. At best, all it can do is “name and shame” currency manipulators. And in the end, it is hard to imagine either America or China kowtowing to a toothless multilateral organization. Can anyone really picture Trump submitting to the judgment of a bunch of unaccountable international civil servants?
A slightly more realistic option might be a direct bargain between the US and Chinese governments – perhaps also including the European Central Bank and one or two other monetary powers – to achieve some form of currency détente.
There is precedent for such a deal. Back in 1936, following more than a half-decade of uncontrolled competitive devaluations during the Great vDepression, the main financial powers of the day – the US, Britain, and France – agreed to an informal arrangement for mutual exchange-rate stabilization. Jokingly called the “twenty-four-hour gold standard,” the Tripartite Agreement committed each country to give 24 hours’ notice of any change in its currency’s price. Though far from perfect, the pact did manage to restore some semblance of order to monetary affairs.
A similar agreement today would be more difficult to negotiate. In the 1930s, America, Britain, and France were on reasonably good terms. Present-day America and China, by contrast, are strategic adversaries engaged in a trade war, and even a very limited exchange-rate initiative might prove unattainable. Yet it is not outside the realm of possibility. Ultimately, both sides might see some advantage in taking currency conflict off the table, in the hope of preventing wider damage to themselves and others.
.. XIAOWUSILI, China — For all its economic might, China hasn’t been able to solve a crucial problem.
Soybeans. It just can’t grow enough of them.
That could blunt the impact of one of the biggest weapons the country wields in a trade fight with the United States.
.. Last year, soy growers in the United States sold nearly one-third of their harvest to China. In dollar terms, only airplanes are a more significant American export to China
.. Over all, she is not producing much more today than she was a decade ago. Her fields are small and not irrigated. The new, supposedly higher-yielding seeds promoted by the government are not much better than the older varieties, she says.
.. Farm goods could be a big weakness for China should the trade conflict with the United States turn into an all-out brawl.
.. China’s increasingly wealthy people want more and better food on their plates. But the country’s farms are generally too small and underdeveloped to keep up.
..Nearly 90 percent of the soybeans China consumed last year came from overseas — more than 100 million tons in total. (Mexico, the world’s No. 2 importer, bought just five million tons.)
.. To increase the availability of other types of animal feed, China’s customs authority removed inspection requirements on a variety of agricultural byproducts, including peanut meal, cottonseed meal and rapeseed meal
.. the provincial government offered generous subsidies to farmers both for growing soybeans and for switching their fields to soy from corn.
.. his farm cooperative requires that members rotate their crops to keep the soil healthy.
.. China would need to dedicate a huge fraction of the entire nation’s farmland — between a quarter and a third, by various estimates — to soy if it wanted to be self-sufficient... Many people from Heilongjiang are already growing soybeans across the Amur River in the Russian Far East, where land is cheap and plentiful.
.. farmers in Heilongjiang acknowledge they are a long way from being as productive as farmers in the United States, where agriculture is more mechanized and genetic modification is embraced.
.. Modern farming is expensive, however. And in Mr. Hou’s case, it involves a secret weapon: American technology.
.. a yard full of bright-green John Deere farm machines, which Mr. Hou buys with the help of government subsidies. Chinese machinery is cheaper but more prone to breakdowns, he says.
Even some of the fertilizer Mr. Hou uses comes from the United States.
.. “We rely first on the heavens,” the saying went. “We rely second on American diammonium phosphate.”
U.S. officials are skeptical of the Chinese offer for several reasons, said people involved with the talks. They argue that Chinese energy purchases would largely divert U.S. sales to other nations and have no overall impact on the U.S. trade deficit. They also aren’t sure that the U.S. could ramp up agriculture production that quickly.
.. China’s offer would benefit the Farm Belt states that helped Mr. Trump win the election in 2016. By promising to buy more American soybeans, corn and other agricultural products, China pledged to ease certain regulations to boost its imports of those goods, the people said.
Whenever investors suspect that Donald Trump will really go through with his threats of big tariff increases, provoking retaliation abroad, stocks plunge. Every time they decide it’s just theater, stocks recover.
.. while trade is one of Trump’s two signature issues — animus toward dark-skinned people being the other — when it comes to making actual demands on other countries, the tweeter in chief and his aides either don’t know what they want or they want things that our trading partners can’t deliver. Not won’t — can’t.
.. In some ways, China really is a bad actor in the global economy. In particular, it has pretty much thumbed its nose at international rules on intellectual property rights, grabbing foreign technology without proper payment
But if getting China to pay what it owes for technology were the goal, you’d expect the U.S. both to make specific demands on that front and to adopt a strategy aimed at inducing China to meet those demands.
.. In fact, the U.S. has given little indication of what China should do about intellectual property. Meanwhile, if getting better protection of patent rights and so on were the goal, America should be trying to build a coalition with other advanced countries to pressure the Chinese; instead, we’ve been alienating everyone in sight.
.. Anyway, what seems to really bother Trump aren’t China’s genuine policy sins, but its trade surplus with the United States
.. Over all, the U.S. trade deficit is just the flip side of the fact that America attracts more inward investment from foreigners than the amount Americans invest abroad.
.. A decade ago, China’s current account surplus — a broad measure that includes trade in services and income from investments abroad — was more than 9 percent of G.D.P., a very big number. In 2017, however, its surplus was only 1.4 percent of G.D.P., which isn’t much.
.. But in that case, why is “bilateral” trade between the U.S. and China so unbalanced? The answer is that it’s largely a kind of statistical illusion. China is the Great Assembler: it’s where components from other countries, like Japan and South Korea, are put together into consumer products for the U.S. market. So a lot of what we import from China is really produced elsewhere.
.. It’s not clear why we should demand that China stop playing that role.
.. it’s not clear that China could even do much to reduce its bilateral surplus with the U.S.: To do so, it would basically have to have a completely different economy. And this just isn’t going to happen unless we have a full-blown trade war that shuts down much of the global economy as we know it.
.. Oh, and a trade war would also devastate much of pro-Trump rural America, since a large share of our agricultural production — including almost two-thirds of food grains — is exported.