THE CLOCK IS ticking down on the inauguration of US President-elect Donald Trump and thus on Beijing’s decision about if and how to devalue the renminbi. China is caught between an exodus of capital and whatever hawkish policies against it that a Trump administration could bring.
The renminbi fell 7% against the US dollar in 2016, in its biggest fall since 1994. Most of the fall occurred in the fourth quarter as the US Federal Reserve started to raise interest rates.
The case for a one-off step devaluation is that it would, assuming it was large enough, staunch the outflows, and end the need to run down the foreign-exchange reserves to defend the currency. The case against is that Chinese companies with dollar-denominated debt could be put in peril, importers would face a squeeze on margins and Trump’s strident accusations of China being a currency manipulator to support its exporters by undervaluing the renminbi would gain more credence.
Also, a Chinese devaluation could set off a round of competitive devaluations by emerging economies that would rock the world economy. There is ‘previous’ in this regard. Beijing’s unexpected devaluation in August 2015 caused global shockwaves.
At the same time, China’s foreign exchange reserves, being used, regardless of Trump’s claims, to prop up the currency through market intervention, are being eroded. While comfortably large at more than $3 trillion, even they cannot be run down indefinitely. The People’s Bank of China has already used $1 trillion of the reserves to defend the currency, taking them in December to their lowest level in six years.
And what probably matters more is investor sentiment. To that end the central bank earlier this month orchestrated liquidity squeeze in the offshore market in Hong Kong, to make it more expensive to bet against the renminbi, a signal intended equally to be read in the onshore market.
As the devaluation debate rages among policymakers, Beijing has been putting administrative measures in place to reduce the outflows. A stop has been put to the dodge of using investment-linked insurance policies in Hong Kong both to move savings overseas and switch into dollars. The level at which banks are now required to report all yuan-denominated cash transactions has been lowered to 50,000 yuan from 200,000 yuan.
The individual annual quota of $50,000 in foreign currency is unchanged, but citizens are being asked for more detailed information about why they need the cash; tourism, business travel and medical care and education overseas is looked on favourable, but not purchases of overseas property and financial assets.
Similarly, a closer eye is being kept on Chinese firms foreign direct investment, especially M&A involving real estate, hotels and cinemas. Bitcoin exchanges, which account for 95% of global trading in the crypto-currency, are being leant on to stop a backdoor way to cash out of the yuan. There is even speculation about a crackdown on the excessive transfer fees Chinese football clubs are paying to bring in foreign stars.
In this environment, state-owned enterprises are likely to be leant on to repatriate foreign currency earnings held offshore while foreign firms will find it harder to repatriate their profits.
All of this flies in the face of policies to internationalise the currency that have been persued for some time, and whose continuance was implicit in the IMF’s adding of the renminbi to its basket for Special Drawing Rights last October.
The other conventional prop for a currency is higher domestic interest rates. However, with more than 1 trillion yuan of corporate bonds due to mature every month from now until the third quarter of this year, higher rates would impose a massive refinancing burden on companies.
Also, it is far from clear how much strain higher rates would put on the shadow banking system and what the spillover would be to the rest of the financial system, but the sense is that it is a significant risk.
That leaves devaluation — gradually or in a one-step change — as the most likely option.
In a sense, that is inevitable. Dollar strength globally is probably a bigger factor than renminbi weakness. Last month, however, that did not prevent Trump tweeting, “Did China ask us if it was OK to devalue their currency?” Nor is it likely to do so again.
Financial policymaking is difficult at the best of times, never more so than at a time of unpredictability — and with a clock ticking.