By breaking through an exchange rate of 6.50 yuan to the dollar on Friday, China’s currency passed through one of those symbolic milestones beloved of market commentators. Thumbing through our records we see that level was last reached in 1993. A lot of Chinese exports have flowed under the bridge since then.
While a spurt of yuan appreciation usually precedes Sino-American talks (there is a round due in Washington mid-May), the People’s Bank of China seems now to be belatedly letting the yuan shoulder more of the burden of fighting inflation, by making energy and food imports cheaper. The currency has gained almost a full percentage point against the dollar this month, as much as it was allowed in the whole first quarter. Since Beijing freed the yuan from its dollar peg in 2005, with a near two-year repegging after the global financial crisis hit in 2008, the yuan has gained 27.5% against the dollar under the central bank’s managed appreciation regime. Since it was unpegged for a second time in June 2010 the yuan has appreciated 4.6% against the dollar, though it has depreciated in nominal effective terms.
As the chart below, from the World Bank, shows, the yuan’ effect exchange rate has been trending up if not by as much as the nominal figures for its appreciation against the dollar might have one imagine. REER stands for real (i.e. inflation-adjusted) effective exchange rate (the value against a trade-weighted basket of currencies), NEER for nominal effective exchange rate. Note the widening gap between the two since mid-2010 during which time exports have been resurgent.
The question for investors now is whether April’s appreciation against the dollar signals a willingness on the central bank’s part to step up the pace of appreciation of the currency in the face of stubbornly high inflation, or, as we suspect, just that it plans to continue to let the yuan rise as it has been doing.