China: One Currency; Two Yuans

London has made more than one fortune on the China trade, though they have not all ended happily. Whether the yuan will end up as the new opium is the question raised by George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer as the U.K. calls its finance minister, who has been in Hong Kong to promote a scheme to make London the leading international center for trading in China’s currency. London and Hong Kong have been talking about how to do this since last summer. Osborne’s trip will continue the talks.

Chatham House, a think tank in London, has forecast that trade transactions settle in the currency would reach the equivalent of $1 trillion by 2020. Yet, while Beijing has been taking baby steps towards making the yuan a fully convertible currency, there is still a long, long way to go. It remains an aspiration as much as anything but also a hostage to the pace of financial reform, which, as we have noted before, is in stasis during the leadership transition. China may need to rebalance its economy away from export- and investment-led growth and towards domestic consumption, for which financial system reform is a necessary if not sufficient condition, but vested political interests stand in the way. For all the wishful thinking in some parts, the Chinese currency is far from displacing the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, or even having the standing of the yen or the euro in such circles.

If anything, the surprise is that the offshore market for yuan is as large as it is (yuan deposits in Hong Kong total the equivalent of $80 billion). Normally the deepening and development of domestic financial markets and the easing of capital controls is prelude not postscript. In China, the first two are so difficult that the third is the easier option, even if by having a government controlled onshore yuan market in China and market driven offshore yuan market in Hong Kong and London, China may well end up, not untypically, with one currency but two yuans.

London, of course, will be happy to take its skim off both.

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