September 11, 2017 / 9:10 AM / 10 months ago

Breakingviews - Beijing prepares to stand yuan policy on head

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - China is considering whether to stand its currency policy on its head. After years spent crushing yuan short positions, officials worry they’ve overheated the currency. But capping this rally will be tricky, diplomatically and economically. Better, perhaps, to let the bulls run a while longer.

An accountant counts Renminbi banknotes after withdrawing cash for his real estate company from a branch of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in Shenyang, Liaoning province November 27, 2008. China will stick to its present currency policy, the country's top economic planner said on Thursday. REUTERS/Stringer

As the yuan fell against the dollar starting in 2014, the People’s Bank of China moved to stop capital flight, using a mixture of intervention and administrative edicts. It was largely successful. The yuan is up 7.5 percent this year, reserves are stable, and private investment is back.

A bit too successful, perhaps. With a strong economy and a weak dollar, yuan bulls suddenly look scarier than the bears. Last Friday the yuan touched 6.43 per dollar – its strongest rate since 2015 -  after gaining over 2.3 percent in just two weeks.

Graphic: China has historically had to worry more about speculative inflows than outflows as the yuan has appreciated:

Apparently in reaction, the central bank eased restrictions on offshore forwards – making it easier to short yuan – and signalled discomfort with the pace through conservative settings to its guidance rate. Sources told Reuters some officials worry the strong yuan is hurting China’s export sector, a big employer, after August exports disappointed.

So-called “hot money” inflows have historically been a bigger headache than capital flight, scrambling trade data and helping inflate asset bubbles. Today, thanks to recent programmes opening China’s stock and bond markets to foreign investors, it’s never been easier for quick cash to flow in.

But overreaction is always a risk. Suppressing the exchange rate to support exports wouldn’t play well in Washington, given friction over imbalanced trade. It would also waste an opportunity to resume reform. The tough campaign against outflows, which entailed sneaky attacks against shorters in overseas markets and suppression of outbound M&A, applied a lot of tarnish to Beijing’s reform credentials. Putting that process in reverse would not inspire; better to lower more barriers to outflows.

Nor is hot money so threatening. Chinese exporters are practised at hedging forex risk. The last three years proved the PBOC has gotten much better at managing liquidity in different exchange rate environments. It could be even be helpful: the government could sterilise inflows via the forex reserves, then reinvest them in “Belt and Road” infrastructure overseas.

Either way, one day the Federal Reserve will hike, and the dollar will rise again. Sometimes it’s best to do nothing.


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