the rise of the redback
China will have to open its financial market if it wants the yuan to rival the dollar
Jan 20th 2011 | from PRINT EDITION
IN 1965 Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, then France’s finance minister, complained that America, as the issuer of the world’s reserve currency, enjoyed “an exorbitant privilege”. China’s president, Hu Jintao, does not have quite the same way with words. But on the eve of his visit to America this week he told two of the country’s newspapers that the international currency system was a “product of the past”. Something can be a product of the past without being a thing of the past. But his implication was clear: the dollar’s role reflects America’s historical clout, not its present stature.
Mr Hu is right that America’s currency punches above its economy’s diminished weight in the world. America’s share of global output (20%), trade (only 11%) and even financial assets (about 30%) is shrinking, as emerging economies flourish. But many of those economies, such as South Korea, still sell their exports for dollars; many, including China, still peg their currencies to the greenback, however loosely; and about 60% of the world’s foreign-exchange reserves remain in dollars.
This allows America to borrow cheaply from the rest of the world. Its government has been able to overspend, secure in the knowledge that its IOUs will be bought by foreign central banks, which are not too fussy about price. America would show more self-discipline, many Chinese believe, if the dollar had a little bit more competition.
Could the yuan become a rival? China’s economy will probably surpass America’s in outright size within 20 years. It is already a bigger exporter. It is prodding firms to settle trade and even acquire foreign companies in its own currency. That is adding to a pool of “redbacks” outside its borders. These offshore yuan are, in turn, being tapped by borrowers, issuing “dim sum” bonds in Hong Kong (see article).
But as the dollar’s history shows, economic clout is not enough without financial sophistication (see article). If foreigners are to store their wealth in yuan, they will need financial instruments that are safe, stable and easily sold. Dim sum makes for a tasty appetiser. But the main feast of China’s financial assets is onshore and off-limits, thanks to its strict capital controls. The government remains deeply reluctant to let foreigners hold, buy and sell these assets, except under tight limits. Indeed, it is barely ready to give its own people financial freedom: interest on bank deposits is capped; shares are largely owned by state entities; and bonds are chiefly held by the banks—which are, in turn, mostly owned by the state.
Over time China will relax its financial grip. But even if it could usurp the dollar’s role as the world’s currency, it will not replicate the American set-up. The United States takes advantage of the dollar’s position to borrow cheaply from the rest of the world, selling its assets in return for goods. China is a mirror image of this. It runs a trade surplus, selling goods in return for financial claims on foreigners. Its firms, households and government save more than they can invest at home.
A different kind of perk
Rather than seeking to borrow in its own currency, China may harbour the opposite ambition: to lend in its own currency. The exorbitant privilege it may covet is a lower foreign-exchange risk on its savings. On top of the trillions China has lent to America’s treasury, it also holds stakes in Australian mines, African farms and Swedish car companies. But because none of these assets is in yuan, China suffers a capital loss whenever its currency strengthens. It would no doubt like to share some of this risk with the rest of the world. The model is not America, but Germany, an international creditor which holds 70% of its foreign assets in euros.
There is a catch, though. No one will want to borrow in a currency that is only ever going to strengthen, increasing the value of their debts. So if China wants to “yuanify” some of its claims on the rest of the world, it will need a currency that can go down as well as up. To make people believe the yuan can fall tomorrow, China will have to loosen its currency’s peg and let it rise faster today. China is different from America: it is a rising economic power and a thrifty one. But one rule still holds: China will have to open its financial system to the world if the yuan is to be the dominant currency.