China’s recent move to devalue the yuan has sent shock waves through the global financial markets and has convinced most observers that a new front in the global currency wars has begun. The move has caused many observes to envision a new round of competitive devaluations around the globe in which the race to the bottom will intensify. In this scenario they envision that the U.S. dollar will solidify its standing as the only strong currency. This misses the point entirely.
In the past, most of the action in the "currency wars" had been focused on the efforts that many nations undertook to prevent their currencies from rising against the U.S. dollar, which itself was being weakened by a perpetually easy Federal Reserve and persistently negative U.S. trade and budget deficits. But with the dollar now strengthening significantly, the Chinese government has become concerned that the yuan, which has remained largely tethered to the dollar, had become too strong against other currencies, particularly its primary trading partners in Asia and the Pacific. To remain competitive locally, it decided to ease the tether to the dollar and instead let its currency float more freely. The purpose and implications of this significant pivot has largely escaped the U.S. media. In reality, the move raises the likelihood that the yuan will rise significantly when the dollar resumes its long-term bear market, not that it will remain weak forever.
It is surprising how quickly market observers ascribed the recent losing streak on Wall Street to jitters over the 2% yuan devaluation. The development provided a convenient excuse for those who continue to deny that any economic weakness in the U.S. is chronic and self-generated. But why should America be so concerned with a small drop in the yuan? After all, we have supposedly done quite nicely for ourselves economically even while currencies like the yen and the euro, and all the other major currencies around the world, have fallen more than 20% against the dollar since May of last year.
In truth, the U.S. markets had been selling off for days before any change in policy from Beijing became remotely clear. With U.S. economic data deteriorating, corporate earnings falling, and 95% of economists forecasting a rate hike in the next few months, a sharp sell-off of already wildly valued stocks could be considered a logical development that needs no overseas explanations. But given that this is a reality that no one prefers to acknowledge, the yuan devaluation comes at a convenient time.
The last round of the currency wars began around 2010, when pronounced dollar weakness resulting from the Fed’s Quantitative easing experiment and the Federal government’s annual trillion dollar plus deficits had caused the dollar to fall sharply against most other major currencies except the yuan, which did not rise because the Chinese were enforcing a peg against the dollar. To affect the linkage, China had to accumulate trillions of U.S. dollar reserves, with the added benefit to America of keeping a lid on long-term interest rates and consumer prices, that would not have been there absent China’s help. As a result, many currencies gained value against the dollar and yuan simultaneously. Faced with such scary prospects, many countries devalued to keep things in equilibrium; hence the race toward the bottom.
In contrast, I believe this time around Beijing was forced to act because the continuously surging dollar had been bringing the yuan along for an unwanted ride upward. This resulting movement against other currencies was not driven by fundamentals and put China at a disadvantage against its local trading partners.
By letting their currency float more freely, their principle concern was not their exchange rate with the dollar, which had remained largely fixed, but their exchange rates with currencies like the Japanese yen, the Australian dollar, the euro, the Canadian dollar, and other emerging market currencies in Latin America and South East Asia. This shows where the Chinese are placing their priorities.
While making its devaluation announcement, Beijing said that it wanted its currency “to reflect fundamentals” and to no longer simply mirror the movement of the dollar. It acknowledged the fact that its peg to the dollar was problematic and that it wanted a better, more natural mechanism. This is the key to understanding the announcement: The Chinese are preparing for a time in which the financial world does not spin in orbit around the dollar. Such a reality must make us think about the future.
Perhaps the Chinese feel as I do that the current dollar rise has all the earmarks of a classic bubble. After all, a major part of the dollar rally over the past year has been the hollow beliefs that the U.S. economy has fully recovered and that the Fed, in 2015 and 2016, will be able to raise interest rates and shrink its balance sheet substantially even while the world’s other major central banks continue to deliver stimulus. If they see the fallacies that I do inherent in these naïve assumptions, they may be sparing a thought or two as to their best course of action if the dollar bear market resumes, as it surely must.
What will happen if current trends continue and the U.S. economy slips back toward recession? Any sober reading of the current economic data, which shows anemic investment, minimal productivity growth, barely positive GDP growth, wage stagnation, and falling labor participation, should allow for the strong possibility that recession is looming in the U.S. If it occurs, or to prevent it from occurring in an election year, the Fed will be forced to immediately shelve its tightening plans (if it even has any) and instead deliver another round of QE. When that occurs the confidence that inspired the dollar’s rise will prove to have been misplaced, and the rally nothing more than another Fed-induced bubble.
By decoupling from the dollar now, China is sending a message that it may be prepared to let it fall later. This means that when the dollar starts to fall in earnest, China may not be there to catch it. This will also mean that the biggest foreign buyer of Treasury bonds will likely be sitting on its hands when deteriorating U.S. finances force the Treasury to begin issuing trillions of new bonds annually. So when the U.S. needs China’s help the most, it will be unwilling to provide it.
In the absence of a Chinese backstop that the U.S. has for too long taken for granted, when the dollar resumes its decline, the fall will be much more pronounced. This will also generate significant upward pressure on both U.S. consumer prices and interest rates that was absent five years ago, when Chinese buying provided a huge cushion to the U.S. economy. In fact, data indicates that China is already paring the amount of Treasuries held in reserve. That means a full blown dollar crisis may not have been averted, but merely postponed, with the dire warnings of U.S. hyperinflation potentially coming true after all.
The move may also rekindle to the Chinese appreciation for gold as a safe haven asset as the yellow metal has surged in yuan terms over the past few weeks. Increased buying in China indicates that this may indeed be the case. Given the importance of gold to the typical Chinese investor, the yuan/gold exchange rate may become more important globally than the gold/dollar rate.